Last week, John Cleese, of the famed group Monty Python, issued a tweet speaking about the inherent “Englishness” of the city London.
Some years ago I opined that London was not really an English city any more
Since then, virtually all my friends from abroad have confirmed my observation
So there must be some truth in it…
I note also that London was the UK city that voted most strongly to remain in the EU
— John Cleese (@JohnCleese) May 29, 2019
The responses that ensued accused him of being a flagrant unapologetic racist, and anti-internationalist, in a set of contradictory criticisms by various members of the media, some even giving countervailing arguments hailing from the same source, i.e. the Washington Post.
The interpretations varied, some viewing this as a reference to the changing racial and demographic makeup of London, some saw this as his comments about the disappearance of the Englishness of the city in terms of unique cultural aspects. In response, he clarified that this referred to the lack of English “culture,” implying that misconstruing the comments as commenting on the racial makeup of the city was inaccurate, but the reputational damage had already been done, and minds had already been made up across the internet leaving little room for adding context.
It is possible that the modern social media’s elements of outrage culture – reactionary responses to every comment made in a public space can lose its grounding in real political issues and is now a signaling method for those who proclaim their righteousness. John Cleese’s comment, which originally made no reference to race, was assumed by the most radical to be an identity politics flash point and was seized upon with no attention paid as to whether it was the intention of the author: it is not seen as comment about a sensitive topic, but rather seen as battle in a larger culture war.
The comment became tinderbox for a battleground of some to issue their virtue signaling call and comment on the political correctness of the comment. If such a large segment of the world population truly believes that there is no distinction between culture, nationality, and the ethnic groups to which people belong, and this itself should even not be controversial, then this logical fallacy might actually imply that cultural assimilation is not possible. Logic aside, social media, but in particular twitter, seems to have become ground zero for this devolution of our cultural discourse into sides and and petty name calling. Perhaps giving everyone their own soapbox democratizes speech, but it has also created a network for those who seek to sabotage discourse. What is most ironic is twitter’s supposed neutrality, which in reality is a double standard; allowing hate speech to flourish, genocidal governments to post propaganda, and threats of nuclear war from the President of the United States on its platform, while banning individual users for speech subjectively deemed offensive. This is the epitome of an irresponsible and morally bankrupt system.
Was the original tweet racist in its content? Was it even related to race? Objectively, speaking about cultural changes can not be racist, simply because culture should be considered separate from ethnicity. However, fear of misinterpretation, or of being labelled as making comments on race feed a new form of self-censorship that not only prevents discourse on these topics, but keeps people from speaking out when they perceive these misinterpretations.
What is the source of this problem? What is the solution? One aspect may be the ways that we use social media.
Rational people interested in real discourse should perhaps rethink how they interact with social media. Self-gratifying and constant competitive attention seeking behavior have made such platforms seem like a necessary evil, but these forms of media are as much like a poisonous drug as they are for profit entities that aim to exploit our very lives to enrich shareholders. The centrality in our lives that these websites have assumed is not only pernicious, it affects the very fabric of our society and it would behoove the world to reconsider the hours we waste, the secrets we share, and the real social connections we fray with our tarnished dignity as we suffer away, knowing all the while the recognition we get from these sites will not make us any happier in real life and at the end of ours, we will likely regret every wasted moment that could have been spent making life more worthwhile.
Staff writer: Ari B