I’ve never met or spoken with Nick Sowden, who has achieved the sort of overnight notoriety that probably leaves Simon Fuller pleased someone else has taken his mantle of Scapegoat of the Twitterverse.
His tweets, not merely about President Obama, but about Premier Keneally, were the decidedly unpleasant outpourings of a sick mind.
Which, Sowden told Crikey today, was kind of the point – he was “paying out the crazy Right” making racist and sexist comments of that nature.
Let’s assume for a minute Sowden is telling the truth – that he isn’t a bigot but a moderate Liberal (who happens to be gay), engaging in mockery of extremists.
This takes us into complex and difficult territory. In a former life, I was a blogger – not a very widely-read blogger, but even so – and one of my pet themes was taking the piss out of extremists by taking the sort of comments one could expect from them and applying them in another context, or pushing them that extra 10% into patent absurdity or to show up their hypocrisy. It was all, I assure you, much funnier than I’ve just described. And my tiny number of regular readers understood what I was doing. But if I posted a lot of those comments in a different context, I’d look like, variously, a lunatic Stalinist, a right-wing conspiracy theorist or a lecherous academic whose left-wing views were a cover for selfishness, exploitation and hypocrisy.
I am none of these things, I hasten to add.
None of this is new or original, to state the bleeding obvious. People have always written in different authorial voices, and not just in fiction or for entertainment purposes. It is a basic element of satire, and when done well it can be both entertaining and revelatory.
But when you remove the asterisk that says “I’m taking the piss”, because it’s sometimes funnier or more pungent without the asterisk, or you want to entirely adopt the voice of the people you’re mocking, or because you assume your readers will be able to spot what you’re doing, or when you pitch it to too wide an audience, you’ll end up having to explain yourself. And like so many people, you’ll find yourself offering the same lame words, that “it was a joke”.
Moreover, you find yourself allied with the reactionary creeps who insist that “political correctness” has somehow really stifled free speech, when, to the extent that it actually exists beyond as a convenient bogeyman in right-wing mythology, in fact it has done nothing of the sort.
And when you do it on hot-button issues like racism or sexism, you’re guaranteeing yourself trouble. Some people won’t share your sense of humour, or have no sense of humour of their own, or are actively looking to be offended, regardless of your intent. Regardless of the fact that you are in fact on the same page in attitudes to racism or sexism or any other -ism worth the mockery, as them.
On an open forum like Twitter, well, there’s plenty of those types and more. And Twitter is the internet on steroids. It’s real-time. There’s no blog post the morning after attacking you, it’s there and then and copied to everyone who cares to take an interest. Remember when people used to complain that email was easily misinterpreted and too open to communicating in anger? Well, email looks like ink, quill and parchment compared to the immediacy of Twitter.
If – if – Sowden was engaging in a clunky form of satire that should have had that inconvenient asterisk attached, he doesn’t deserve the pillorying he’s received. He may have acted unwisely but without malice. But we don’t know, really, what anyone’s intent ever is. A racist bigot could readily spout all sorts of vile and offensive garbage and plead “it’s just a joke” when caught out. Plenty have. The only person who knows is Sowden himself.
Unfortunately for him (unfortunately, if he’s telling the truth in his justification), his remarks are just starting their journey of outrage across the internet. Americans who rightly took aim at the notorious blackface sketch on Hey Hey It’s 1983 (which was the product of profound ignorance, not satire) will delight in discovering further evidence that Australians are rednecks. It won’t be too long before Sowden is being shredded on American blogs and in the red, white and blue sections of the Twitterverse, if he isn’t already.