Twitter trolling is part of a wider debasement of the national conversation

Twitter, aren’t you sick of it? The story so far, which has dominated the mainstream media and even the television news, is that several prominent women have been victims of misogynistic verbal abuse by other Twitter users; and all this has gone so far that the bosses of the micro blogging site have actually apologised and given an undertaking to improve the site so that abuse becomes easier to report.

I am on Twitter myself, and I do sympathise with those who have received nasty messages from strangers – for that is what the twitter abuse essentially is. For those who are not au fait with twitter, anyone can publish a tweet that mentions your twitter name and which will this turn up in your “mentions” should you choose to look at them. So, if I write something that someone dislikes, they can tweet something nasty about me, and the chances are that I will see it. Indeed this has happened. On one occasion someone I did not know tweeted that they would like to kill me, or words to that effect. Several other people on Twitter have mentioned me in tweets that were far from polite. One never wants to overhear disparaging remarks about oneself from strangers, so what one can do (and what I did) was “block” these people. It means they cannot see my tweets and I cannot see theirs. So far I have had to block about 50 people (I estimate – Twitter does not give you a list, as far as I can see, of people you block.) Most of the people I have blocked are people I have never heard of; one or two are people I know of, but whom I have never met. Some of them, sadly, are Catholics; but most of them are atheist trolls who haunt the internet lobbing what they think are clever and amusing comments at religious believers. One of the atheists I have had to block from his offensive comments is a well-known journalist.

All this raises a big question. Why would anyone want to insult someone they have never met? Why do people who have never met Professor Mary Beard, for example, and whose knowledge of the Classics is minimal, want to say nasty things to her?

Well, there is an answer to this, and it is a suprising one. This habit of behaving badly online is learned behaviour. Those who lob insults at Professor Beard, are merely following in the footsteps of the famous journalist A.A. Gill who branded her as “too ugly for television”. Mr Gill probably thought this was very amusing, and a whole lot of other people have decided that this is a rich seam of comedy that they too can mine.

Again, those who lob insults at me on Twitter solely because I am a Catholic and a priest, are following in the footsteps of Professor Dawkins whose polemics against the Church are too numerous to catalogue, and the Times journalist Caitlin Moran, who has tweeted “The Catholic Church: they hate women and gays, and f*** kids. On a day-to-day level, that’s a tough sell.”  Ms Moran’s use of the f-word marks her tweet as abusive, or so I should have thought, and points the way for others to follow suit. I have had several tweets from strangers on similar lines.

Should this sort of thing worry us? Yes, it should. It represents a huge debasement in the national conversation. Instead of discussing Catullus’ debt to Callimachus with Professor Beard, or evaluating her contribution to our understanding of the Roman Empire, all of which would be good in this age of spectacular dumbing down, now we have to put up with people making rude remarks about her appearance. In fact it is more than rude – it is infantile. Calling a clever, articulate and learned woman ugly represents the lowest possible level of conversation. And it happens not to be true: from what I can see, Professor Beard looks like a fun person.

As for the endless child rape jibe directed at Catholics, this too, along with the “You are ugly, shut up!” insult, represents something embedded in the culture of our commentators. Our media constantly slavers over thin young women, to the exclusion of other types of women; it praises them as “hot”, while disparaging the rest, and hardly ever making comments about male appearances. This is not just unfair, it is also very odd. Women are forced to spend huge amounts of time and money on their appearance, and woe betide them if they commit some fashion mistake. Men, by contrast are not judged on their looks.

Again, the default position of anti-Catholicism, and with it the position that to complain about this is proof that you deserve to be held up to ridicule and contempt, is deeply embedded in our media culture. Catholics are constantly reminded of our failures with regard to child protection. Other institutions have failed too, but mention the Anglican diocese of Chichester with regard to this issue, or the BBC, or the NHS… well, such institutions simply don’t attract the same attention. You would not catch Ms Moran tweeting about them, would you?

What Twitter does is that it gives a license to everyone who wants one to think that they can be an AA Gill or a Caitlin Moran or a Richard Dawkins. Because these leaders of fashion, and there are many others too in the same class, espouse the discourse of polemic in what they no doubt think is the Swiftian mode, others think they can be funny too. But, and it is a huge but, Jonathan Swift, who could be pretty fierce, really was funny. His imitators of today are not in the same class.

To get back to Professor Beard’s subject. Catullus, after he had fallen out with the love of his life, the woman he called Lesbia, wrote this epigram about her:

Caeli, Lesbia nostra, Lesbia illa,
illa Lesbia, quam Catullus
unam plus quam se atque suos amavit omnes,
nunc in quadriviis et angiportis
glubit magnanimi Remi nepotes.

Here is my translation:

O Caelius, our Lesbia, that Lesbia,
The Lesbia we all knew, whom Catullus
Alone used to love more than himself and all his own,
Now at the traffic lights and in subways,
——- the great-hearted descendants of Remus.

Sadly, the word glubit is simply too rude to translate, but despite this, or because of it, the lines represent a brilliant poetic vignette – it is a confection of anger and sadness at how Lesbia has fallen, and how Rome has fallen with her. It is a poem that is full of hatred, and a desire for revenge, but it is not just that: it is a lament at the sadness of life. In the end it is a squalid poem, but its squalor exists in the light of the nobility we have all lost. It is in its own way a highly moral poem.

All the Twitter trolls need to be locked away in a small room with this perfect poem and a copy of the Lewis and Short Latin dictionary, and not let out until they have understood it, and with it, the depth of their own ignorance.