Men! I ask you! Be patient: this is neither an attack nor a defence. Of Twitter and Toasters I sing – the baffling nature of man (Wayne and Kevin, not homo sapiens) as evidenced by the latest revelations of their habits, customs, weaknesses and barbarities. Accusations of “sexism” have been bandied about with such flagrancy this week it has felt like the Sixties all over again.
But the word “sexist” is no longer what it was; it had magical properties then, making every man take a second look at himself, even those who protested their innocence the loudest. “Sexist? Me! I’ll show you bloody sexist!” Now, sexism feels too small a concept for the errands it is sent on. What does it mean to call that man a “sexist” who tweets threats of rape because his victim made the case for putting Jane Austen on a £10 note?
Sexist! You might as well accuse Fred West of unneighbourliness. When violence of this order has so apparently inoffensive a cause – would he have felt the same had it been Charlotte Brontë on the tenner, or Jane Austen on a fiver? – it’s not a catch-all word like “sexist” we need; it’s a whole new science of literary, monetary and social media psychopathology.
Then, just as we felt we were staring down a pit too deep ever to fathom, came reports of a man calling the fire brigade to free his penis from a pop-up toaster. We are, of course, in the territory of urban legend here. My schoolfriend Malcolm specialised in stories of men trapping their penises – in the neck of a Coke bottle, in a vacuum cleaner nozzle, an ice bucket, a kitchen tap, a car exhaust, the viewing end of a telescope, the spout of a tea-pot, an egg slice, a spectacle case, a trombone, raw liver (Malcolm’s creativity anticipated Portnoy’s by years), a key ring, the strings of a tennis racket, a hole in the road.
Perhaps because he gave us so many ideas, aged 11, we weren’t sure whether to believe him or not. But it was the ferret that finally broke, as it were, the camel’s back of our credulity. Why would a man keep a ferret in his trousers? Why would the ferret suddenly decide to lock its jaws, and when the police shot the ferret how could they be sure they hadn’t shot the man’s penis? Before this barrage of questions Malcolm’s inventiveness at last gave way, though he still insists that while the hole in the road was embroidery, the ferret wasn’t. And the fire brigade insists the same about the pop-up toaster.
So you tell me, reader, how to begin to understand the appeal of a toaster. Yes, loneliness and desperation will drive a man to try most things, and yes, not all of them will resemble a woman’s parts, supposing it is a woman he is missing. But a toaster fails on almost every count. Shape, texture, aperture, accessibility, metaphor – all wrong. Only when it comes to danger – the toaster as femme fatale – can it be said to fit the bill. You turn it on, you make your advances, you wait for it to get hot, and then you are ejected – or, as in the case the firemen attended, you are not – whereupon, burnt, hurt and vowing never to risk such a relationship again, unless of course there’s something wrong with you, you beat an ignominious retreat.
That, anyway – and I hope I won’t be branded a “sexist” for it – is the best in the way of empathy for l’amoureux grillé I can manage.
As I said, “Men!”
But the toaster has at least made me think again about Twitter and its misuse. I had thought to argue, when the week began, that if you don’t like what pops into your Twitter box – my ignorance of the terminology is both deliberate and defiant – you should close it. You don’t leave your front door open, you don’t tell everyone where you live, you don’t publicise your email address unless you’re looking for trouble, and if you have reason to suppose you might be threatened, badgered or abused by phone, you ensure your number is ex-directory.
This isn’t cowardice. It’s sensible precaution. Before email replaced paper mail I regularly received abusive letters, some brief explosions of apparently motiveless hate, others angry I had found something funny that their senders hadn’t, most taking issue with my politics, though I have no politics. One, a card written in spirals of faeces, sperm and blood, promised biblical retribution. So when email became the medium of choice for nutters, I chose not to append my email address to this column. Why invite hate into your life?
I’m not suggesting we play the ostrich. The violence in the human heart doesn’t vanish because we look away, but some of it thrives on the knowledge it is being communicated. Social media doesn’t create it; it does, though, add to its savour.
Make no mistake: turning the tables might look like striking back, but in the end the public shaming of the troll on Twitter itself is just another way of playing along. So why keep the portals to our privacy wide open? For what? Reader, what is lost if you never tweet again?
And then I remember the toaster. If we are to blame the medium for what’s done on it, must we charge the toaster with inciting lust? And are we therefore to forswear toast?
After much consideration, this is my answer: if toasters were suddenly to turn vengeful, showing up in our bedrooms in an elemental rage and issuing threats and curses, then yes, we might indeed decide that toast is bought at too high a price. There’s always something else to eat. And some other means of wittering on about it to people we don’t know and who want us dead.