Lack of characters limits complex, mature debate

Kelner's View

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The Independent Online

Since when did we become so immature as a society that we descend into moral panic as soon as anyone in public life says something slightly off colour? Do we really want public discourse to be so sanitised that nobody says what they mean, never mind what they are thinking?

I am thinking here not about Jeremy Clarkson (I haven't even got the energy to explain in how many ways the furore over his comments was a ridiculous confection) but of the Conservative MP and green evangelist Zac Goldsmith, right. Goldsmith has been attacked for a comment he made to a select committee on privacy in which he – rather unwisely as it turns out – invoked the spectre of Nazism when discussing the excesses of tabloid papers.

What he actually said was: "If the only way a business can stay afloat is by engaging in immoral or unethical behaviour, then that business should change its model, or go out of business." And here's where he got really controversial. "No one said that Auschwitz should have been kept open because it created jobs." This caused a Twitter storm (what doesn't?), a fellow MP called him "pathetically stupid", and, inevitably, yesterday's headlines took him to task.

"Goldsmith under fire after 'tabloids like Nazis' attack" said the Daily Telegraph. This, rather deliberately, made it sound as if Goldsmith has said that tabloids behaved like Nazis. He didn't. He was making a sound point, and used a metaphor (whether it was in bad taste or not) to reinforce his argument.

So what's the problem? Have we reached a moment when it's impossible even to mention anything to do with Nazis, Hitler or concentration camps without a firestorm of phoney indignation, fuelled by people on Twitter with no more followers than you can get in a Mini, and a desire to get involved in a public "outrage".

Twitter is a great leveller. You may be a celebrity with a million followers, but your tweets have just as much prominence as someone with a dozen followers. It's the ultimate in democratic discourse. And, of course, part of the essential appeal of Twitter is that Joe Soap feels he is having a conversation with, say, Piers Morgan, or is party to his intimate thoughts (if Piers has any, that is).

Also, more and more public figures are using the medium as a marketing tool, or for self-promotion. But I know people who are rich, clever or successful (and sometimes all three) who feel psychologically terrorised by what a few troublemakers on Twitter are saying about them. That is their lookout, but what I find worrying about Twitter is that, if you reduce everything to 140 characters, you end up simplifying any complex argument, and lose all nuance.

In this way, we as a nation are never allowed to have a sensible, mature discussion.

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