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I once was lost, but now am found

June 10, 2021

I am profoundly grateful that Twitter and Instagram didn’t exist when I was eighteen years old. Not because I would have come up with the kind of stuff that has caused an England cricketer to be banned from representing his country eight years after the event. More likely because the eighteen-year-old me was an idiot, full of pompous pretension and half-formed ideas. Today, a quick look at scribblings from that time make me squirm with embarrassment.

But they were private thoughts, and God knows what I would have splattered out into the social media for the benefit of my one-and-a-half followers. I suppose it would have depended on what I thought I had to gain by doing so.

These are different times. The dominant ethos for millions of social media users seems to be “I Tweet Therefore I Am”. Or, in the case of Donald Trump, “I Can’t Tweet, Therefore I’m Stuffed”.

Digging up ancient tweets is an increasingly popular way of making a living for media folks who no longer need to creep around behind bushes or rifle through dustbins in order to uncover moral weakness on the part of public figures. All you have to do is scour the social media for stuff that people who subsequently become famous are too stupid to delete. And there are plenty of stupid, famous people out there, it seems.

But if we are to be condemned to the outer darkness for things we said or did as adolescents, I hate to think how many of us would have had careers at all. Which begs a few questions. First, why do teenagers make such arses of themselves on the social media? Second, are our personalities fully formed and immutable at the point when our acne starts dying down? And third, can we now expect some form of generally-accepted codification governing punishment for socially-unacceptable outbursts on the social media? Is there to be a statute of limitations on racist and sexist tweets, and, by the way, should we expect a bunch of ex-cricketers to have a coherent stab at writing it?

The first question presumes that teenagers are fully aware of the consequences of their actions. Making sexist or racist jokes might imply self-confidence and a hardened set of beliefs. But it might also reflect a desire to be liked. After all, why do jokers joke? And when you joke, do you not try and make sure that your audience will find your jokes funny? Therefore might not Olly Robinson’s jokes reflect a desire to be liked by a peer group rather than the beginning of a lifelong attitude?

To answer the second question, you probably need to delve into the psychologist’s craft. Whatever personality traits are fixed by eighteen, your behaviour or attitude can surely evolve over time. At the age of seventy, I would argue that I’m not the same person I was at twenty, thirty or forty.

The third question is, on the surface, a dumb one. Of course it’s reasonable to expect that the perpetrator should make the usual ritual apology. I’m ashamed of what I tweeted, I’m not that person now and blah, blah blah. But where do you draw the line? There must surely be a difference between a juvenile who posts a racist tweets and subsequently joins Tommy Robinson’s praetorian guard, and someone who shares an off-colour joke with his mates, but whose subsequent behaviour gives no indication of racist (or sexist) attitudes. And before we start moralising, should we not ask ourselves if we have never laughed at a joke that penetrates the layers of our personalities and wakens the person we were when we were pimply adolescents?

Where do you draw the line, bearing in mind that what might have been acceptable ten years ago is a no-no today? And who does the drawing? Do we need yet another law, which might have to change every few years as social mores change? Or a code of conduct, drawn up by some currently unidentified high priesthood, which will also need to change with time. And should the social media giants have a role in agreeing such a code? After all, they’re the enablers of all this crapology.

And most important of all, should we really be punishing people who have broken no laws for things they said ten years ago? That, to me, smacks of retrospective criminalisation, which is a pretty abhorrent concept, especially when it deprives people of their livelihoods.

Better, surely, to draw the line now, to expect an apology from the historic miscreants, and create an expectation that they should atone by voluntary work, perhaps with the vaccination teams in Bolton and Hackney, by sharing their talent and knowledge on school visits or by raising funds for womens’ refuge shelters. I’m sure you can come up with a few more imaginative ideas. John Newton, the reformed slave trader whose line from Amazing Grace I quoted in the title, would certainly have had some thoughts on the redemption of loose-tongued cricketer.

Perhaps also sports administrators should have a hand in the process, by providing workshops that help newly famous sportspeople handle their new-found fame. Media training, for example, that advises them what not to say if they wish to avoid the current hounds of hell – such as trans stuff, dissing Marcus Rashford and Winston Churchill, arguing for or against Brexit or claiming that the COVID vaccine made forks stick to their foreheads. In other words, to expunge all evidence of personality until they’re rich enough not to care about getting 98 hate tweets a day. And probably, if they want to become media pundits, for a long time after retirement.

So the choice facing elite sportspeople today is do you want to famous, rich and anodyne, or do you want to be loud, opinionated and fired? Not a dilemma that former cricketing giants like Geoff Boycott, Ian Botham or Viv Richards had to deal with.

From → Politics, Social, Sport, UK

  1. Doug Langmead permalink

    Hi Steve, I’ve been trying to send you emails at your anfield consulting address, which no longer seems to work. Can you send me a working address please. Cheers, Doug

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