Imagine if you will that everyone in real life was an exact human embodiment of their social media outpourings. We would be overrun by aggressive, bullying, blinkered bigots who were funny about 1% of the time and derived their moral philosophy from a tea-towel. Them and really intensely boring people.
I’ve just finished reading Bring up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. It’s the sequel to Wolf Hall and concerns the events surrounding the rather abrupt breakdown of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Mantel was recently caught up in a row about a speech alleged to have denigrated our future queen, Kate (you know, Pippa’s sister).
On the surface, there may not be much correlation between Facebook, Twitter and the like and a barney about a royal. But I think there is. It’s nuance. Social media effectively destroys nuance. In 140 characters, it’s virtually impossible to create subtlety of argument. Most people don’t try and, more importantly, most readers don’t look for it. I couldn’t help but wonder if the reason why Mantel’s speech caused such apoplexy amongst some of our more “conservative” newspapers was because they had lost the ability to detect textured, thoughtful prose. Or they hadn’t read it.
The speech in its entirety is a brilliantly constructed expose of the public image of royal figures, from Anne Boleyn to Kate. Taken out of context, a comment that Kate is “precision-made, machine-made” seems rather mean, but that’s to avoid the important parallels the speech draws out between historical and modern royalty. It seems to me that Mantel’s main point was that the press and so the nation mould these women first into vessels for our own notion of beauty and then, into wombs. It’s an indictment of us, not them.
My reading may be wrong – plenty of commentators thought it was a spiteful speech. I don’t particularly care what conclusion people reach, as long as they read the whole thing. Then think about it. You would hope that reviewers of Bring up the Bodies would have read it and thought about it before commenting. It’s a book that demands attention. It’s extraordinarily detailed, but it doesn’t bludgeon an emotional response from the reader. The central character, Thomas Cromwell, is as nuanced as any in contemporary fiction.
Social media has its place – I’m a big fan – but it’s increasingly obvious that this place is not at the heart of debates which require facts, argument, subtly, balance or consideration. As we live our real, offline lives, we appreciate that people are multi-dimensional. We may like or dislike them, but we don’t reduce them to 140 characters. Sometimes our lives and our language need nuance. If we all took a break from pillorying Nick Clegg or describing our cat’s breakfast, we’d discover it isn’t all that difficult to find.