Welcome to the Glasshouse, where even Tim Minchin is afraid.

The bible says ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone’. Starting things off with a bible quote is not very popular, I know. Just ask Disney, who removed any trace of Christianity from their latest film Tolkein, even though the author’s works, most notably Lord of the Rings, were heavily inspired by his faith.

I guess Disney must know that Christianity is an ‘unwoke’ topic for discussion in the social media glasshouse. I guess Disney didn’t want any stones flung at them. For make no mistake, in this age of online sharing, we are all living in one big glasshouse and stones are being flung aplenty.

And it doesn’t matter who you are, if you’ve said or done anything on the scale of remotely off-taste to glaringly stupid, you’ll be raked over the coals for it. Even if it was when you were young and silly. There’s no escaping.

But punishing people for online misdemeanours is fraught with danger. We tell our children not to worry if they do something stupid, either online or in real life. We worry about suicide. We tell them ‘one mistake does not define you’. But this is no longer true. Expose yourself in the glasshouse and your life can be ruined.

Here’s just a sample of what’s happening in the glasshouse these days:

Famous people make an ‘off’ comment and are attacked by the twitterati, like Meryl Streep, who dared to suggest that ‘we hurt our boys by using the term toxic masculinity.’ Her comment was written off, with many a patronising feminist admonishing that she was plain wrong or so dumb that she didn’t understand what the term meant.

Students have their university places rescinded due to racist or sexist comments they have made online, sometimes years ago, most notably Kyle Kashuv from Harvard (in addition to another ten students previously who were found to have posted offensive content in a private Facebook chat). In the current Kashuv case, social media talk is all about enforcing the notion that we should teach our children to be careful with their digital footprint. The sad truth here is that while kids have always experimented with ideas through conversation, saying things to each other that the general public may consider vile, those conversations are now indelibly available in print form and are being used against them. Furthermore, in relation to Kashuv, there was supposedly an ‘”online mob” that pressured Harvard into rescinding his acceptance.’

Comedians make tasteless jokes, risking a shattering of their careers. English comedian Jo Brand is being investigated by police after she joked about throwing battery acid over politicians. Sure, it’s pretty violent and perhaps not funny, but still, police?

Awards are renamed because today’s keyboard juries decree that the namesakes no longer pass the moral test (Laura Ingalls Wilder, Barry Humphries).

Cities are re-naming streets based on the public opinion of some, who declare that the men after whom the streets are named are not worthy; their history is too grubby.  In Canberra alone, two such cases are likely to proceed: Haig Park, named after British Army Commander Douglas Haig. Some maintain he commanded admirably over great WW1 victories, but the complainants maintain that too many (Australian) lives were lost under his command. William Slim Drive, named after our 13th Governor General, a decorated soldier but posthumously accused of sexual abuse. Both men have their champions and detractors, but pressure from the latter looks like it will have its desired effect.

Of course, when it comes to serious crime, those found guilty should be punished, no matter the time frame. That is why, for example, California ended its statute of limitations on rape after the Bill Cosby revelations. And it’s vital that we remember the crimes of the past, hence why we don’t seek to ban certain historical texts from circulation, such as Hitler’s Mein Kampf. But these days, people are strung up for much less serious crimes and are being ‘cancelled’ by society for expressing the wrong opinion or suggesting there may be another way to interrogate a mainstream view.

We can’t expect people to have spotless histories. If anything, we should be more lenient because things are so out in the open in this internet age. In this era of over sharing, we need to be more forgiving, not less. And we should be able to express ourselves without the fear of shame and social exile.

But social justice seems to afford zero tolerance and little forgiveness. Some offending tweets and posts are years old, yet still considered toxic. If we accept that people change and learn over time, they may come to know that what was acceptable yesterday is no longer so today. Perhaps, then, they shouldn’t be judged today on what they did yesterday.  They shouldn’t be written out of the history books. Should we erase the history of men such as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson because they owned slaves? Isn’t it better to acknowledge that these past figures did many great things but also did what we now consider abhorrent?

Even in the movies we love, superheroes are given the chance to overcome major flaws in order to become better people (and perform heroic acts that save the world). If Marvel’s Tony Stark hopped on his laptop today and started tweeting cavalierly about blowing people up with his weapons, while facetiously saluting peace, would he find himself cancelled and lose the chance to become moral and good? To rise like a phoenix from the ashes of his hedonistic lifestyle?

And we can tell that the non-movie-real-life situation has gotten worse, just by looking at the sort of people who are now declaring it a problem. Until now, talk of political correctness and freedom of speech has mostly come from so called far-right identities—think Canadian 12 Rules for Life psychologist Jordan Peterson, Alan Jones, maybe even Pauline Hanson. The woke folk on social media maintain that these ‘extremists’ are merely upset that they can’t freely spew their specific variety of hate. But now, however, even the most liberal minded, socially aware personalities are expressing concern over the worryingly unforgiving mentality of the online justice system. Take Australian comedian/writer/composer Tim Minchin, for example. His recent song 15 Minutes (of shame) is on point. He’s scared to say anything that might be taken the wrong way, he sings. We’ve weaponised humiliation, he laments. As soon as someone does something wrong, it’s deemed unforgiveable. Grab your pitchfork and torch, he instructs, we’ll turn on you if you stumble. Welcome to the glasshouse, hope you brought your stones. Minchin saying that he’s too scared to write anything that might upset his own tribe shows that things have gone too far.

With this sort of warning, plus every responsible adult telling their children to be careful what they say online, it is clear that freedom of speech is under threat. For young people particularly, who live their lives online, the freedom to be themselves and not have to limit how or what they share within their peers is in jeopardy.

Is our zero tolerance, no forgiveness approach to online faux pas training the next generation to place political correctness and caution above individuality and experimentation? Perhaps we think it’s okay as long as they are ‘on the right side of history’. Protesting for climate change action or LGBTQ rights should be fine, you’d think. But as the years and decades roll on, today’s causes can become tomorrow’s shame. What if the tide turns and you end up on the wrong side of a cause? Or you are outed as having been too vocal, a trouble maker. There’s no going back and erasing your involvement and you may end up paying with your career, your family, your (social) life. It might be easier if we just put the stones away.

About Sonia Bowditch

Writer on society and culture in Australia. And short stories.

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