‘Any critic of yours online gets absolutely lambasted by your followers,’ Cathy Newman told Jordan Peterson on Channel 4 News in January. After the interview, Newman received such torrents of online abuse that Channel 4 had to call in security specialists. Peterson, a clinical psychologist at Toronto University, was on the show to discuss the gender pay gap and to promote his new book, Twelve Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. The gender pay gap, he insists, is not a result of discrimination: he believes that women are by their nature more inclined to take jobs which, it so happens, are less well paid. Peterson sympathised with his supporters’ contempt for Newman’s style of questioning, but distanced himself from the abuse. ‘If you're threatening her, stop,’ he told his 300,000 Twitter followers (now more than half a million). But ‘the dark part of me thought,’ he said later, that ‘if I wanted to sick my internet trolls on Channel 4, then there would be nothing but broken windows and riots. And then there's a little part of me that thinks – wouldn't that be fun?’
After the Brexit vote in Parliament last week, David Davis, the secretary of state for exiting the European Union, sexually harassed Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, in a House of Commons bar. That wasn’t the way Kevin Schofield of Politics Home broke the story on Twitter, however: ‘In Strangers bar tonight, David Davis tried to give Diane Abbott a kiss,’ he wrote. ‘She recoiled and told him to fuck off. He walked off laughing.’ Newspaper headlines blasted (and censored) the language with which she had rebuffed him, making the story about her profanity rather than his inappropriate behaviour.
The first time I wrote an article for a newspaper, the first online comment said: 'If I ever see you in the street, I hope you get shot.' The article was about being abused and harassed in the street, specifically while cycling. I wasn't surprised that the online comments mirrored the behaviour the article addressed. But unlike the men who shouted at me as I waited on my bike in Clapham, the online commenter could be sure I wouldn't spit in his face in response.
Being told to say sorry for my wrongdoings was my introduction to the double bind. I got the hang of how it worked, but never figured any way out of it. 'Don't just stand there. Haven't you got anything to say for yourself?' It became clear pretty quickly that a rational discussion of the pros and cons of my misdemeanour was not what the parent had in mind. 'Well? And you haven't even got the decency to say sorry.' Deep breath while I prepared myself for entering the mire. 'I'm sorry.' 'No you're not. You're just saying that, because you think you should.' This was almost always true. I was certainly sorry for the trouble I was in, but rarely sorry in a contrite way. It would go on like this. The demand for an apology, the apology, the rejection of the apology and further fury until some punishment was decided on and I was sent in disgrace to my room.
Travel writers have been in high demand this week, and being one, apparently, I was summoned from Cambridge to appear at the back end of Newsnight to discuss the implications for travel of the volcanic ash episode, along with Alain de Botton. I got there an hour early and was shown into a very small, windowless green-room where all but one space on the two sofas was taken up by three large men in suits. Another man sat on an upright chair. Businessmen and politicians are called 'suits', I now see, because that is what is presented to the world. The suit makes the man work. The head emerges and talks as if programmed by the suit-maker. The suit armours their confidence and ownership of reality. Stiffly tailored, uniform, held together with a tie, a substantial watch and an ever-active mobile phone.