How rude is too rude?
When AA Gill died a few days ago, I felt genuinely sad. He had been absolutely horrible to me in print, but I still felt sad. That wasn’t because he was a great writer. He sometimes was that, and he sometimes he wasn’t. But anyway, I am not sure that great writing is a get out of jail free card. To use a quite different analogy, we wouldn’t let a racist off the hook because he had a clever way with words.
I felt reasonably OK about him because his attacks on me were in a way genuine criticism, in an old tradition of invective, and they were signed – there was a head above the parapet. They were also in my view wrong and nastily sexist (I hadn’t recalled that he compared me to an aborted egg, but maybe he did). And in truth Gill got told he was a nasty sexist by very many people, and his wiki entry was ransacked. It was, and I suspect he would have agreed, all fair game: give as good as you get is one of the oldest answers to invective, and probably what the deliverer of invective would expect.
I didn’t end up holding any particular personal animus against Gill. I was really cross and a bit hurt at the time, and rather shocked that someone would think (as presumably he did) that that kind of talk would find a ready audience. But in the end I suspect he had a harder time than I did out of his attack and I would have liked to shake hands and discussed what he said. And for me – who knows full well what the nastiness of anonymous Twitter attacks can be (where you have no one to hold to account) – there was someone to fight back against (which I did).
But it does raise the question of what standards we expect in public disagreement.
I must confess that I really don’t fancy living in a world in which no one is ever rude to those they disagree with. A world of unending courtesy seems, if nothing else, dull. But the questions then are: what are the limits of rudeness, when does rudeness become discriminatory or hate crime, what resources do we have for responding or rejecting, and where does the defence of “free speech” run aground?
As I have said before, the basic rules in literary reviewing are pretty clear to me: only say what you would say to someone’s face (and I suspect Gill passed that test… if he did say I looked like an aborted egg, he probably would have said that face to face). But that’s not all there is to it. We wouldn’t be having any such discussion as this, if Gill’s attack had been anti-semitic or racist. So why is sexism different? (That’s an open question: about where exactly the boundaries of the unacceptable and/or the illegal, and/or the simply rude lie.)
For me, though, there is a sting in the tail of Gill’s “wit”, for which no one can blame him at all. Since his death there have been all kinds of little compendia of Gill’s best put downs and his smartest invective. And what he said about me regularly appears there.
But somehow it’s different in anthology form. When Gill first wrote this stuff, there was a sense of dialogue about it all, a licence to disagree and fight back. By the time it’s been made into a “greatest hits “style of sound-bite, it’s lost that sense of partisan provisionality, imaginative invective – and has, sort of, become true. It’s as if I am always going to be defined by Gill’s bon mot, as an aborted egg who shouldn’t have inflicted myself on the nation’s living rooms, without recourse. Its not the worst thing that’s happened to me, but it doesn’t seem to me in the spirit of the whole exchange.
And I don’t think that Gill would have thought it was either.
BY THE WAY EVERYONE: this blog really is now migrating to the Wordpress system from Typepad. I will publish the next couple of posts in both. But you will need to go to the TLS site and find the new version.