Many people will now know the story of how 26-year-old Paul Chambers told a joke on Twitter that resulted in a criminal record, the loss of his job and £1000 of his cash. If you don’t know the story already you can read it here, but to sum up: man mentions bomb, man is heavily penalised. Remember this? It’s similar. Only in a film it’s funny-absurd and in real life it’s just absurd.
I like comedy but I tend to be serious about it, as with everything (it’s an illness, forgive me). I don’t like un-PCness for un-PCness’s sake. I don’t enjoy cruel jokes, I secretly enjoy rude ones, I love Eddie Izzard with all my heart. But I don’t go in for ‘if it makes you laugh, it’s funny’ (because of the illness, OK?) but even I can see the difference between Paul Chambers’ tweet and a terrorist threat. I won’t go any further with that because I’m guessing most people reading this can also tell the difference, and there’s a lot to be said about how our society is responding the threat of terrorism, who we are aiming our sights at, who we hold responsible and how we go about making people safe.
But what I really wanted to blog about wasn’t how mindboggling it is that the law can penalize someone (harshly) for an offhand comment on a social networking site. I wanted to blog about the Twitter response including Stephen Fry’s. When the news broke about the guilty verdict yesterday people on Twitter quickly began to share their shock and outrage under the #twitterjoketrial hashtag. But beyond this and messages of solidarity, something else started to happen as well. A number of people I follow started suggesting a whip round with one tweeting ‘Come on, we could have this covered easily’. Other people also started thinking of tangible ways to support Paul Chambers. Stephen Fry later tweeted that he was ‘happy to pay the fine’ for Paul. I don’t know if that will happen but I wanted to blog about it because this is how people can be. We can be paranoid and afraid and terrified and reactionary and draconian. And we can be sympathetic, empathetic, generous in commiseration. It requires more than outrage to be like that I think. It requires the ability to see just slightly past the injustice to the human being who has been the subject of the unfair act.
I wish Paul Chambers well and I wish Twitter well. When people think of social networking as vacuous or ‘pointless babble‘ I wish they could see this side of it, the hopeful, resisting, seeing beyond side. It’s nothing more than people.