April 11, 2022   5 mins

“Andrew Doyle is an ultra-conservative anti-feminist homosexual who uses a drag persona on Twitter to attack trans and queer people… He wishes with all his heart that he was Julia Hartley-Brewer. Pathologically so.”

Only one assertion in this tweet is true — and with apologies to Julia Hartley-Brewer, it isn’t the one about yearning to metamorphosise into her. I have never attacked trans or queer people; I have been a consistent advocate of women’s rights; I mostly hold Left-wing political views; and I’ve only ever dragged up once (the experiment was a failure and I subsequently destroyed all photographic evidence).

And yet despite its bizarre claims, this tweet does serve some purpose: it offers an insight into the mindset of those who claim to be “on the right side of history”. Specifically, we can see three traits on display: the tone of Pharisaic certainty even when declaring falsehoods, the conviction that it is possible to intuit the private thoughts of others, and a complete disregard for the concept of defamation.

I would like to focus on the last of these traits; the willingness to defame with no sense that there might be consequences. Today’s culture wars are largely being waged through the manipulation and misapplication of language. Many activists are explicit about their refusal to debate their ideas — for the simple reason they would collapse under scrutiny — and one of the ways this can be achieved is to destabilise shared definitions of words.

In their world, libel simply cannot exist, because the meaning of language has become a purely subjective matter.

For example, the term “racism” is generally understood to mean hatred or prejudice based on race, but for intersectional activists “racism” is an equation: prejudice plus power. Similarly, the term “fascism” traditionally connotes an authoritarian movement based on an extreme form of nationalism combined with claims of racial purity and a militaristic repression of dissent. Yet last week Labour MP Claudia Webbe claimed that the government’s decision to privatise Channel 4 was not a show of  “freedom or independence” but “the seedbed of fascism”.

Webbe is not libelling anyone here, of course — she is merely revealing her own historical illiteracy. However, her tweet serves as a reminder that the juvenile discourse of social media has now successfully invaded the parliamentary realm. It is one thing for Twitter trolls to promiscuously hurl about terms such as “Nazi”, “fascist”, “homophobe”, “transphobe” and “racist”, but when politicians join the crackbrained chorus we ought to take note.

We have reached the point at which these labels are no longer taken seriously. Whenever most of us come across accusations of “fascism” or “racism” on social media, the default assumption must now be that they are unfounded. This has provided succour for the far-Right by promoting the illusion that their views are widespread. It has also made it difficult to identify real fascists and racists because the words have been downgraded to indiscriminate terms of abuse.

Casual libel is now so commonplace that the consequences are no longer feared, even by media outlets. A fortnight ago, the official Twitter account of Newstalk, an Irish radio station with over 250,000 followers, made the plainly false assertion that J.K. Rowling has “a long history of opposing rights for trans people”. The tweet was eventually deleted, but it is revealing that it was posted in the first place.

It has apparently been forgotten that false allegations of this kind often lead to successful lawsuits. Frankie Boyle famously won over £50,000 in damages when the Daily Mirror branded him a “racist” in 2012. And only last month, the Telegraph paid out more than £40,000 to Laura Murray, a former aide to Jeremy Corbyn, for describing her as an “anti-Jewish racist”. In legal terms, such statements simply do not fall within the scope of “personal opinion”.

A high profile case last week might end this collective amnesia over the potential impact of committing libel or slander. A court in Ohio has rejected an appeal by Oberlin College after members of staff participated in a smear campaign against Gibson’s Bakery, falsely and repeatedly stating that the local business was run by racists. As a result, the college will have to pay $25 million in punitive damages and a further $6 million in legal fees to the bakery, although its two owners died before the case was resolved.

The story is extraordinary. In November 2016, a black student was apprehended in the act of shoplifting two bottles of wine from the store. After the incident, students at Oberlin accused the bakery of being a “racist establishment” with a “long account of racial profiling”, even though such claims were groundless and the thief had admitted to his crime. In what struck many as a disingenuous interview with CBS News, the current college president Carmen Twillie Ambar argued that Oberlin should not be “held liable for the speech of students”, omitting the fact that college staff had also been involved in the smear campaign.

Witnesses confirmed that Meredith Raimondo, the vice-president and dean of students, had distributed flyers which repeated the libel, and actively participated in the protests. She even ordered the college cafeteria to stop buying products from the bakery in an effort to coerce them into dropping the shoplifting charges. Students were excused from classes to attend the protests, refreshments were provided by college officials, and photocopies of the flyers were made by Oberlin’s administration office.

All of which is perhaps to be expected from a college which has garnered a reputation as a bastion of “wokeness”. When the academic and philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers gave a talk at the college, students were so upset by her opinions that they retreated en masse to a “safe room” with a therapy dog.

Whenever the targets of libel fight back through the courts, they are invariably accused of attempting to curtail free speech. This is a common misapprehension, although an understandable one. Many free speech advocates oppose the very concept of libel on the grounds that it has often been exploited by powerful individuals hoping to silence their critics. But when a person is publicly defamed, and their reputation or income is damaged as a result, he or she has every right to seek recompense.

Our freedom of speech is in no way violated by laws against libel, fraud, perjury, blackmail or espionage. In such instances, speech is not the crime itself but the mechanism by which it has been committed. The charge of “racism” is one of the most potentially damaging in our current climate, and so it has become the go-to slur for those looking for a quick and easy method of discrediting their political opponents and ruining their lives. On principle, such bullies ought to be opposed, and civil action against libellous statements is one way in which this can be achieved.

The widespread ignorance of defamation laws would not be such a problem were it confined to the Twittersphere. Unfortunately, we are seeing this foolish disregard exhibited more and more by figures of authority in our major cultural and political institutions. The warped logic and behavioural customs of social media are somehow seeping out into the real world, undermining public discourse and the possibility of good faith discussion.

It remains to be seen whether the cautionary tale of Gibson’s Bakery will give activists pause before belching out their unsubstantiated allegations. They have become so accustomed to getting their way that they now feel entitled to smear others at will. But while litigation is best considered a last resort, it is sometimes a necessary means by which Davids can stand up to their Goliaths.

Andrew Doyle is a comedian and creator of the Twitter persona Titania McGrath