Forum chat is like Clarkson punching you repeatedly in the face

Oh, you're one of them there racists, are you?

185 Reg comments Got Tips?

Something for the Weekend, Sir? How can you condone racist violence, Alistair?

Blimey! I’m not sure I know the answer to that one. In this round, there is no conferring. They sure come up with difficult questions in online forums. Perhaps my interrogator and I are at cross-purposes. I decide to find out.

“Racist violence?” I type tentatively without elaboration. I hope to sound just impartial and enigmatic enough to elicit an explanation without being accused of personally instigating the Nazi death camps of the Third Reich.

He punched him in the face and called him "an Irish cunt".

Now, you may have missed this as it didn’t generate much news coverage, but I had just read a Facebook post that said a northern TV celebrity called Jeremy Clarkson had just lost his job as the result of a “fracas” with a BBC producer over the lack of a hot dinner. Bully beef indeed.

In the comments section below the post, I observed that it was a shame that the BBC would put a popular TV programme at risk – indeed one that brings in many millions of pounds from world syndication to help fund further public broadcasting – for the price of a plate of steak and chips.

Not understanding the rules of online forums, I hadn’t realised that I had chosen a side – the wrong one. While I thought I was expressing surprise at the cheapskate provision of late-night catering on a blockbuster TV production, I was actually condoning racist violence. Who knew? – as they say in the States. Or, as I say in the UK: Blimey!

Jon Ronson’s highly rated So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed investigates some of these themes in the best way possible: by speaking to the cast of various real-life online dramas – at least those who are still alive – and trying to find out what was going through their heads when they posted. Jumping to conclusions based on limited information is a kind of self-imposed ignorance, indeed one that leads to public shaming as a means of mass entertainment. We live in a bread-and-games era, after all.

An insidious feature of online discussion, however, is being sucked into someone else’s argument about which you have no information or opinion. Foolishly, I allow myself to be sucked in.

“JC punched someone in the face because he was Irish?” I find myself typing. Such a suggestion is not impossible, of course, but seemed unlikely. I am aware that there are people who beat up blacks and Asians, for example, but I hadn’t expected TV car show presenters to be loitering around hotels after 10.30pm on the lookout for men of the Irish race to attack.


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