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Tue May 24 13:54:43 SAST 2016

The Big Read: The illiterati are in full cry

Tom Eaton | 23 February, 2016 00:17
Tom Eaton. File photo
Image by: Twitter.com/TomEatonSA

Tayla got straight to the point. I was, she said, "a complete p***".

I studied the phrase, typed, stars and all, on my Facebook page, and wondered whether she meant I was a complete pope, perhaps combining the craggy good looks of John Paul II with the refreshing openness of Francis.

But a moment later another word appeared, this time typed by someone called Tamarin. It read, simply, "P**s". So not a pope, then.

Other comments were less gynaecological and more general. David, for example, was terribly concerned over the state of local writing. "Your sour, ungenerous piece is typical of what is coming out of South African society at the moment," he pronounced.

Lorna, too, seemed troubled by the quality of the populace, urging me and my "yob friends" to stop embarrassing ourselves on Facebook.

And the cause of all this wrath? Stephen Fry.

Last week the English actor and wit left Twitter, explaining on his blog that a once-pleasurable online meeting place had become overrun by viciousness. He is, of course, right. Twitter is now a sewer clogged with rage; the spiritual home of people defined by conservative pundits as "cry-bullies". It has become an aggressively self-pitying mob that knows almost nothing and will believe almost anything.

To amuse myself, I wrote my own blog post called "Stephen Fry Is A Monster", from the perspective of one of those "cry-bullies": an outraged rant condemning Fry's post, riddled with deliberate errors and obviously stupid assumptions.

I have never been accused of being subtle in my satire, and in this instance I laid it on particularly thick. For example, in his blog, Fry quotes a line from Rupert Brooke's Peace. My reply: "I read Rupert Brookes's blog entry, which is called Peace, and it was complete rubbish, it didn't make any sense at all, and I showed it to a friend who said Oh of course, it's a f**king POEM. A POEM, Mr Fry, you elitist prick. You know perfectly well that nobody can read a poem or what it means, and by plagiarizing a poem you were DELIBERATELY EXCLUDING THE 99%. You are a white supremacist."

Delicate as a sledgehammer, ne?

The response was depressing. Not all of it, of course. For instance, I don't blame Tayla and Tamarin for saying what they said. If you're popping up on a stranger's Facebook page to write "P**s", it means you're operating on a level where the world must be a very confusing and scary place, and it's understandable that you'd want to lash out.

Even for people less intellectually challenged than those two, it can be very difficult to tell authentic online vitriol from parody, especially if you click on a story without any context. Sure, you might take a moment to read a couple of other pieces by the same writer, or perhaps skim through the dozens of comments on Facebook explaining that the piece is poking fun at the people who chased Fry off Twitter. But I get it. Reading is super-hard. And in a world where time is precious, why would you spend 30 seconds looking for context when you could spend them venting your spleen?

So no, it wasn't the idiot anger. What depressed me was the fury of people who really should have known better. Some were people who have read my work for some time. One had a profile picture showing a proud humanities student being awarded a university degree.

When you write for a living and start interacting with readers you quickly learn that people who can read are not necessarily literate. But I confess I was shocked by the determination of those readers to remain illiterate.

They refused to search for context, or resisted having it handed to them; when someone pointed out their misreading of the piece, they would go into a series of aggressive emotional contortions rather than admit a mistake. It's satire? No it's not: I know satire and this isn't it. Oh, it really is satire? Well it's pretty stupid and Eaton is still a dick and Stephen Fry is still awesome.

In the coming months our country is going to get a lot louder and angrier. The written word, already militarised, will become even more wrathful. All our possible futures will be fought over, column centimetre by column centimetre. It's going to get nasty.

But when it does, and various camps are clamouring for the high ground, it might help to think of Tamarin, queen of the illiterates, and her subjects who generate enormous amounts of heat but almost no light, and who can therefore be ignored. And what of the manifestos, the open letters, the think-pieces? Maybe ignore most of them too. After all (and Tamarin can confirm this): you can't believe a damn thing you read any more.

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