We live in the age of 'transparency' or what I once heard Michael Power describe as 'the age of permanent audit'. This is thanks to the presence, sometimes ubiquity, of technologies which make audit the default option, and inaudit (or privacy) a form of specified opt-out. For celebrities, these include legal and quasi-legal forms of media surveillance; for the powerful, it means the constant threat of leaks, the publication of money-grabbing memoirs and Freedom of Information Requests; for the rest of us, it means facebook and digital cameras.
Under these conditions, words, actions and decisions have a nasty habit of catching up on one. Interestingly, we've largely forgotten about the intrusion of the Big Brother state (for the time being), and discovered that the public sphere can be a far more brutal and effective mechanism for surveillance than the all-seeing, expert panopticon. This is partly thanks to the on-going furore around 'hackgate' in the UK, but also because of a strange new form of political correctness that appears to be emerging, as the public etiquette of the twitter age.
As Chris Dillow argues, a number of recent events suggest that the British have become incredibly over-sensitive recently. Despite having been one of the marchers that Jeremy Clarkson said he would like to shoot (in front of my family) in November, I was depressed by the scale of reaction against a man who (as Stuart Lee points out) is paid specifically to recite predictable rightwing slogans in public. The saga over Luis Suarez's finger - which hilariously now gets reported with the offensive gesture concealed - suggests that we're reviving an Edwardian sensibility. This at a time when no Guardian or Observer op-ed is complete, without an anonymous cabinet minister being quoted that someone or other is "completely fucked" (serving only to demonstrate the intimacy of quoter with quoted).
Levels of rudeness, obscenity and pornography are becoming normalised everywhere, while the stakes surrounding a stray finger or badly-judged joke are also rising rapidly. It's hard not to feel sorry for the BBC and Channel 4, who have to muster unprecedented levels of confidence (that are impossible to defend, if challenged persistently enough by enough people) that Franky Boyle or someone is within his rights to use a certain word or sentence.
Clearly, twitter and chatrooms have changed things in two obvious ways. Firstly, registering disgust has become massively easier, a problem which afflicts various service and hospitality industries, via user feedback websites. Secondly, movements of disgust can gather momentum and experience tipping points, until they dominate the headlines. This means that complaints can far outstrip the number of initial viewers, as 'Sachsgate' demonstrated best of all.
All of which turns public offence and defence into a game, involving strategy, scores, winners and losers. Offence can be measured partly in terms of how many people claim to be offended. But there are also PR-type strategies at work in terms of getting things into and out of the public 'conversation'. If they hang around for long enough, then it becomes apparently insensitive for political leaders to avoid confronting them (as both Ed Miliband and David Cameron seemingly felt in relation to Jeremy Clarkson's joke). Because the threat of over-reaction by the public is now so great, authorities often opt to over-react in the first place. For instance, this mildly irreverant Tim Minchin Christmas song was apparently pulled by ITV, before any offence had been taken. OfCom, which ironically was set up according to the most boldly technocratic principles of any regulator, is now in the unfortunate position of having to adjudicate over many such moral issues. Humour experts cannot be far behind.
What gets forgotten in amongst all of this is a fairly simple question: what does offence consist of in the first place? This NYRB article, reviewing two books on digust, might be a good place to start. I am perfectly willing to call Jeremy Clarkson a 'tosser', or even - if I thought I could get a cheap laugh - suggest that he be chopped into slices and fed to the rest of the Top Gear team. But I would find it difficult to watch the clip of him asking for marchers to be 'shot', and report that I am experiencing 'offence' or 'disgust'. To do so would be to descend to another form of moral failing: it would make me a 'liar'.
So what about the recent scandals surrounding racism by Premier League footballers? Maybe all of this over-sensitivity is a price worth paying, if it helps to out John Terry and Luis Suarez as racists and condemn them accordingly. But the problem is that these cases still feel like they're part of a game. The moral repugnance of racism gets almost overlooked, in favour of empirical questions, such as who said what, how do we know, what does the camera or microphone pick up, whose responsibility is it to act, what does the FA (or police) have to do in order for the issue to go away again, how will this affect his football or the England football team. It's almost as if John Terry's greatest mistake was to be so easily lip-read. Quite how or why a multi-millionaire England football captain thinks like that in the first place (or whether he really does) gets left in the shadows, by debates about what can be seen and confirmed as true.
As a result of all this, the age of transparency is also the age of the choreographed grovelling apology. The most disgusting - yes, I think I really mean that - aspect of the Aiden Burley 'nazi-themed stag party' scandal was the report that:
Aides tried to arrange for him to join a trip organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust to Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp in German-occupied Poland. But the Tory leadership moved against Burley after the newspaper reported on Sunday that he was responsible for hiring the Nazi uniform.
So their ruse didn't quite work. But the point is this: in the game of public offence and defence, Aiden Burley's aides sought to instrumentalise a Nazi concentration camp as a strategy to wrong-foot his opponents (perhaps in time for the lunchtime news). Personally, I hope Aiden Burley and his aides suffer serious disappointments in their careers, leading to prolonged regret and self-doubt. In front of their families. I'm not joking, but I am being offensive.
John Terry's PR team pulled off an equivalent coup, with this surreal headline. Is this where we're all heading to? Mobilising children, monuments and history as a means to distract the twittersphere for a few hours? Some bizarre logic of equivalence is underway, that one regrettable photograph or youtube clip can be cancelled out with one carefully planned (and photographed) gesture towards transcendent political ideals or tragedies. I suspect that Princess Diana may have set the stage for the politics of this new era.
The first wave of political correctness was idealistic, with shades of Orwellian mind control, but too technologically naive to tip into totalitarianism. It sought to police how people spoke, but with no means of achieving this, other than traditional education, debate and disapproval. As the inverse of this, the new wave of political correctness is technologically sophisticated, but with no ideals attached. It is purely concerned with catching people out, making them look foolish, putting them through the ringer for a few hours, days or weeks (depending on how much they are considered to deserve it).
But as a result, it has no concern with the unseen, the undetected or the not-yet-detected. It can work in tandem with professional investigative journalism (as with hackgate, MPs expenses and wikileaks), but it only judges what it can see. It reduces crimes and misdemeanours to their visible evidence, which can be cancelled out by the creation of equivalent visible counter-evidence.