For some like Elan Gale, digital rants are akin to slipping into another world without repercussions. But words still matter online
The story of a man live tweeting his “feud” with a fellow irritable airline passenger did the so-called rounds on the internet. The ordeal occurred during peak US holiday travel leading up to Thanksgiving. It was dubbed “hilarious” by various outlets, like Jezebel , the Mirror, and Yahoo!. Elan Gale, the man behind the tweets, appears to have gained a significant number of new Twitter followers and managed to trend a hashtag #TeamElan, to obtain – I suppose – support.
Yet, beyond the laughter and the mockery, beyond his and those media outlets’ massive audience’s jeers and “support”, there’s a disturbing aspect of laughing at harmless strangers that should trouble us all; one that appears excused just because it’s “online” and because the other person made some minor errors.
Let’s look beyond the fact that the alleged distressed woman could have been your anxious mother, sister, friend, lover; let’s also look beyond the disproportionate response of using a platform where Elan had about 30,000 followers at the beginning (increasing beyond 100,000 after) to encourage laughter and mockery and antagonism of a stranger who wasn’t harming anyone, beyond irritation.
What’s worrying are the excuses from Elan Gale and his apologists, premised on a blinkered notion of defending “niceness”, while hypocritically using phrases like “eat my dick” and saying she has an “idiot face”.
Taking to a digital space, for some people, is like slipping into an alternate dimension – one without repercussions. People already do this by labelling spaces “cyber” and “real” (beyond actual useful concepts), as if the two areas exist in different spheres of causal unassailability.
But you need only ask anyone who’s lost a job because of dodgy pictures on Facebook or Twitter to recognise there are repercussions; that cyberspace isn’t an area of moral immunity, that your social media presence isn’t one devoid of ethical responsibility. Indeed, it’s infused with more responsibility than before, due to having a larger platform, a greater audience, than you would’ve had before social media.
Prior to us becoming public figures thanks to the internet – and specifically social media – our expressions of admiration or dislike were largely confined to an audience of loved ones, peers, friends and similarly small circles. Few of us had the platforms of major columnists, authors or pundits with a million eyes and ears and fingers, pressed against the soapbox they paid to engage in. But such people had, mostly, earned such positions through substantiated argument, ethical contemplation of the use of their platform, and an editorial overseer.
Today, thanks to Twitter and Facebook, more people have acquired similarly large platforms but without those necessary properties of quality thought and editorial integrity that justifies the use of such platforms for actual good – as opposed to, for example, meaningless soapboxes to shout off hate at innocent strangers.
Worse still, they have an audience that cheers them on, to sate their (the audience’s) delight in others’ suffering. Elan Gale is a prime example of misusing one’s impressive social media platform to target a stranger, calling on his followers for support and relishing in their mutual antagonism; yet worse still are those many who support and laughed along with Gale, calling him a “hero” (which he rightfully dismisses as nonsense, since there’s nothing heroic about telling a clearly distressed stranger “I hate you very much” and “Eat my dick” because she was sort of annoying).
Ignoring that we appear to have only a one-sided account (someone claiming to be the woman’s sister has come forward, but that’s not verified), what we do have conveys little reason for support.
Elan Gale’s first note to this anonymous woman ends with “hopefully you won’t be able to use your mouth to talk”; and, as indicated, he referred to her consumption of his penis twice. Two days later, without any sense of irony, he tweeted to his 100,000 or so followers:
@theyearofelan I’m not. Eat my dick.
— Alexa Pastor (@alexapastor) November 30, 2013
The most revealing aspects, however, came later. In a tweet after the incident, Gale wrote: “Let me just say this: What started off as an annoyance became a pleasure because of you people. Seriously. More than anything. I love you.” In his Tumblr post, he wrote:
I had a great time antagonizing her, reading your responses, and just generally trying to have fun with an irritating person.
As with any entertainer, the delight of the audience fuelled his drive for continual performance. And that’s what this was: it wasn’t a stand for civility, for politeness, for defending people in the service industry, as he is claiming in his bizarrely blinkered Tumblr post. It was a performance that he kept escalating, when he saw the delight with which it was received by “the internet” – escalating to the point where he spoke about his nether regions and, later, she allegedly slapped him.
As someone who worked years in the service industry, I would not want such a person defending me – such an attitude only makes the irritable person worse, only gives cause to take it out further on service people. If he wishes to engage in a larger goal of publicly shaming horrible customers, there are more effective and less antagonistic ways to do so (assuming public shaming is a good method, which I’m doubtful of).
We know nothing about “Diane”. We don’t know what state of mind she was in, beyond his analysis and judgement – and public humiliation. We know what she allegedly said – and even what she said did not warrant the response Gale proceeded to mete out, premising it strangely on defending being polite (ie the very thing he was not being).
But Gale’s bullying and childish tactics are not the worst parts: it’s the audience, the followers, the media, cheering on, welcoming the suffering and distress of another innocent person because she had temporarily been in prior distress herself (again, according only to Gale).
Cyberspace and digital platforms are not free for all spaces that have no moral repercussions; they matter, because words matter. Gale’s actions directly affected another person, and they appear to be fuelled by the “sick love” people have with digital nastiness. It’s as if people believe there are no repercussions for calling her names, for laughing at her.
But there are repercussions. It’s just that most of us have never been the target of such systematic and bullish tactics. The laughter will cease when that does, and we’ll wonder how we ever laughed at all. Don’t support people like Gale. Do something Gale didn’t: be a better person than those who are causing you distress.
Link to article: feeds.theguardian.com/c/34708/f/663875/s/34573932/sc/38/l/0L0Stheguardian0N0Ccommentisfree0C20A130Cdec0C0A20Celan0Egale0Etwitter0Efeud0Eairline0Epassenger/story01.htm