Social media, the curse of our time, is bad for us in so many hidden ways. It’s not just that malign political and pandemic messaging spreads instantly, or that our attention span is fractured. I can’t even read a cereal box without skipping bits, and that might be important riboflavin information I need to know.
It’s more that there is a human urge to assess other humans, which is normal, and then to judge them, which takes us into dark territory. Social media has created a phenomenon I call speed-judging.
Speed-judging is terrible. I used to review books for a living. It is not widely known that you have to read the book before you review it, and I knew freelance reviewers who didn’t always bother.
On social media, twits used “selective quotes” to damn a book, a speech, a tweet, a joke. This is against the law — it is my law — that you have to read and understand something before you comment on it.
Context is always your friend. Without it, you can’t see if a writer was building up to the remark you deplore, if the book is consistent, if the writer’s other books have taken a similar approach and so on.
Seriously. You might have to read more than one book. You might have to bone up on someone’s history before judging.
Speed-judging is the worst. Unfortunately it’s also tremendous “Judge Judy”-level fun. Courtroom judges generally build a long legal career before their judicial appointment. Their judgments are read beyond carefully for even the possibility of a loophole and then a profitable appeal.
You and I don’t do that. We speed-judge. A mug shot suffices. Low foreheads, weird eyes, a dead-zone mien — Nicola Priest and her boyfriend looked pretty guilty to me. Actually they were extremely guilty, of beating a three-year-old daughter to death because she walked into the room while they were having sex. Videos of her with her killers hurt the heart.
Speed-judging can be cruel. That’s why Florida Man has vanished from Twitter, its creator deciding that sad men with awful lives were being over-punished by having their mug shots posted forever. It’s why I don’t enjoy People of Walmart. Too easy to speed-judge.
I speed-judged Conservative leader Erin O’Toole as a dim bulb. Now I slow-judge him as a dim bulb.
I speed-judged Jagmeet Singh as a bright hope for the New Democrats; I slow-judge him as strangely unaware of issues that particularly affect women, like gun control and historic highs in unemployment rates.
The extreme left’s Red Guard swarming of people it speed-judges as having committed thoughtcrime, e.g. racism or ableism, is a cautionary tale. Kate Clanchy, a thoughtful British writer who teaches poetry to students rated as difficult or unredeemable, wrote a marvellous revelatory memoir called “Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me.”
Aware of her own fairly posh background and as always skeptical of it, she describes the kids physically — they are white, black, brown — talks to them intensely, and makes them seem real rather than mere case studies. You develop affection for them, only partly because of the great poetry they were able to produce.
It won the 2020 Orwell Prize for political writing. Post-award, a tiny sincere group has slated her on Twitter using selective quotes to reveal her “racism” and “ableism” in a class-obsessed nation.
As in a previous memoir about a Kosovan housecleaner, “Antigona and Me,” Clanchy is writing about how white people like herself have to dissect themselves to understand their own possibly racist speed-judging.
Officials at the Orwell Foundation — named after the author of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and “Animal Farm,” a man who wrote freely at whatever cost — have failed to defend her, saying they don’t comment on judges’ decisions, and her publisher Picador has backed away. The upshot is Clanchy has offered to rewrite her book to suit her critics. The students will now be stick figures.
I read both books with great pleasure, lost them in a house move, and have now bought new copies. You cannot slow-judge without thinking hard and reading closely. Speed-judging leaves you more often wrong than right, as in this case.