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Radio review: I Was. . ., and The Purity Spiral 

07 February 2020


THE curse of celebrity is that what­ever you do is endlessly fascin­at­ing to the fan. If you put out the rub­bish, how charmingly ordinary; if the rubbish is put out by a flunky in gold-sequined tails, how charmingly eccentric. In I Was . . . (Radio 4, Thursday of last week), in which flunkies to the stars recount their prize anecdotes, we get to indulge a fascination which is universal.

Last week, we heard about Stanley Kubrick — but it was the main char­acter who held our interest: Anthony Frewin, an excel­lent, albeit under-stated, racon­teur who has latterly found success as a scriptwriter.

Indeed, the best story of the half-hour has nothing to do with Kubrick at all, and everything to do with the English working mentality of the 1970s. Instructed by Kubrick to source Post-it notes for the produc­tion team, Frewin rings up the one company that supplies them, and asks whether Post-it notes could be made in different colours and sizes.

His enquiry is met with a sigh: “If there were other colours and other sizes, there would be no end to it!”

Of making many Post-it notes, as the author of Ecclesiastes tells us of books, there is no end. We cannot help commenting, whether by stick­ing bits of paper on documents or sticking our thoughts into a message on Twitter. In The Purity Spiral (Radio 4, Sunday) the journalist Gavin Hayes provided two case-studies in which the need to post com­ments online had driven a spiral of moral censorship that was no less ugly because the triggers for these “spirals” were debates about young adult fiction and knitting.

Nathan Taylor is famous in knit­ting circles. A YouTube and Insta­­gram star, his patterns and methods are followed by thousands. When, in July 2018, he started a conversation about diversity in the knitting com­munity and about mi­­nor­­­ity representation, using the hash­­­­­­tag Divers­knitty, he no doubt thought that he was doing something worthy.

Only when a torrent of lexical ex­­creta descended on him from social media did he understand that he might, unwittingly, be a white su­­­prem­­­acist, a Nazi, and all sorts besides. What this, and similar cases, demonstrate, according to Hayes, is the vulnerability of small, intro­verted communities to “a culture of moral outbidding”: a rush to the moral high ground.

Appalling as these instances are, one wonders whether Hayes over­plays his own hand. One cannot ig­­nore the nature of the stage on which all this abuse is played out. The immediacy with which social media enables us to connect our most intimate aggressions with a global audience creates a storm which seems so much greater than the teapot.

Nevertheless, there are profes­sional academics — notably Pro­fessor Kehinde Andrews, a propon­ent of Critical Race Theory — who regard the “white supremacist” slur as entirely understandable with­in the context of contemporary race politics. Needless to say, he is big on Twitter.

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