Tuesday, 15 October 2013

McCann: trial by fury

On Twitter, I follow nice people. Academics, politicians, students, wits, gadabouts and cards. It's a bit of an echo chamber to be honest: they're mostly left-of-centre, thoughtful people with whom I agree about most things. I don't often get a sense of what the rest of the world thinks, or of whether I'm in the majority on a given issue (I am, of course, always right: it's just that the rest of the world doesn't always realise that fact).

However, on some subjects, reason flies out of the window and Twitter becomes a sounding board for the most inane, reactionary and dumb views. One such subject is Madeleine McCann's disappearance. To recap: while her middle-class parents were at dinner in a Portuguese holiday resort, the toddler was kidnapped. No body has been found and no leads unearthed.

That's the extent of the evidence as far as you and I know. Not speaking Portuguese, being au fait with investigation protocols, having access to first-hand evidence and witness statements, or to the unmediated thoughts of the family and others, I can confidently say without a shadow of a doubt that I do not have the slightest clue what happened to that child. I plead the Douglas Adams defence: 'I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that I don't know the answer'.

Sadly, I appear to be on my own in this regard. Twitter and other fora are packed with thousands of people convinced that they personally have solved the case. It was the parents. It was some shady bloke seen hanging about outside. Aliens did it. On what grounds? Er… the parents were neglectful. Them Portugals look a bit foreign to me. They think in English really, they're just trying to be difficult. Or… whatever.

This genuinely sickens me. Is this what people are like in real life too? Or is there something about the medium that encourages idle speculation on specious grounds (an activity usually restricted to local newspaper columnists in my experience)? At least I blog about things about which I have spent time thinking about. The McCann lynch-mob reminds me of the time I served on a jury. We went into court for five minutes, then got sent out for some legal argument. 'Well', said the forewoman, 'he must have done it'. 'How so?', I piped up, puzzled. 'He doesn't look sorry' she said, as though the case was closed. Never mind that he pleaded not guilty. Evidence be damned.

Apart from my general revulsion at the Great British Public's willingness to accuse people of murder without the slightest justification beyond what they've picked up from New Tricks and CSI: Portugal, I'm fascinated and appalled by the obsession with this one case. Is it because the parents won't do the sobbing interviews with the Daily Mail on 'Maddie: our heartbreak'? Is it because she's a cute kid? Because the family are middle-class professionals? Because it happened Abroad? Are people posting on Twitter what they'd say in real life, or has the medium given vent to a whole new genre of vileness? Perhaps in an earlier age these people would be writing poison-pen letters to the local papers.

Or perhaps the obsession is related to the tandem growth of modernity and detective fiction. As the world got less understandable (urbanism, world wars, psychology, the end of rational motivation), readers turned to fiction which promised clear motives, logical paths and total understanding if enough attention was paid to detail. The world was readable after all, if you had the right technique. Perhaps the McCann story is another manifestation of this epistemological dread. Horrible things happen, things we can't explain or fully know. So in response, we feel the need to generate opinions and announce them as fact. We can't bear not to know so we sound off without regard to logic or facts because it's better than having nothing to say. Right?

You McCann-speculators are getting off easy: all you have to do is watch this, then ask yourself whether the strength of your opinion is justified by its grounds, and whether the world is a better place for knowing that you personally reckon that it was the parents what did it because well just look at them with their clothes and faces and hair etc. etc. etc.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is the same on Facebook. I am appalled at the level of hate directed at the parents. Perhaps in hindsight they may have made a mistake leaving their children to go a few yards away for dinner but because they are intelligent, middle class professionals who refuse to prostrate themselves in front of the baying mob they are villified.

"When you judge another, you do not define them, you define yourself.".