On Wednesday night I took part in a panel discussion at the Glad Café in Glasgow about the controversial project The Glasgow Effect undertaken by artist and provocateur, Ellie Harrison. It was a polite and, at times, frank affair and reminded me of the importance of face to face discussion when attempting to establish the truth of something.
When I arrived at the venue I immediately noticed Ellie at the front door wearing what looked like a lollipop lady’s jacket. My heart-rate quickened as I had been anticipating the moment we would first speak and now I suddenly found myself thrust into her path unexpectedly. No time to write out what I want to say and edit it before posting and then deleting it because it’s shit.
Fortunately, she was besieged by attendees keen to hear about her experience so I used this as an opportunity to head into Glad and compose myself.
Not two seconds in the door and I literally ran into my other sparring partner for the evening, Katie Gallolallayloghly Swan – or Katie as I like to call her. The surreal thing about this is the fact Katie and I are friends.
Katie published a response piece on Bella which attempted to hold my class-shaming generalisations about the Glasgow Effect to rigorous account. In my opinion she did a pretty good job. In terms of pointing out logical fallacy and hypocrisy in someone else, it was extremely perceptive. I made a point of sharing it widely as soon as I’d finished reading it.
I suspect her piece was also cathartic for a great number of people too. In particular those who may have been feeling that I needed to be challenged in some way or taken down a peg. Katie handed them a nice big stick to beat me with for a couple of hours. It’s nice to get a look at my mind from another person’s perspective and for that reason and many others I found Katie’s article immensely useful.
Ellie joined Katie and I not long after. I struggled to make conversation as it was my intention to begin by apologising for any upset I may have incited or exacerbated but the venue was crowded and something so personal didn’t seem appropriate.
It was also the first time I was able to get a sense of the immense strain Ellie had clearly been under since the shit hit the fan in early January; something a social media post could never really convey no matter how vivid. I made a joke about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which didn’t carry very well. Unfortunately I couldn’t slyly erase it from the record as this attempt at conversation was taking place in real-life.
In my head I was thinking: “I should have brought her a gift as a goodwill gesture. Perhaps a nice handmade card and a box of organic strawberries.”
Thankfully, the waitress arrived with my falafel, giving me with something to do with my massive mouth for 10 minutes.
As I decimated my dinner Katie consoled me about the fact one of my heroes, Frankie Boyle, had unfollowed me on Twitter – something I chose to share on Facebook. To anyone unfamiliar with Twitter, the unfollow is the ultimate insult. It’s someone’s way of saying they can’t even bear you at a distance.
When I noticed Frankie was following me it was a nice feeling. Then one day I landed on his page only to find that we were no longer ‘following each other’. Given he has over 2 million followers I couldn’t even unfollow him out of spite as it would be like spitting at the ocean. From that fateful day to this I have been forced to consider what I could possibly have said that would have been too much for the UK’s most offensive human being.
Then it dawns on me I am discussing how upset an unfollow from someone I don’t even know has made me while sitting next to someone who was trolled on Facebook by half the world over an arts project that wouldn’t hurt a fly. Not long after this epiphany a friend of Ellie’s arrives.
They embrace beside me a little longer than normal for a simple hello. Have they been re-united after a long spell apart? Or is this the first time they’ve crossed paths since Ellie’s world was turned upside down?
Then I hear gentle sobbing.
It’s obvious to me now that this experience pushed Ellie to her emotional and psychological limits and that her attendance at the Glad Café, to face the proverbial music, is an act of immense courage. I tried to imagine how I would have coped had it been me at the eye of a social media storm.
Given my faux-breakdown and narcissistic sensitivity to an unfollow from a comedian I’ve never met, I can only laugh out loud at the prospect of maintaining anything near the level of composure, perspective and humility Harrison has demonstrated since this fiasco started just over a month ago.
The discussion was robust once it got started and audience contributions teased out the deeper issues around culture and class. The entire evening was respectful, if a little thorny at points, and benefitted greatly from individuals being able to read one another’s body language.
All in all the debate was less combative than some may have anticipated and for this reason, extremely helpful for all of us. I got the impression many people left with a greater understanding of the affair – and a greater appreciation of Ellie’s experience. I wrote my piece criticising the Glasgow Effect as an attempt to articulate a feeling that was out there – right or wrong – and that was my aim when I set about writing it. Too often I watch the thoughts and opinions of people from communities like mine get lost in translation or discarded altogether.
But ultimately, my writing comes from an irrational place, deep down in the pit of my gut and could never bear any serious academic scrutiny.
My piece was designed primarily for people angry about the Glasgow Effect to hold up and say: ‘’this is how I feel and this is what I am trying to say but have no words.’’
“This represents me.”
But I can also see how my actions were part of a gathering snowball of nonsense too. The social media frenzy in which we’re all bored of the outrage and the witch-hunts…until we’re leading them into polemical oblivion.
From this fiasco I learned a simple lesson. Social media and I have something quite profound in common: we are basically just tools.