Chris Gayle’s trial by social media is not healthy

January 6, 2016

While getting caught up in the relentless energy that is New York City, I could not help but notice that a story back home has my country in a frenzy of rage and debate. Now, usually one might suspect that such a story would be linked to a disaster of some kind, or perhaps a tragic event that no-one saw coming. Alas, the story in question is that of Chris Gayle, and his clumsy on air advances towards sports reporter, Mel McGlaughlin.

By now, even if you’re on the other side of the world, like myself, you have probably seen the interview. There is little point in mounting a defence for Gayle, since there is none to be had. In that particular context, his behaviour was inappropriate. We accept that. What is not okay is the frenzied reaction by the same addicted-to-outrage hashtag warriors getting high on moral anger.

Predictably, the social media storm has offered the usual dichotomy of opinion. Those that claim it is just who Chris Gayle is and it was nothing but innocent flirting, and those who bemoan that it is yet another example of workplace harassment towards women. The latter group feel it is their job to educate men on how it is ‘not okay’ – their favourite line.

The reporter in question? She just wants to move on, focusing on the next game she will cover, she said so herself. Yet her acceptance of the apology does not matter. She is no longer relevant to the story, since the space has been filled by social commentators. It now has a life of its own, bypassing the individuals involved to be held as a symbolic representation of all that is wrong with sexist, patriarchal Australia. Herein lies the real issue.

We are living in the age of the social media lynch mob, where crime and punishment is dictated via the emotions of the masses. A cricketer makes a clumsy advance on a reporter and then we are subject to an entire week’s worth of analysis. The dirt file will be dug on Gayle’s past exploits, and no doubt other exaggerated claims of inappropriate comments and behaviour will be offered in a fine cornucopia of disgust to feed the insatiable appetites of the Twitter brigade.

The public reaction around these sorts of events is not healthy. It is, to quote from Gayle himself, blown out of proportion. Accepting that the comments were misplaced and apologising is not enough. He has to be dragged through the mud, fined, sanctioned, and sacked from contributing columns in the media. He is the modern day equivalent to the witch of Salem, forced to publicly repent his sins to satisfy the public’s thirst for blood.

It could be argued, perhaps, that this is healthy for democracy. Public shaming could force individuals to reconsider their conduct and occurrences such as these help to educate the public and bring about positive change. It is one of the key arguments against legislation limiting free speech, that the public reaction is punishment enough. However, the point could also be made that the emotion driven nature of social discussion allows for immature debate where mob rule wins.

Often what occurs is one side believing that it is morally virtuous and thus immune to any sort of criticism. On the other side is usually a camp of dogmatic diehards that resort to nastiness in frustration at the hypocrisy of the other side. In this case, we have the invincible feminists digging in against those quick to point out the double standards of female reporters. It did not take long for some to point out Sunrise reporter Nuala Hafner’s advances towards a finely built stranger on the beach, very similar to Gayle’s behaviour towards McLaughlin.

The end result is an inability to meet in the middle, and the next similar event will only incite a more acrimonious, hostile discussion, if you could even call it that. None of this makes for tempered, measured reactions to what are essentially trivial wrongdoings in a world where so much more matters. The punishment for those involved outweighs the crime.

As our generation grows further comfortable with our social media reality, we find ourselves sweating the small stuff and being lured further into one camp of thought, forever hostile to those on the other side. Our ability to see reason in a world of endless noise is hampered, and democracy is the loser.

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