The restless urge to find something, somewhere, by which to be outraged, can without much effort be satisfied by scrolling through Twitter until one comes across a statement which might be construed as insulting.
One then hurries to denounce the author of the offending tweet for committing an unspeakable act of cruelty, which will cause unpardonable hurt to some vulnerable group of people.
Within moments, a vociferous Twitter mob appears, consisting of righteous citizens intent on driving this monster from public life, or at least forcing the depraved individual into an abject apology for having offended so grievously against every canon of public decency.
Something of the kind seems to have befallen Sajid Javid, the new Health Secretary, after he posted a tweet which ended with the words:
“Please, if you haven’t yet, get your jab, as we learn to live with, rather than cower from, this virus.”
The press weighed in and reported that the word “cower” had caused “deep hurt” to the bereaved by implying that their “loved ones” who died were “too cowardly to fight the virus”.
The term was also said to have insulted “all those still doing their best to protect others from the devastation this horrific virus can bring”. Here are the tweets by 17 of the most prominent people to denounce Javid.
This episode raises an awkward question. How does one represent the views of the large number of people who did not feel in the slightest bit offended by what Javid wrote?
It seems clear enough to many of us that he intended no harm. He wants people to get the jab and to find the courage to live with the virus.
He has no desire to worsen the sufferings of a single bereaved person, or to insult those labouring to protect others.
And yet we do not want to have a row about this. For once the Twitter mob have sprung into action, it is too late. They are unreceptive to any plea of “hang on a minute, I think it should be obvious to any normal person that Javid didn’t mean it that way”.
Nor do other parts of the media have any incentive to knock the story down. “Javid says something sensible” is not a story. “Javid sparks fury” is a promising news line.
To murmur at this point “I think we should live and let live” would produce a furious retort about the 129,000 people in the UK who have died from Covid-19, along with the assertion that you murdered them.
For the Twitter mob are so intent on putting the worst possible construction on your motives, that they have placed themselves beyond the reach of any plea to reason, fairness or their better nature, and are instead competing like mad with each other to see who can sound the most outraged and the most virtuous.
Life is too short to waste one’s time on such demeaning battles. And after all, who knows, perhaps some people were genuinely hurt by the way Javid put things, and if so, one doesn’t want to make matters worse by showing a lack of sympathy.
So it makes sense to keep quiet, or in Javid’s case to apologise in a graceful manner and move on.
But keeping quiet, or backing down, comes at a cost. The Twitter mob and their allies imagine they have won a famous victory, and that they have spoken on behalf of all decent people.
Their self-righteousness waxes ever greater, and with it their hypersensitivity to any departure from the strict path of virtue.
Many institutions – universities, charities, businesses, Parliament, the civil service – have responded by developing their own hypersensitive mechanisms for avoiding even the appearance of impropriety, which may mean not using language which only last year was regarded as acceptable.
Behaviour is controlled by codes of conduct which only a prig could observe, and a single incautious word can still get you into trouble.
This yearning to render everything inoffensive has itself become offensive, for it leads to persistent self-censorship, and means that organisations waste inordinate amounts of time policing their own employees. Milksops are appointed to senior positions because they can be relied on not to say boo to a goose, which means they can’t react when an emergency occurs.
This is not freedom. But it may help to explain why so many people voted for Boris Johnson.