Have you ever heard of the British artist Maggi Hambling? She is a painter who has trained at the Slade School of Art and is renowned for her seascapes as well as for producing controversial sculptures. Now seventy-five, she has accomplished much in her lifetime including being the first artist in residence at the National Gallery, a CBE award from the Queen, public collections at the British Museum, the Tate, Scottish National Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Some of her work has caused controversy. Her statue of Oscar Wilde took the form of a sarcophagus with Wilde emerging laughing, complete with cigarette in hand. For composer Benjamin Britten, she produced a giant stainless-steel scallop and for the eighteenth century writer and philosopher, Mary Wollstonecraft, her interpretation featured a naked female figure emerging from organic matter. Maggi Hambling has her critics and her admirers, but no one can deny that her work is considered, unique and thought-provoking.
This week the Tate published on its Facebook page a post about Maggi. It concerned her opinion that painting had enabled her to deal with grief along with her belief that laughter is ‘a means of survival.’ The post elicited many positive comments concerning Maggi’s work and her philosophy on life. However, Carolyn, a middle aged Facebook user, who ‘quite likes’ Julian Assange and eats porridge for her breakfast, took the opportunity to write, “I don’t care for her work.” I am sure Maggi Hambling is now seriously considering binning her paint brushes after such an immense and vital judgement. Other posters remarked on Carolyn’s succinct comment, asking her with their tongue firmly in cheek if she had ever considered becoming a critic. She retorted that she was ‘entitled’ to her opinion. Of course, she is entitled to her opinion. We are all entitled to have our own opinions. But are we entitled to post those opinions on social media if they are deliberately designed to be nasty and cause offence? In all honesty, if Carolyn dislikes the artist, then is it ever appropriate to post anything at all? For me, the word entitled sums up so much that is wrong with social media and how we use it. Carolyn may not like Maggi Hambling’s work, but why did she feel that her opinion counted so much that she had to post something unpleasant? Surely it would have been better not to write anything at all.
If you were invited to someone’s house for dinner and they were a dreadful cook, your opinion would be that the food was inedible, but would you say that directly to the host? If you were walking in the street and saw someone wearing something which did not suit them at all, you might form an opinion that they should not wear the offending clothing, but you certainly would not go up to them and say it unsolicited. Why then, do people feel that what is not appropriate in life should be acceptable on social media? The time has come where we need to start challenging those who deliberately set out to post offensive comments on the internet, which they would think twice about in real life.
There is no doubt that social media has revolutionised our lives in the past decade. We use it to communicate with each other, to publicise our work, and to record our lives. It is seen as a vital component in the lives of many creatives, since it enables those who follow someone’s work to interact with people they happen to admire. Yet as much as it can be incredibly positive, it can also cause a lot of upset. I follow a lady on YouTube who posts videos about her shopping and the subscription boxes she purchases. I enjoy watching her as it is refreshing to see an older person on the platform. However, recently someone has taken to sending her emails criticising everything that she does. This person is using their free time to hurt someone deliberately. In addition, I question the mentality of someone who spends their time pulling others down. If you are putting so much negativity out into the world, surely that is going to impact on your own mental health and well-being? I follow another YouTuber who is over 50, and unfortunately, she has to deal with those who believe that the comments section is an excuse to write whatever they like as a critique of her life. She has even received comments questioning the state of her marriage and if her husband is having an affair. If you do not like this lady, why not just stop watching her content? It is that simple.
Recently when my book was published, I experienced for myself the extent to which some people prefer to dwell on publishing negativity on the internet. A lady purchased my biography of Princess Mary. She did not read the book and even now, I do not think that she has bothered to examine the text. However, she must have spent several hours producing a 500-word thesis complaining about the quality of the paper and the cover and the images contained in it. I struggle to comprehend the mentality of anyone who spends such a large portion of their time being deeply unpleasant. It says more about her than it does about the book. Could she not have expressed her opinion briefly rather than wind herself up with such a diatribe? As a writer, I am not entitled to question her review. I am supposed to accept it as a necessary evil of putting myself ‘out there.’ Why should I? Am I not entitled to say this is unacceptable? Am I not entitled to reply? I am not immune to such outpourings. I do have my own feelings and I think it is unjust that I should be expected to just put up with it and be gracious to these people.
Furthermore, pulling people down is something that many people on the internet seem to relish. I have quite a large social media presence. It is not hard to discover my email address. Rather than contact me through this means and tell me that someone believes there to be a mistake in the text, I came across someone who wrote it on a review as proudly as if they were entering a spot the deliberate mistake competition. As I read this review, pointing out a supposed error, it was no stretch of my imagination to conjure up the smug grin on the poster’s face. Proud at thinking they have proved someone wrong. “Oh, aren’t I amazing? I managed to prove a published author wrong.” Likewise, I often see on Facebook groups the breakneck speed at which some people love to point out typing errors. It is rare to find anyone who posts something positive such as – what a great, informative post! Instead, it is more – don’t you mean X or Y? I spent months researching about Princess Mary’s life and dedicated hours reading her correspondence. But no, Kathleen who happens to know someone who used to know the milkman of someone, happens to know for a fact that I am wrong – even if she is unable to cite any sources or historical evidence.
Social media sadly seems to bring out the worst in people. Some people believe that because they are shielded behind a keyboard that gives them the right to post anything they choose. The more unpleasant the better. Why don’t they use the energy they put into tearing people down in a much more positive manner? One thing that these people negate to realise is that their negative remarks say more about their personalities and lack of empathy than they say about the person they are writing about. If that means we need to start to hold them to account, so be it. Would people be as eager to make their brutal remarks if they knew that it would be sent to their employer?
In conclusion, there truly is never a more apt saying than “Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates. Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?” Whilst there is no doubt that we are all entitled to an opinion, we are not entitled to hurt people and we are very much entitled to say if we find someone’s words out of order or even deeply offensive. I am going to start using this rationale from now on. And yes, Mrs Pedantic Paper Perfectionist and Mr I M A Smug Clever-Clogs, I do mean you.
Princess Mary The First Modern Princess by Elisabeth Basford and published by The History Press is OUT NOW
You can buy it here.