Talking crap is not a crime

When I was a child, I remember a television series called Poldark. I say “remembered” but I don’t recall all that much about it – some period costumes, sombre lighting, a few ships on Cornish waves, and the occasional bit of dialogue is about it.

One bit that stuck in my mind for the past thirty-five years is a court scene. In it, a gentlemanly type (I assume Poldark?) is being accused of having shouted, “Pickings for all!” on the tragic occasion of a ship being wrecked on a nearby shore. The witness is a heavily-accented local man: I think I can remember sideburns and a waistcoat, though I could have added them later.

Quite clearly, the courtroom is baying for Poldark’s blood.

“Did you make the cry of ‘Pickings for all!’?” asks the judge (I can’t remember what he looked like).

“No sir, I did,” says the man. The court case crumbles; Poldark is released without charge and the credits roll. Perhaps the villager gets it later, but I don’t think so.

Humans are no strangers to talking crap. To shouting out when quiet would have been better; to making false accusations, dubious suggestions and unnecessary outbursts. No doubt, we have been doing all these things since the beginning of time. “Get him!” “String her up!” “I’m going to have you!” “Let’s go kick their heads in!” and so on – whether or not there was any intent to actually get, have, kick or string. We’re like that – particularly blokes I think, but maybe that’s due to my lack of experience.

Enter the internet, and however bad our spelling might be, stuff we might have said out loud is now being recorded, broadcast, archived for playback at annoy point in the future. On Facebook I see usually-gentle people saying that they’d give so-and-so a good slap. Or that they believe hanging is too good for someone. Or whatever. Do they mean such things? Perhaps – at the time. Do they seriously expect them to be acted upon? Of course not – and indeed, the fact that sometimes people feel their views are not being heard may itself lead to more vocal, and indeed more dramatic expressions of such views.

People talk crap online just as offline – and other people are watching and listening. So we end up with the case of AA, who ‘threatened‘ to blow Robin Hood airport “sky high”. Did he mean it? No, of course he bloody didn’t. Was anybody else going to say, “Oh, good idea”? Of course not. Did his sentence send out a deterrent? It’s difficult to see about what, unless it’s to deter people from speaking their minds.

The case of the two rather disappointing “rioters” in Northwich is more complex. Let’s “Smash d[o]wn Northwich Town,” they proposed – but nobody went, other than the police. Were they jumping on the bandwagon? Most likely. Did they succeed in increasing the violence or anything else in any way? It doesn’t seem so, not in their areas.

There’s a straightforward scenario, which starts with someone saying, “Let’s do a bad and illegal thing.” Bad and illegal thing is done, people get arrested and punished accordingly. Indeed, the fact that Jordan and Perry turned up will not have helped the case for the defence. But just how much of the sentence was against the act, and how much was it to do with the hopelessly bungled online post?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for criminals being shown the error of their ways, whether they are rich or poor, in positions of authority or on the streets. We all have choices, whatever our circumstances, and we should face up to the consequences. And incitement to crime – where crime clearly taking place, or where its continuation (in the case of hate crime for example) is encouraged as a result, that’s just plain wrong.

On this day of all days however, let’s recognise that not all remarks, whatever the words are, should be interpreted as such an incitement. Yes let’s have a robust legal system, and give our courts the tools they need to separate right from wrong. Let’s recognise our online responsibilities, understand that cyber-bullying and insults to the non-PLU have no place in a civilised society. But let’s not create a world where people can no longer make an online remark for fear of who might come knocking on their door, however stupid it might be.

One thought on “Talking crap is not a crime

  1. Three things occur to me in reading this, all of them interwoven. First, is what to do with observed data (in the case of the State, particularly whether ‘intent’ to do something goes up the ranking of what’s bad), second, the spread of ideas and behaviour and third is how to frame what goes on online. I don’t think we know how to make sense of what we do online. Online conversations, blogging and stuff like that reverse the ridicule business has for a ‘talking shop’. People have things to say – and are finding ways to say them when inhibition reigns everywhere else.