Who are we going to hate now? This was the question asked by columnist Catherine Deveny in The Age after the 2007 election, when Kevin Rudd replaced John Howard as Australia's prime minister. Deveny effusively endorsed Rudd (how could she have known that this shiny-new leader would himself become the focus of a nasty coup just a few years later?) but Howard's electoral loss had left a void that needed to be filled.
'If only Tony Abbott became Liberal leader. I can't really hate Malcolm Turnbull yet, I just like laughing at him in the same way I would laugh at a dog with a bucket on its head,' she lamented.
And one could almost detect the wistfulness in her voice as she reflected on the exit from public life of such a potent hate-object as Howard: 'I have to admit thinking last week that if [he] lost ... I would drive up to Bennelong with a bunch of garlic and a stake to finish him off. But now he's been decimated I don't feel like that. I actually feel a bit sorry for him.'
Five years later, there is no shortage of people to hate, and no dearth of haters either: their numbers have been swelled by robust and easily accessible social media platforms, one of the most significant technological developments in the fomenting of public opinion and social revolution.
And so Alan Jones, who made offensive comments about Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her father, is receiving his just desserts: columnists and commentators on internet forums are vilifying him with much the same brutality as he has seen fit to dish out to people during his many years as Sydney's most influential shock jock; petitioners have effected astounding change, effectively forcing retailers to remove their adverts from Jones' show or face consumer boycotts of their products.
There is a convivial atmosphere of unity and people power in cyberspace, on the airwaves and TV screens. But there's something strange going on here, for the voices shouting down Jones are almost certainly not those of his listeners; the people most offended by his actions, it seems, are those who have never tuned in to his show. They are trying to influence a platform with which they are not engaged, and which has no impact on their lives.
And it's more than just moral rectitude that appears to be motivating this protesting vanguard: if that were the case they would have been on to Jones - and countless other opinionated public figures - long ago.
While there is no doubt that Jones provokes fury and deliberately stirs trouble, this debacle is steeped unashamedly in politics, with the outcry reinforced by various Labor politicians and dripping with as much contempt for Abbott and his party as Jones' diatribes do for the left.
The brouhaha has also pitted journalists from the right and left against one another, with no opportunity for snide repostes against rival publications left unexploited. For the impartial observer, it's like watching children engaged in an immature playground fight.
The fact that detractors have honed in so zealously on this particular tasteless comment, and forced retailers to stop advertising on a right-wing commentator's show, is disquieting.
Firstly, it seems antithetical to the democratic process that a group of people is able to so willfully cut off the oxygen from someone whose political views don't coincide with their own. It is one thing to boycott offensive programs, but quite another to strong-arm third parties into boycotting them as well. People power transforms into vigilantism when responsibility for one person's bad behaviour is transferred to all of his associates.
Secondly, it delivers a punishment that is disproportionate to the offence, and for which a precedent has now been set: when next Deveny or the equally provocative Andrew Bolt or Marieke Hardy publish vulgar comments about politicians, we will expect the masses to revolt in a similar way.
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