The internet is a realm of idiocy unchecked. You needn't look any further than the comment threads beneath any YouTube clip to realise that ignorance is no guarantee of humility. Undeterred by illiteracy they forge ahead, virus-like; attaching, penetrating and replicating their way through the infinite fabric of cyberspace. And at the thinnest bat's squeak of a Twitter-feud the hordes descend. Like their namesakes from Norse mythology, these trolls can smell blood. And they're hungry.
But even trolls have their uses. The prevalence of anti-gay sentiments on the web is a valuable gauge of just how much more work still remains to be done when it comes to tackling homophobia. If you don't believe me, you can watch real time tweets that include the terms 'faggot', 'dyke', 'no homo' and 'so gay' at NoHomophobes.com, a website established by the University of Alberta's Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services. The site has recorded over six and a half million tweets featuring the word 'faggot' since July of last year. It would appear that through the medium of social networking bigotry can readily find a voice, albeit one that is somewhat gruff and laryngitic.
The recent Twitter spat between Azealia Banks and Perez Hilton is likewise revealing. Banks described Hilton as a "messy faggot", and suggested that he should commit suicide, after he intervened in her asinine dispute with Angel Haze. Inevitably, the trolls took the bait. The deluge of abuse and support for both sides was as predictable as it was ineloquent, but the support of Banks was characterised by overwhelming homophobia, including such choice phrases as "Just ignore that horse fat and ugly with AIDS", and "death by anal sex go so hard ya ass crack rips up your back". These particular commentators are clearly intellectual heavyweights, well versed in the Socratic method.
Of course, pointing out the imbecility of internet trolls is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel; a futile activity which, as a staunch vegetarian, I would never condone. What interests me about this whole affair is what happened when the journalist Patrick Strudwick called on Banks to apologise for her language. Banks refused, arguing that since she was in no way repentant an insincere apology would be worthless. From her perspective she was merely responding to the provocation of Hilton and, in any case, she claims that her comment had nothing to do with his sexual orientation. "A faggot is not a homosexual male," she tweeted. "A faggot is any male who acts like a female. There's a BIG difference".
This is the standard defence adopted by those who wish to use anti-gay language without accepting the inherent connotations. It's reminiscent of Chris Moyles's use of the word "gay" as a pejorative term on Radio 1, which was justified by the BBC governors on the grounds that the word is "often now used to mean 'lame' or 'rubbish'. This is a widespread current usage... among young people." This is certainly true. It is also the case that the bullying of gay pupils is endemic in our schools and that a large proportion of those responsible for homophobic attacks are of school-leaving age. Anyone care to connect the dots?
There is some merit to the argument that the intention behind a word is more significant than the word itself. When my friend Tom calls me a "dirty homo", as he often does, I can be fairly sure that this isn't his way of telling me that he's decided to embrace the principles of neo-fascism. Chris Rock is right when he says that "it's not the word, it's the context in which the word is said". The context of Twitter is that it's a public forum. Private intentions cannot be conveyed telepathically. In the Twittersphere, language is all we have.
Banks may well seek to redefine the word 'faggot' so that it is divorced from homophobic implication, but her fans have made it absolutely clear that they do not share her definition. Since Strudwick's call for an apology from Banks, he has been inundated with abusive tweets of such severity that he has considered contacting the police. They range from the grammatically incoherent ("People who hates the word faggot is a faggot") to the tautological ("Faggoty faggot, stop this godflabbit faggotry") to the downright black-hearted ("leave Godzealia alone and kill yourself you aids infested filthy faggot"). If you really believe that the expressions "faggot" and "so gay" are no longer associated with homosexuality in the popular mindset, just try a quick search on Twitter. The trolls will set you straight.
I doubt very much that Banks is a homophobe. She has worked with many gay artists and is bisexual herself. But the fact that sales of her music have risen sharply since her tweet to Hilton probably suggests that she won't be admonishing the homophobic members of her fan base any time soon. In any case, it's quite difficult to take her defence seriously in the light of her suggestion that Strudwick should also, like Hilton, commit suicide. This appears to be her favoured ultima ratio. She'd better not volunteer for the Samaritans.
We all know that freedom of speech is fundamental to any democratic society. If you want to say the word "faggot" you are free to do so, but you should also accept the consequences. Don't feign surprise if people assume that you're a bigot. It's very difficult to occupy the moral high ground when you're nestling under the bridge with the trolls.