Some people get paid to be assholes.
Whether we pay them by the mouse-click, pay them by the purchase of a newspaper or pay them by the phone votes on a TV talent show, we pay them nonetheless. In return for this payment, they perform for us. Whether they're providing us with loathsome viewpoints, shouting at unknown singing hopefuls or just misrepresenting evidence in order to demonise a section of the population, paid assholes seem to be everywhere.
Very different to accidental assholes, (the kind of people who post a misguided tweet or bad-taste joke and see their entire lives destroyed by the online reaction, as detailed in Jon Ronson's awesome book So You've Been Publicly Shamed), the professional asshole depends on the online outrage machine for their very existence.
The defence of this cultural phenomenon usually runs along the lines of "They're only saying it to get a reaction", "They're saying what others are already thinking" or even "At least they've got people talking about the issue". It's the last of these that I imagine most pro-holes (hey, that's got a nice ring to it. I think I'll use it for the rest of the article) use when rocking themselves to sleep at night; the idea that by vocalising an idea at the absolute extreme of the spectrum (however foul) they have opened up genuine dialogue about all the other points along the scale.
I don't buy this.
I'm not going to mention any of them by name in this article, partly because I don't want any of them to inadvertently get paid for clicks, partly because I don't want to raise any profiles and thus inadvertently feed the beast but, most of all, because there's a tiny part of me that believes that mentioning them by name will make the bastards appear behind me like the goddamn Candyman and, frankly, I don't need the sleepless nights.
It's always a telling moment when a pro-hole oversteps the mark, given that overstepping the mark is the only reason for their existence and is the thing they get paid for. Sometimes there's a bruised statement in response to the outcry, alluding darkly to the forces that were driving them to say ever-more offensive things (these forces, in this country at least, tend to have pictures of the queen on them) and an implication that the public doesn't understand the whole story. Sometimes there's contrition, often swiftly retracted when the pro-hole realises that, if they leave their career of being loathsome behind them, they don't really have a hell of a lot to fall back on. Most often, there's misdirection and a non-apology, and the pro-hole simply brazens it out. They wait for the quote that went 'too far' to become lost in the sea of all the other horrible stuff they've said.
Oddly enough, I have a degree of sympathy for them. As I mentioned, they don't have a great deal of transferrable skills, and the retired pro-hole doesn't really have much to look forward to except hoping that, by the time a few years have passed, the public will have forgotten that they were ever 'genuinely' offensive rather than 'entertainingly' offensive. If that day comes, the ex pro-hole will be ready to get booed as an onstage baddie when pantomime season rolls around. That's pretty much the best case scenario, and probably scant consolation for all the mysterious viruses contracted from decades of people spitting in their coffee.
So, if they get their comeuppance in the end, can't we just accept it as a new cultural role?
Well, not really.
The idea of confirmation bias tells us that the world is too full of stuff for us to be able to take in all of it, so we tend to notice things that confirm our beliefs rather than things that challenge them. Thus, the longer we hold a belief for, the more we will build up a bank of evidence saying that it's true. If you believe that you're a crappy footballer, you'll remember every miskick and fumble whilst dismissing every goal as a fluke. If you believe you're a crappy footballer for long enough, your memory will have compiled such a huge bank of evidence to support that idea (logging every error whilst discarding all the times you showed promise) that you'll no longer believe that the subject is even up for debate.
In other words, from a subjective viewpoint, the world actually becomes the place we expect it to be. The pro-holes aren't planting the seeds for debate, they're planting the seeds for more people to become pro-holes. They're normalising hatred and pushed humanity one step closer to being the least empathic, most unpleasant, meanest possible version of itself. Give them half a chance, and they multiply like gremlins and, before we know it, hatred looks like a viable career path for an entire generation.
So, what's to be done? Well, if you come into contact with a pro-hole, there are some rules you've gotta follow.
Don't feed them with outrage.
Don't feed them with your newspaper spare change.
And lastly, and most importantly, no matter how much they cry, no matter how much they beg... No matter how much it looks like the right thing to do...
Never, never feed them with your mouse-click.
Right, I'm off to find out whether I'm actually any good at football after all.