If you insult someone on Twitter, don’t they have the right to defend themselves?

May 13, 2012

You know I’m a big fan of  Twitter and I think in the three years I’ve been on it the most important lesson I’ve learned is that it’s best to try and avoid public spats if you possibly can. If someone insults you, or is aggressive to you, just block them, move on and don’t give them a second thought.

And one of the best things about Twitter is the instant engagement it gives you with high profile tweeps – for example, this morning I tweeted a response to a tweet Nigella Lawson and she instantly DM’d me.  Twitter is a great leveller, although it can give people a false sense of security.

Yesterday a tweep called Alice Vincent tweeted Giles Coren with what can only be described as an inflammatory tweet. ‘Columnists basing their opinions around their children. So yawn. Your column today is one step up from a mumsnet blogpost, @gilescoren.’

Now, leaving aside the fact that this tweet was insulting to mumsnet bloggers (!), what’s beyond me is why Alice chose to @ Giles Coren. She could have expressed her opinion about his column without @ing him. The fact she chose to do so ensured her tweet would be seen by him. You could argue, in fact, that she was hoping he would see her tweet, and respond.

There is nothing wrong with constructive criticism of course, but telling someone something they’ve written is ‘so yawn’ isn’t constructive. It’s rude. And telling him she deemed his column  ‘one step up from a mumsnet blogpost’, was clearly meant to be a huge insult (and how insulting to those of us who are mumsnet bloggers).

What happened next was entirely predictable, because the column was to do with Giles Coren’s experience as a parent. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he took great umbrage at what Alice had tweeted to him. Anyone who follows Giles Coren knows he does not mince words – he can be very offensive. But if you don’t like the way he tweets, I would argue, then the solution is to unfollow.

Giles tweeted Alice that she was a ‘barren old hag.’

This is of course offensive on several levels – mentioning a woman’s fertility, as though if she’s unable to reproduce she’s not worthy of an opinion; saying she’s old – well, that’s just ageist (as it turned out, she’s 23, so he revised the insult to ‘young’.) And that she’s a ‘hag’ – well that’s just rude.

But is it really misogynistic, or just very inane insults being bandied about?

I would argue that if you @ someone with a reputation for being  outspoken in a deliberately provocative tweet you are in fact fully aware of what you’re letting yourself in for. If you look at Giles Coren’s timeline, it’s littered with insults.

Now the spat has descended into accusations of bullying and trolling, and it’s all really very ugly. And all because when Alice made her comments about Giles’s column, she chose to @ him.

But you pays your money and you takes your choice, surely?

I’d be interested to hear your views. As long as you don’t call me a barren old hag 🙂


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    […] to Alice Vincent, who insulted Giles Coren on Twitter with the comment: “Columnists basing their opinions around their children. So yawn. Your […]

  • Expat Mum May 14, 2012 at 5:46 pm

    Given the level of weirdness on Twitter at any given time, I think if you write anything that’s remotely critical (especially when you direct it back at that person) you deserve whatever’s coming back. It’s not known for its measured debate and reason, so why she would have expected anything else from him is beyond me. That’s not to say I agree with what he said, but she started that one.

  • claire May 14, 2012 at 9:16 am

    When we use the internet we assume everyone else can read us between the lines. What feels jaw achingly humorous to us while writing a little anecdote, can be very much received as a scathing attack. Its a relatively new technology, we’ll figure it out eventually. I’m not going to sit here and pretend to be outraged that a gentleman (they don’t exist) called a lady (I’m sure she isn’t) a bad name. This is a world where incest, rape, murder and torture happen on an hourly basis.
    I actually love a good Twitter row. I’ll read both sides, add my opinion if I’m qualified to have one, and leave it there. I take issue to the Mumsnet Blog Post remark more than I do the ‘barren old hag’ remark. I am a Mumsnet Blogger, I think, Well, I joined it anyway. The blogs on there are very entertaining, informative, intelligent and readable. I also find this disdain of all things ‘children’ rather irritating. It is every womans personal choice whether to have children or not. Judging those of us that do as somehow lacking in ambition or as relevant to society as those who don’t is only going to antagonize and inflame.

  • Mrs Lister May 14, 2012 at 8:30 am

    If you’re going to jump into the lions den you have to be prepared to get bitten. Giles Coren is known for being inflammatory on Twitter and gives back twice as good/bad/nasty/negative as he gets. He’s allowed to – it’s a public forum and he only represents himself.

  • Crystal Jigsaw May 13, 2012 at 8:45 pm

    I’ve seen many spats on Twitter and many of them make me cringe. It’s so easy to insult someone when you’re typing into the ether and are unable to see the expression on the recipient’s face. I’m not sure I’d go so far as calling it bullying because the majority of spats, including this one imho, have been provoked. Language and insults are quite unnecessary, especially on a public forum, but if you are confident enough to @ someone publicly by alerting them to your opinion (among millions of other users), then I feel you should be prepared to take the consequences.

    CJ x

  • Liz Weston May 13, 2012 at 6:52 pm

    In my book, when I write about someone on twitter or Facebook, I write things that I would be comfortable to say when with someone face to face. Not everyone does. I wouldn’t be comfortable making those kinds of statements about someone that I didn’t know – either of them.

    I’m using twitter to build relationships – not to pass judgement on people who I don’t know and whose context I know nothing of.

    Different people use it for different things; to make themselves look big, to name drop, to question others. It’s not big and it’s not clever.

    What goes around comes around, in my book.
    Perhaps people should think about that a bit more often before they pass judgement on others?

  • TChee May 13, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    Yes, Alice could have posted her opinion on twitter, without mentioning Giles Coren’s username. She did this for one reason only… Attention. She got exactly what she wanted and I expect the resulting spat made her day.

    She was incredibly rude, Giles was incredibly rude. Neither side in the right, neither of their comments excusable.

    I hope both review the episode with some embarrassment – although this is probably unlikely.

  • Hannah May 13, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    Bang on. Totally agree with you. I saw this going on this morning after she put a photo on twitter of her phone with his comments, acting terribly shocked by it all. For Gods Sake. If you @ someone you are in effect, “talking” to them. You are inviting a response. If this happened face to face, would she have expected him to sit there and smile at her? I stopped following the spat at that point. Which maybe she should have done. She was inflamatory and I believe seeking a reaction – which she got. And continues to get because now everyone knows about it.
    You are so right – if you dont like what someone says, DON’T follow them. Twitter ISN’T real life. This isn’t high school. Although people often act like it is.
    Excellent blog post

  • sarah at secret housewife May 13, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    Interesting post. I find it uncomfortable to say the least to see people being so insulting and rude.I think your advice is very sound – unfollow and move on.It seems that Alice wanted to provoke a response. I don’t know. I use Twitter less and less personally and have witnessed some horrible exchanges.
    One in particular was a relatively well known blogger who released a stream of vitriol towards another blogger I happened to follow – saying she was boring, middle class etc. The thing was he didn’t have the guts to tweet anything to her face. She was oblivious to this tirade of insults and when I tweeted that I felt he was being unfair to tweet such things without even giving her the right of reply he insulted me too. I unfollowed and removed myself from the conversation.
    I think a lot of these spats are about the “look at me look at me!!!” culture, with people desperate for attention.
    Personally I wouldn’t be rude in real life so I wouldn’t be rude online either.
    A good discussion to raise! x

  • Mrs Worthington May 13, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    I agree with English mum. Someone of his intellect should be able to produce better insults rather than basic sexist name calling. Alice knew what she was doing but really isn’t he going a bit far now. Take it out of the playground/public domain guys the fight should be over by now. And Giles – don’t you know its poor show to hit girls

  • Mamacook May 13, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    I think we forget as parents that the whole world does not find our children as infinitely fascinating as we do. This is particularly true of people who haven’t got kids either by choice, by circumstance or by infertility.

    I find it a good idea whenever I feel attacked in the virtual or real world to wonder “what motivated this person?” I can’t pretend I always manage it. I’m not perfect by any means. There might have been something going wrong in this lady’s life which motivated the tweet which was pretty rude. That might have even been infertility. Imagine if that was the case and then she receives this response?

    As you say, block and move on is the best way. The woman who tweeted was at fault but the response was out of proportion IMO. But these people are adults. The fall out has been ridiculous because no-one has backed down. It takes two people to keep an argument going.

  • English Mum May 13, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    I see you haven’t reproduced his response in full – it really was very offensive. I don’t know the woman, and I don’t really care what she wrote. I wouldn’t criticise someone on Twitter, but I guess each to their own…

    BUT as far as I’m concerned, there is no place for language like that in a public forum, and no man should ever speak to a woman like that. There are insults, as in ‘I don’t like what you wrote’ and there are insults that are vile and personal. If my sons (or any other man, for that matter) ever spoke to a woman like that I would be horrified and distraught. I don’t think there’s a reason to excuse such hideous language, no matter whether he’s ‘well known for it’ or not. The man is a writer, FFS. Surely he can form a response that has a little more class? It just makes him even more of a horrible person in my book. End of.

    • Liz Jarvis May 13, 2012 at 5:26 pm

      Just to clarify – as @EnglishMum has pointed out I left out the missing part of Giles’s retort was ‘F*** off’ (only not asterisked). I don’t like swearing on my blog so left that bit off, although I think it’s really the ‘barren old hag’ that was the part that was most offensive.

      I agree that writers should be able to respond to criticism using intelligent vocabulary.

  • Kellie Whitehead May 13, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    It’s an interesting one Liz.
    Firstly – there is a difference between opinion/comment and ‘debate’ however ‘negative’ and inane insults – and this crosses both really.
    I worked for a ‘large fast food chain’ as a student – customer service wise, we are told that once a customer became ‘abusive’ or used foul language they lost all right to complain.

    Coren’s response was immature and rude – he assumed her age and fertility – he was wrong ‘potentially’ on both counts, so looked silly as well as ridiculously rude.

    as for Alice – her comment @ Coren was ‘bitchy’ and unnecessary – i could say, I find a 23 yr old’s opinion on many topics as unfathomable when it comes to ‘life’ – it was trite and not early worth the ‘bite’ from Coren tbh.

    Do I think anyone who writes or comments publicly/nationally is ‘ripe’ for debate and feedback – good and bad – absolutely – it’s all healthy, twitter is great platform for it – does it need to result in insults – absolutely not, it’s pathetic, but we ALL have the right to reply.