When Did We Get So Mean? Meghan Markle, The Media & The Demise of the Grey Area

The Netflix documentary of Prince Harry & Meghan Markle highlights a bigger, badder problem: when did we get so mean?

This is an opinion piece.

In 2012, British journalist Helen Lewis created ‘Lewis’ law’ – named after herself – based on the idea that “the comments on any article about feminism justify feminism,” pointing out quite correctly that any pro-feminist article would unleash a swarm of angry, anti-feminist statements, thereby proving why articles like that still needed to be written.

I would argue the need for a similar ‘Markle’s law’, in that any comments on any article about Meghan Markle justify her and her husband’s decision in non #quietquitting the Royal Family. Lord knows there have been enough think pieces written about the six Netflix episodes, but in watching the documentary and, in particular, the in-depth look at the long-term, hateful media coverage surrounding the pair, it seemed like a symptom of a bigger, badder problem.

When did we get so mean?

If you’ve watched or read anything about the vicious little algorithms that govern most of our online interactions, you’ll know that they are programmed to pick up and promote extreme views. But as awful and long-lasting as those online views can be, it’s another thing to see those views picked up and promoted in newspapers, or out in the real world.

I don’t know why I still expect only good things from newspapersI worked in newsrooms long enough – but I’m still surprised at how surprised I am when hate speech gets mainstream coverage, purely because I know how many people have to sign something off before it makes it to the printed page.

Citing Markle’s law once more, here is a piece that ran in British tabloid The Sun this weekend, written by ex-Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson.

Picture source: Twitter

When a piece is written by a columnist, the process goes something like this: it’s emailed to a sub-editor or editor, who reads it and approves it for copy. Then it goes to another sub-editor, then an editor, then another sub-editor for a final read, then an editor again for final sign-off (I’m used to a NZ-magazine skeleton staff; The Sun probably has more resources than that).

We would always say that no one person could ever be held responsible for one mistake, because by the time it made it to press, at least four sets of eyes had seen it – and look, it’s not a fool-proof process by any means, deadlines move forward, we’re all human, and we’re all tired; I could recite you an entire list of mistakes that have gone to print, each more obvious than the last. But there is, at least, a process.

It’s different online – you can write anything you want, on a variety of platforms, depending on what kind of mood you’re in and blammo, it’s online. Online rants are often a knee-jerk reaction, but in-print rants are a choice; a choice that is made several times over before it makes it into the hands of the public. And when that knee-jerk, worst-reaction side of the online world seeps its way into the real world, it makes me sad.

That Jeremy Clarkson column makes me think of that old rule: ‘if this is what you are comfortable saying in public, imagine what you are saying at home.’ It’s fine to disagree with Harry & Meghan, or even to dislike them. But to hate them to this level? That column ran in a national print newspaper because the editors knew either a) it would find enough like-minded people who agreed with it or b) it would cause a click-bait controversy and drive traffic to their website. Neither of those options say anything good about where our level of discourse is now at.

Hate has become more tolerated, even more expected. As a society, our opinions have become more extreme – it’s not enough to disagree with someone, we’ve moved into ‘you’re either with us or against us’ territory on so many topics, from the everyday to the important. It’s the death of the grey area. Pick a side, and stick to it.

I’m old enough to remember where this really took hold in the celebrity realm – 2005 saw the split of Jennifer Aniston and the start of ‘Brangelina’, where the media kicked off the ‘Team Aniston’ versus ‘Team Jolie’ narratives, to the point where celebrities and civilians alike then wore t-shirts announcing their allegiance. I guess ‘divorce is hard, good luck to everyone’ was harder to fit on a shirt, but the ‘pick a team’ mentality seems to have stuck around ever since, getting meaner all the while.

Following the Netflix Harry & Meghan documentary, it’s been ‘Team Sussex’ versus ‘Team Royals’, as if we are in one of those American high school movies where we get picked for a team. As if we don’t all lose in that situation.

A sentence I would like to hear more of is ‘I don’t really feel one way or another about that’, or ‘I don’t know enough to say.’ Bring back the grey area. Bring back the idea that we’re all human – rather than the hero or the villain of any particular story. It’s one of the reasons I reckon the ‘arrogant prick’ kerfuffle from our parliament last week ended up becoming an unlikely good news story.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was caught on a hot mic calling Act Leader David Seymour ‘an arrogant prick’ (who amongst us, the week before Christmas, isn’t rolling with this same chaotic energy). Within 24 hours she had apologised and they had teamed up to sign the official transcript of the slip-up, with proceeds going to raise money for prostate cancer research, aka ‘help pricks everywhere’ as David put it. No heroes, no villains. Just humans, living in the grey area, no hate required.

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