There was a very upsetting video doing the rounds on the internet a couple of weeks ago. A mother stork, in her nest, with her three young. Calmly, she picks up the smallest and weakest of her chicks and throws it out of the nest to its death, immune and, seemingly, uncaring to its desperate little chirps for mercy.
To the mother stork it made sense. Three chicks were unlikely to survive, when she could only provide for two. Why wait for the chick to starve, and imperil the rest of the brood? It made for exceedingly heart-wrenching viewing, especially if you’re a softie like me, but there was a certain cold, ruthless logic to it. The survival of the fittest, Darwin called it.
My parents are chicken farmers. One of the most common ways for a young chicken to die is that it will be pecked to death by the rest of the flock. The drinking wells for the chickens are painted red, because a small chick will always peck at red – the colour of blood. If one of his fellow chicks is wounded, the rest of the flock will peck and peck at the wound relentlessly, and without mercy, until the weakling is dead. And then, survival of the fittest or not, a few months later every one of them is carted off to become chicken burgers for the booming school dinner market. Being the fittest doesn’t matter as much as the chicks think, but instinct drives them anyway.
As humans we like to think we’re different, and in truth, at our best, we can be. But we’re not immune to the temptation to peck away at the weakest amongst us, especially when we think they deserve it.
Caroline Flack undoubtedly sought celebrity. Like many people, she probably saw fame as a way of unlocking an entirely different life, and accruing wealth, and comfort, and happiness, and success. She should not be scorned for this – it’s bred into us every single day that fame and wealth are good and desirable things. The whole point of people like Caroline Flack is that you are supposed to look at them and think “I want to be like her”.
Paradoxically, the people most drawn to that kind of life are the people least suited to it. If you are lacking in confidence, or you are insecure about your appearance, or feel that you’re not popular enough, then what greater fantasy is there than to be held up in front of the world as a beloved national or international sex symbol?
Flack was the host of Love Island, a remarkably entertaining television programme where insecure people agree to be recorded 24/7 while they try to find love with other insecure people. The ultimate objective, we all know, is not to find love, but to be entertaining enough – to become a personality – to such an extent that we won’t flick the channel when we see them on some other show. That’s how celebrity is won, these days, by entertaining the masses.
But of course, the masses are not only entertained by success. It’s often remarked upon that the ancient Romans used to cheer Christians being torn apart by Lions in the Arena. Of course, it’s less remarked upon that they would also cheer on those rare occasions when the Christians, or whoever else was being persecuted that day, managed to tear apart the Lion instead. For the mob, it wasn’t really about hating the persecuted, it was just about being entertained. Who won was a secondary consideration.
We haven’t changed that much since those times.
When you’re a beloved celebrity figure, the mob turning on you must come as a shock. Like every normal person, you fall in love, you have a relationship, and then you get your heart broken – except that unlike a normal person, your private heartbreak is entertainment for the rest of us. We lap it up, drink it in, and then forget about it while we wait for the next interesting story.
But there, at the centre of the storm, is the same person who sought celebrity because they wanted to be loved and respected. Except now, they’re a figure of fun and ridicule. If you have a very thick skin, you might survive. But if you have a very thick skin, celebrity was less likely to appeal to you in the first place.
Nearly all of the most cruel things humanity does, we do in groups. The moral responsibility for the action is nicely dissolved if its spread around between three million people. “I only sent a tweet, she probably didn’t even see it” is a very comforting and easy lie to tell. Whether she saw it, nobody can know, but it’s very likely that she at least looked.
Speaking for myself for just a moment, in the aftermath of the abortion referendum in May 2018, almost every one of the four thousand tweets about me sent in the 24 hours after the result was read.
Some were read several times. It’s compulsive, even for somebody like me who very genuinely does have a thick skin. They come, invariably, from people you’ve never met, or are never likely to meet, and they’re not really about you – they’re about the caricature of you that the person saw on television, or heard on the radio, or read about on the internet. They call you names or slag off your appearance, and the worst ones, of course, imagine your misery and try to overtly enjoy it, whether you are miserable enough. It is, at best, a surreal experience. If you’re somebody who is insecure, it must be absolutely terrifying.
In recent months, Caroline Flack had a very public fall from grace. Another relationship went wrong, we don’t know exactly how. She thumped or kicked or otherwise assaulted her boyfriend. She was arrested, and fired from her job. There was an orgy of coverage of her disgrace that bordered on the gleeful.
As always, the most sickening people were the moralisers – those people who insisted that they weren’t really enjoying Flack’s disgrace, but thought it was so important that lessons be learned from her case. The kind of people who would quote-tweet stories about her with things like “domestic violence is ALWAYS wrong, period”, as if they thought the rest of us didn’t know that already.
Anyway, Caroline Flack is dead now, at 40 years of age, alone in her flat. We do not know the exact circumstances, but women of that age rarely fall dead of natural causes. Whatever the cause of her death, she is gone now, and we know that her last few months on earth were unlikely to have been happy ones. The mob pecked her, you could say, to death.
It is a good idea, when these stories break, to pause and think about the person you are reading about. “How are they going to feel when they read these words”, you should ask yourself. Feeling that everybody hates you, for example, is a terrifying experience, even if you know, logically, that it cannot be true. There is no doubt in my mind, nor should there be in yours, that it could drive someone to harm themselves.
Mob culture is firmly entrenched in our society. Every week, somebody’s failure, or somebody’s misery has become our entertainment. It’s getting worse, as well, because now failure or misery isn’t entertainment enough, and we have found whole new areas of life to be outraged about – political views, the way people dress, being friends with the wrong person, and so on.
It’s taking lives, and we don’t especially care, because it wasn’t us. We just sent a tweet. If being the child of chicken farmers taught me anything, it’s that none of those excuses matter when the people need more burgers.
It could, and will, be any one of us.