My Tram Experience, Twitter and the Illiberal Pantomime

James Dawson

On the last days of November, as we moved steadily towards Christmas, the pantomime I was watching this past week wasn’t Peter Pan, Jack and the Beanstalk or any of the usual fare; nor was its star plucked from soap-land or children’s television. Instead I saw the story of the YouTube video ‘My Tram Experience’ and the response the woman featured in it received in the Twittersphere.

In the video, a woman- now named as Emma West- rants about a Britain she perceives as over-run: “with loads of black people and a load of fucking Polish,” whilst surrounded by the ethnically diverse passengers of the tram. There is no question in my mind that the opinions expressed her by were wrong, in fact I’m yet to encounter anybody who disagreed with me on that matter. But I do find worrying the way in which the woman so quickly became a Captain Hook of the internet: a larger than life pantomime villain, standing for everything intolerant about British society, for the Twitter audience to boo and jeer.

As soon as the video went viral, through Twitter and other social media, a witch hunt began. Based on two uncontextualised minutes, thousands saw fit to brand her an unfit mother, a drunk and most worryingly a criminal- simply because she expressed bigoted views. As the movement against the woman gained popular support, journalists and celebrities saw fit to join in, Piers Morgan chimed in that he wanted her to be “arrested and deported,” even Ed Miliband drew his pitchfork in search of popular support. When the woman was finally identified; named, shamed and arrested, the entirety of Twitter saw fit to give themselves a pat on the back- they where the heroes who had defeated the villain- they revelled in the glories of a job well done.

Yet on reflexion the moral seems quite perverse; the mob has found a woman guilty of simply expressing views contrary to their own, and the police have seen fit to charge her as a criminal. Rather than being symbol of the undercurrents of racism in British society, to me this incident demonstrates the increasing illiberality of British society. Together the Twittering masses and the printed media drew their swords again freedom of expression, with even the traditionally liberal-minded Guardian’s and Independent’s joining in.

Indeed, the degree to which commentators were willing to make assumptions about the woman’s character demonstrates the prejudices of those involved in the witch-hunt. Twitter was filled with conceitedly moralistic calls for Orwellian state interfere in the woman’s private life, two minutes of film was evidence enough that Emma West was not fit to raise her child. As so often is the case, illiberal actions were justified by emotional hysteria and moral panic, as apposed reason.

Yes, the views expressed by Emma West were abhorrent, but as we can see in the video, she was challenged by her fellow passengers at the time and this in itself is a demonstration that what she said is no longer considered acceptable in public-circles. We should not make this woman a criminal, freedom of speech is core value of democracy and whilst I utterly disagree with her sentiments, it is disgusting that British citizens can be placed on trial for thoughtcrimes.

The jeering and general outrage of the Twitter-mob was savage enough; the issues of racism and bigotry should not solved by the courts penalising public-scapegoats for expressing their ‘villainous’ views.

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