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Who is this Katie Hopkins, and why is she allowed to exist?

March 30, 2014

“Who is the odious person? How dare they be allowed to express their opinions in public? Who the fuck are they, and why should I have to listen to their misinthyformed claptrap?” This sentence sums up the personal opinion of many on certain public figures. Which public figures will depend on whose opinion it is, but this articulate stream of disgust is just a tidy rearrangement and repackaging of what is essentially a gut reaction. “This person does not think the same way as me, thus this person is wrong, unintelligent or unpleasant. I should be allowed to express my opinions with as much freedom as this person is given, because I am right, intelligent and fair.” This feeling is generally exacerbated by the manner in which someone has become framed in the public eye, but not entirely – a politician is a person who becomes known for the work they do in politics, but if you hate their politics, you will hate them considerably more than an opinionated celebrity whose opinions you find to be either neutral or irrelevant. Celebrities are a bit of a scapegoat, in the sense that they have the opportunity most of us lack to be heard by a huge number, and often take a slightly odd route to get there. I could talk about Russell Brand, but instead, I’m going to talk about Katie Hopkins. Katie Hopkins, for those of you who don’t remember or never knew in the first place, is a person who got famous from the reality TV show The Apprentice. People who get famous from reality TV are all over the place, but usually they go onto light entertainment, not so much political comment. Hopkins differs in this respect because people are suffering under the delusion that The Apprentice is a sort of high-art reality TV show, when it is not even half a rung above I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. The only difference is that their particular humiliations are more to do with saying horrible things than eating them. They also used to get a job out of it, though as we recently discovered, that promise was a con – the “job” was winning the contest, and there wasn’t really any proper job at all, to the extent that one winner felt the need to sue the boss over it. Hopkins didn’t win the glorified game show, but she gained notoriety for being unpleasant behind the backs of her co-contestants. She has since showed herself to be, to the eyes of many, also unintelligent and wrong on many accounts. In my case, though I think she is wrong, by far the more bothersome aspect of this is that she is not unintelligent and thus has considerably less excuse to speak as she does. Speak is the operative word here. It isn’t really the way that Hopkins thinks that bothers people, even though this is where the problem lies. Now, I’ll be the first to say that I wish that people would not insult people without concern for their feelings; but it is not that I simply want them to stop saying these things. I wish for them to stop thinking them. It is no good to anyone at all when people who have faulty points of view stop expressing them, because it means that they will keep their faulty points of view and never be challenged on it. We see evidence of this on older generations who did not have social networking with which to splurge their thoughts to all and sundry. Perhaps we have gone too far in the opposite direction and there is unpleasantness at every turn (try switching off your computer), but fostering a culture of silence makes us all so terribly polite and keeps us all unenlightened. I talk in more detail about our crippling fear that someone expressing the opposite viewpoint to use will worsen society rather than improve it and its implications on our democracy. Yet it is definitely the way Hopkins speaks that bothers people – and the fact that she speaks at all, considering how she came into the public eye. This is the mistake we make as a society: to blame the individual whose opinion is given greater credence for the fact that it is. The only person who is responsible for Hopkins’ opinions is herself, but she is not responsible for her fame. This much is the fault of everyone who listens, regardless of how they feel afterwards. We live in a society obsessed with sharing what we find distasteful, which stretches from sending each other Youtube clips of people in painful situations or things we know the recipient will think is disgusting. This extends to Twitter and other social media sites, where we freely share what we hate. I find it depressing, not just to know how many hateful points of view there are out there, but the extent to which we are fascinated by it. Whole sites are dedicated to “shaming” people with nasty opinions, but it doesn’t work that way. Even if I wasn’t heavily against witch-hunts of any description, there is nothing I could get out of seeking out these people and having a go at them. Some people are certainly naturally argumentative, but this could be said just as much of the people expressing the nasty opinions as the people seeking them out (who may, of course, have several nasty opinions of their own that will inevitably come out in the course of the argument and worsen the whole situation). Generally, those who hold strong negative opinions and those who seek argument have a much greater resistance to logic, criticism and insults. To engage directly with them would be to waste your time and only set further in stone their own viewpoint regardless of the fact that none of the dialogue would have provided any greater strength to either point. Such is human stubbornness. The person who really loses in all this is the poor sap whose opinion of humanity has been lowered because they naïvely accessed a site dedicated to pooling the worst examples of it. I believe in freedom of speech. My knees jerk just like everyone else’s sometimes, but I don’t genuinely believe that someone whose opinions happen to differ greatly from my own should be silenced, regardless of how or why they came to be known. What is more important that thinking about who we are listening to is to think about why we are listening. In the case of politicians, we listen because it’s their job to know things, so we assume they must. We may not be right about that. As for Katie Hopkins, if no one had ever seen her on camera, her Twitter account would just be that of a standard troll; an endless stream of personal and unabashedly rude comments on the physical appearance of people in the public eye whom she does not know. There would be no reason to care if Hopkins was just another nobody on Twitter, but we are all forced to care even if we’d rather not, because so many people think that celebrity culture is of the utmost importance. If I could choose, I would eradicate whatever urge it is that lives within humans beings to make Gods and demons out of human beings. It would be the end of stalking, the end of paparazzi – the end celebrity magazines and red tops as we know them. If we could collectively decide to leave famous people alone except for pre-agreed contexts, we’d live in a better society. But that’s not the nature of the game. There is too much vested interest from too many different parties in fostering the fascination with unknown strangers with famous faces. Every publication from The Sun to The Guardian will give page space to such people because there is now no escaping the fact that they have been integral in shaping public interest and discussion. Only a determinedly – perhaps even bullheadedly – highbrow newspaper like the Financial Times will avoid talking about celebrities. If we are being realistic, we can’t ask people to not be interested in the careers of creative people such as actors and musicians. There is no sin in being interested in the creative endeavours of people and no fault in expecting that, if we enjoy the first and second example of their work, we are likely to enjoy the third and fourth. Thus, their career (and by association, their life) is worth paying attention to. That is gratifying enough for the artist. It is also normal, as humans with a fascination for other humans, to decide that artists are as convenient a group of people as any to scrutinise and memorise. We rationalise that they know what they are getting into when they enter that line of work. A dodgy argument, but not as dodgy as the argument that people on reality TV know what they’re getting into, reality TV being a platform designed to show often vulnerable people in the worst light and the worst situations. Do they? More likely, they underestimated the extent to which the public can take seriously things that don’t matter, or feel a moral outrage over the publicity of a set of ideas that they do not agree with. People will even attack and threaten soap opera actors. It may be because they cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality, or it may be that they simply don’t care. At least people who are rich and high profile have at their disposal the means to protect themselves against intrusion and harassment (only to get criticised for it – see super-injunctions). If it isn’t only the work of a person that fascinates us but also their personality, the public can’t reasonably be expected to ignore the personality of the famous. If anything, there is a greater call than ever not to like people who are involved in scandal because they should “set an example.” I am not personally of the opinion that Tiger Woods ought to be contractually bound to be a good boy at all times because the eyes of a nation and beyond are on the back of his neck. I suppose I consider the moral values of our society too arbitrary to expect celebrities to live by them, when those of us out of the public eye don’t bother and would be irate to think our private indiscretions could be called a matter of public concern. It’s part of our celebrity culture that anyone famous, regardless of what for or if they’re even actually liked, is considered someone who should be taken seriously. Everything from their views to the weekend hobbies to their choice in underwear will be scrutinised and someone will manage to weave a greater narrative out of it. Those who claim to have “no opinion” can easily be coaxed into having one, because it becomes a culture in itself; the discussion about whether or not we should be paying so much attention to this person becomes more of a discussion than the discussion about the person.

I tip my hat to anyone who can genuinely say “I don’t care about celebrities and their opinions,” and leave it at that, because I’ve tried and found that I can’t. Most people follow that sentence with a lengthily rant, twice the size of any one coming from someone who readily admits to feeling strongly about the matter. Mainly because they have decided that they should not or must not care in principle. Principles are very potent, and liable to make you go off on one against your better judgement. I think it is OK to have an opinion on the thoughts of a celebrity, as representative of the way that other people think. In an ideal world, everyone’s thoughts would have equal weight. After all, there is no reason why we should care what the astrophysicist thinks about train ticket prices, but we do because we think such a person has earned their right to speak because of their prestige. I’m wary of this line of thought. I think it tips over slightly into snobbery; the idea that a good education in a specific subject qualifies you more to have an opinion is dangerous, because it assumes people with a general education and interest in current affairs are worth less to our society, even though our voting system relies on them entirely. If you were feeling charitable, you could consider people like Russell Brand and Katie Hopkins to be ambassadors for common thought; they are not politicians, economists, analysts or journalists. Aside from their celebrity status, their understanding of the world more closely matches our own. My only issue with this is how classed it is. Russell Brand is a notable exception, but we usually give the best of our time and attention to people born into privilege. Hopkins is certainly one. Celebrity usually works this way, which is why I welcome programs like Benefits Street, even if I don’t especially like them – whatever some might say about the scornful way in which the people on these shows are represented, they do give a universally accessible voice and a renewed political and social interest to groups of people who may feel separate from and disenfranchised by current affairs. They get to do it on a platform which is not The Jeremy Kyle Show, a show designed never to show anyone (including its studio audience and host) at their best. To some extent, “famous for being famous” celebrities are better than talent celebrities for representing current thought, who can be a bit distanced from popular opinion, caught up in their own oddly specific cultural concerns. Hopkins is about the equivalent to that person you meet at a party who has a bit too much to drink and decides to give you a blow-by-blow account of their entire philosophy they’ve been developing since they were 16 years old. You can tell they think about it a lot in the quiet time before bed and on the way to work, and will happily tell anyone who will listen what they think about things, because (especially with drink) what they think seems to them unique and profound. You nod politely, everything they’re saying leaving you cold, because it’s begins from a standpoint about three Downe House graduations away from your own situation. You don’t have to worry about it though, because you drink steadily through the night, then go home and breathe a sigh of relief that you will very rarely, if ever, see that person again. Or, perhaps you agree. Perhaps you think to yourself: “Here is an articulate person who says what I want to say. I wish more people would listen to her, i.e., me.” And thus, those with strong opinions, if given the opportunity, are catapulted into the public eye. The more controversial the opinion, the stronger the catapult, since we will always be fascinated by people who “just don’t care” (currently an idiomatic expression meaning someone who cares a great deal, enough to bring up a whole range of unrelated subjects no one asked them to speak on). In the case of celebrities, the annoying part is not that Hopkins exists, but rather that such people are heard on a wide scale. A normal (thus crazy) person, plus a camera and a Twitter account, makes a celebrity for all the wrong reasons. However, her behaviour is not worse than anyone else’s particularly, she is simply held accountable for it, rightly so; if you wish to be heard you must accept that people will talk back to you regularly. I don’t believe Tiger Wood’s affair is anyone’s concern, but if he stood up and said he believes strongly that the Jews are an evil force from Mars, then if we aren’t going to cart him away in a straight jacket I think we should probably take him up on it.

We live in this strange universe where private and public are supposedly separate but the lines are constantly blurred. Your social media is not a private space, even though what you say there would once have been only appropriate in private context. The brain process is the same: the need to vent, or if being charitable, the need to reach out to others. Some may use it cynically to get attention and “be famous”, the abstract concept that is a way of describing the wish for wealth and power. Straight jacket or no straight jacket, acid tongue or no acid tongue, I believe Brand, Hopkins, Mel Gibson and all the rest of them have the perfect right to spout whatever offensive rubbish they like whenever they like. Your best response is not to shut them up, but to argue.

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