PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD DECEMBER 2019
The first thing that struck me about that row between climate change hero Greta Thunberg and German rail network Deutsche Bahn was a memory. I looked at that by-now-viral photo of Greta sitting between carriages, surrounded by rucksacks, gazing out the window, and thought: that’s exactly how every train journey I took as a student went.
There were never enough seats during Friday evening and Sunday night rush-hour on the Cork-Dublin line in the 1990s. Never. You didn’t expect to get a seat.
What you expected was to sit in discomfort, smoking to while away the time and kill the boredom (you were allowed smoke on trains back then – the past wasn’t all bad), and forlornly hoping that the cute girl with the nose-ring, sitting with her own rucksacks across the way, might notice the copy of Kierkegaard or Wide Sargasso Sea that you were ostentatiously pretending to read, and then initiate conversation.
Today’s young ‘uns clearly expect more from life, though, as Greta took to Twitter with a mild critique of the situation. Deutsche Bahn clarified that she did, in fact, have a seat for much of the journey, as did her team/staff/whatever, finishing with a slightly petty query as to why she didn’t compliment their staff on how nicely they’d treated her. Greta countered the counter by saying that she didn’t mind sitting between carriages, it wasn’t necessarily meant as a critique, and anyway isn’t a packed train a good sign that humanity is moving away from airplanes and roads.
Who’s in the right here? I couldn’t say, and more importantly, I couldn’t care less. My main takeaway from the whole farrago was: is this the way it is now, forever? Must every disagreement be hashed out in the klieg-light glare of social media?
No celebrity, politician, footballer, artist or other public figure is now capable of engaging with someone in an argument, unless it’s across the hell-blasted electronic pages of Twitter, Facebook and wherever else.
Donald Trump has practically started World War III on social media, for God’s sake. EU apparatchiks seem to be forever getting in sly digs on Twitter about those annoying Brits and their pesky desire to leave. Recently here at home Twink, with her spiteful words about Shane MacGowan, came perilously close to kicking off a second Civil War against the Tipp legend’s many devoted followers.
The situation has reached a sort of metaphysical crescendo, which we can express in a question: if two people have a row but they don’t splash it across Twitter, has it actually happened?
I can half-understand your Hollywood stars and mouthy musicians and Reality TV oxygen-thiefs constantly revving up rows online. Part of their job description is keeping themselves in the public eye, and what better way to do that than slag off a rival?
I can also half-understand us lumpen proles doing it. Let’s face it, most of us don’t have anything better to do with our lives; might as well count down the clock to impending mortality by screeching at random strangers about abortion or Lisa Chambers or why they’re sub-human scum for liking some movie that we didn’t like.
But politicians should be above that. Public servants should be above that. The US President and EU negotiators and business leaders and the great and good of society should all be above it.
Dammit, Deutsche Bahn should be above it too. And so should Greta Thunberg. If she’s old enough to address the United Nations, she’s old enough to show a bit of decorum when things go mildly askew.
There’s something depressing about the way these matters are now played out on the internet. Nothing is handled in private anymore, in a sober, responsible and grown-up way.
I guess it’s all representative of how “public” life has become. Nothing matters in 2019 unless everyone sees it happen. Notions of privacy, tact and discretion have been made redundant by the accursed demi-gods of the digital age.
The stiff upper lip is derided. Holding things in is considered a symptom of some deep-rooted mental illness. Not talking about every single goddamn thing, all the time, in public is now considered the sign of a suspect, and possibly deficient, personality. Everything must be vomited forth for literally anyone on the planet to read.
But maybe I’m wrong, and it was always like this. We didn’t have the internet, of course, until shortly before the millennium. But maybe disgruntled politicos and celebs and German rail companies were at each other’s throats regardless, only back then it was done via the newspaper letters pages or splenetic TV interviews.
It may even go back further than that. For all I know, some pharaoh of Ancient Egypt had abusive remarks about his successor chiselled into the stone on his terrifyingly immense burial shrine. Then the next guy would hit back with some shade of his own when he died and they were building another pyramid.
That’s the human condition, really. We’re idiots and we always have been. #TutankhamunIsALoser