Two Saturdays back, the Bolton Wanderers midfielder Fabrice Muamba collapsed with a heart attack during an FA quarter final match against Tottenham Hotspur. Liam Stacey, a 21-year old biology student at Swansea University, took to Twitter to post a genial message: ‘LOL, Fuck Muamba. He’s dead’. Stacey has since admitted that he was “seven or eight out of ten” on the scale of drunkenness prior to tweeting. When scolded by his fellow Twitter users, he defended himself with the sort of tactics familiar to skunks. One black tweeter was called a “wog.” Another was told to, “go and suck a nigger’s dick.”
Unpleasant stuff, but half an hour later and everybody had forgotten about it. Not quite. At this juncture in the story, events take an alarming and sinister departure from the established way of life in this country. Several Twitter users appealed to the police. By now, Stacey was trying to make out that his Twitter account had been hacked, but the authorities were having none of it and he was today sentenced to a deeply sobering 56 days in prison, of which he will probably serve half. He showed clear remorse for his “crime,” despairing that, “I don’t know why I posted it. I’m not racist and some of my friends are from different cultural backgrounds.”
Luckily, however, Stacey is a student at Swansea University, which, like any university, can only be conscious of how freedom of speech is essential to a civilised society. The university explained that it was profoundly unimpressed by Stacey’s tweets, but it quoted Voltaire and John Stuart Mill to defend the idea that our civilisation is defined by a tolerance of all voices. Again, not quite. Stacey’s fellow students called on him to be suspended and the university complied. If I was a student at Swansea, I would feel pretty stupid at paying to be educated in this shell of a university.
The conviction and remorseless public humiliation of Liam Stacey is essentially a sort of torture, and one that is supposed to unite us as jeering spectators. The news coverage gloats over the fact that Stacey wept in court throughout his sentencing. The district judge John Charles ruled that he should be jailed not because his remarks caused any harm or indeed had any material consequences for anybody else, but because they were estranged from the decency of the “world at large.” We are supposed to glow with a sense of satisfaction that we belong in this category whilst Stacey is beyond the pale. It is heavily implied that his future prospects have been ruined, that he will be unemployable once he leaves prison. Judge Charles told Stacey that he had done “untold harm” to his future, although, strictly speaking, the judge himself has caused this harm. Stacey has been treated as unsparingly as a paedophile – somebody who cannot be forgiven and so must be uprooted from their own life.
Most normal people would have felt sorry for Stacey if they had read his response to Muamba’s heart attack. When somebody is so oblivious to another person’s suffering, then their inadequacy can only be pitied. Most normal people would have freely forgiven Stacey after he had shown remorse for his actions. But leaving Stacey aside, the law does not treat us as if we were normal people. It is increasingly predicated upon a refusal to believe that we are really adults, and so we have to be literally protected from Stacey’s potentially upsetting tweets as if we were children. The jailing of Liam Stacey is hopefully a bizarre aberration or a one-off – an unbelievable moment when Britain became briefly unrecognisable. It is an insult to all of us.