The Katie Hopkins Paradox

In her column for The Sun last week Katie Hopkins likened the migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa for the shores of Southern Europe to cockroaches (a favourite tactic of genocidal megalomaniacs) and called for gunships to keep them in check. A few hours later one of the boats carrying these migrants capsized  costing the lives of around 800 people. This resulted in widespread outrage, a petition signed by 250,000 people to have her sacked and Hopkins taking a deep breath of the career giving oxygen that results from these bursts of controversy.

African migrants on boats off the coast of italy
Survivors of multiple tragedies in the Mediterranean continue to arrive in Sicily. Photo: Francesco Malavolta /IOM 2015

With her latest effort, Katie Hopkins is crossing the line from bog standard agro-tainment into the less populist medium of straight up hate mongering which is a much smaller but more devoted, niche market. For someone with such a clear market driven approach to all of life’s challenges it will be interesting to see where she turns next. To go on unrepentant she could find herself in the marginal and uncomfortable company of Nick Griffin and Jim Davidson in the British public’s consciousness. But a climb down would diminish her self-styled position of the unafraid truth speaker and make her less relevant as a figure of ridicule for the left by giving the game away. It all depends on whether the line does indeed turn out to have been crossed. If not she can move back to the more wholesome abuse of the poor and obese which has made her famous.

[pullquote] “One way or the other, the truth is that people enjoy surfing these waves of outrage. [/pullquote]

So what is the appropriate response to Katie Hopkins and her ilk? When criticism reaches a crescendo, there’s usually a backlash that criticises that criticism for giving her the attention that sustains her career. Whereas a non-response would enter “evil prospers when good men do nothing” territory. One way or the other, the truth is that people enjoy surfing these waves of outrage. Just look at the amount of Youtube clips with titles like ‘Bill O’Reilly Gets Owned’ or anything involving Ann Coulter. If you have exams coming up you should give these a wide berth, it’s a rabbit hole that you might not find your way out of until the repeats in August. If you don’t have exams, I would get straight on it, ‘Bill O’Reilly vs Giraldo’ (yes, 90s moustache megastar Giraldo) is a must. There is just something irresistible in watching someone being an absolute arsehole.

What is the attraction of this recreational outrage? And does it mean that we find ourselves unable to distinguish between a triviality like a Katie Hopkins Sun article and the genuinely outrageous reality that faces millions of migrants, forcing them into situations where paying all of their earthly possessions for a potentially fatal sea crossing is the best of their options. It’s a strange thing, but there is a grim pleasure to be had in letting a Hopkins boil your blood.

[pullquote] “Katie Hopkins isn’t there to spark debate, awareness or engagement, she’s there to make everyone feel better about themselves and worse about those they oppose. [/pullquote]

American short story writer Steve Almond referred to this phenomenon (yeah I went there, phenomenon!) as ‘The closed system of scorn and self-congratulation’; this is where you congratulate yourself on your superiority to whatever you’ve been hating. Some psychologists even liken this cycle to drug addiction, ‘chemically-mediated states of arousal that self-reinforce patterns of behavior’. This can have both positive and negative outcomes. So in the same way that, hopefully, bonding with people gives you a psychological payoff that you want to repeat, the flip side is that you may find yourself jonesing for a clip of Glenn Beck calling for compulsory gun ownership.

A clip that I’ve found myself returning to was an appearance on morning TV where Katie Hopkins talks about banning her children from playing with other children who have names that she views as somehow beneath her. It left such a satisfying, glowing sense of indignation that made it such compulsive viewing. The root of that satisfaction is in the knowledge that these are the arguments it’s easy to disagree with, you disagree with them and therefore engaging with this material does give a sense of superiority as you imagine yourself demolishing her crazy arguments. It means you don’t have to really engage with the issues at all, “Katie Hopkins is clearly a maniac and I disagree with her, all of my liberal bias is validated!”  Everyone’s a winner.

The problem is that it is so reductionist, you don’t have to tackle an issue with any nuance when it’s being delivered via the blunderbuss- We’re right, they’re wrong, end of story. Katie Hopkins isn’t there to spark debate, awareness or engagement, she’s there to make everyone feel better about themselves and worse about those they oppose. So in whatever way one responds to her antics the most important thing is probably to maintain perspective; Hopkins signifies nothing and is representative of just herself. But this doesn’t mean I’ll enjoy those Youtube clips any less…

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