When you think about it, all law, all legislation is about the restriction of freedom. That’s exactly what we are doing here. We are restricting freedom. But we’re doing it for the common good. You will see throughout our constitution, yes you have rights, but they are restricted for the common good. Everything needs to be balanced. If your views on other people’s identities go to make their lives unsafe, insecure and cause them such deep discomfort that they cannot live in peace then I believe that it is our job, as legislators, to restrict those freedoms, for the common good . . .
No, this isn’t an excerpt from the book under review. It is, in fact, a recent quote from Irish Green Party Senator Pauline O’Reilly.
I bring this up for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a telling indication of just how comfortable Ireland is with authoritarianism, replacing anti-republican laws with anti-speech laws. Both used to quash any dissent from what the state proposes.
Secondly, the argument about the right to give offence will always be with us, be it in spoken form, written form, AI form and audio form. The test is when you see material (such as executions, car accidents or dog fights) that is easily accessible in a public sphere. How does one handle it, especially when employed by Big Tech to root out such things and fix the algorithms so that you keep scrolling in search of the next dopamine hit?
It's a big area, and one that lies at the centre of We Had to Remove This Post.
Published in 2021, We Had to . . . tells the story of Kayleigh, a young woman who joins a company called Hexa, whose job it is to monitor flagged content on social media. As she says in the beginning:
I knew what I was getting myself into. I knew what I was doing, and I was pretty damn good at it. I still remember all the rules from back then and I still apply them sometimes, it happens automatically, an occupational hazard—whether it's TV shows, video clips, or just things I see in my everyday life. That woman getting knocked off her scooter—can you put that up online? Not if you can see blood. If the situation is clearly comical, then yes. If there's sadism involved, no. If what's being shown serves an educational purpose, yes, and ding ding ding, we have a winner, because that exit to the museum parking lot is a hot mess. "They really need to fix that," as long as I put that in the caption, it's allowed—see, that's the kind of thing I'm thinking about as I tear off four tickets for a visitor. And no, it's not always pleasant having those rules rattling around in my head, but you know what? Part of me is still proud of how well I knew the guidelines. That's just not what you want to hear, is it?
As time goes in, it becomes clear that constant exposure is wearing Kayleigh and her co-workers down (including Kayleigh’s partner, Sigrid). And each of them act out their issues in disparate ways. None of which are interesting or insightful.
Apparently hyped up on TikTok (says it all) as a violent and shocking read, We Had to . . . is actually a bland, prosaic read that doesn’t even come close to addressing the issues, nuances and contradictions of being in such a position. Hanna Bervoets writes in a style that is probably meant to be minimalism updated for the 21st century but comes off as disinterested, always hinting at some truly horrific event being hidden away in the background but never having the gumption to correct it.
One such example is when it comes to dealing with the effect of having to view such content on a regular basis. Here, Bervoets chickens out by assigning this angle to barely developed characters, only noting that one is black and the other is Jewish. I suspect that Bervoets probably thinks this gives the material added depth by having a Jewish protagonist mouth conspiracy theories about George Soros. However, because it comes from a set of bit actors, we as readers know nothing about their personalities and the process that led them to this position.
Really, Bervoets should have made Kayleigh the one who adopts these views as a reaction to her crumbling existence. That way, it would have made her more human, and the reader would have been able to react in horror at her slow decline. However, as the character is a self-confessed “dyke” and the main protagonist, it would seem this would be a step too far for some.
There is nothing in the way of tension, character building and world building. We never get a sense of how dehumanising such a role is, nor do we begin to feel the stress and constant monitoring of the characters that leads them to drink after each shift.
Although a passable enough read in the sense that it functions as a brainless summer read, don’t expect anything deep beyond a few recycled talking points about how corrupting online life is.
Something most of us figured out in 1997.
Hanna Bervoets, 2021, We Had to Remove This Post. Picador. ISBN-13: 978-1529087246
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.