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2022 worst discourse
A collage of 2022’s worst discourse, featuring Elf Bars, Jorts the Cat, William Shakespeare, and West Elm Caleb

Nepo babies and ableist cats: the worst discourse of 2022

Is Shakespeare problematic? Is body dysmorphia fatphobic? Should cheating be punishable by death? Are Elf Bars tasty – or delicious? We settle some of the year’s most heated debates, once and for all

As the world becomes more volatile, people become more annoying on the internet. This theory – while yet to be proven by any peer-reviewed research – has an undeniable ring of truth.

When you look at some of the topics which people were furious about this year, it’s clear that many of us are not doing well. We’re angry and stressed out, lashing out at one another for the most inane infractions, reading malicious intent into the most innocuous of statements. At the same time, many of the year’s biggest discourse events were rooted in real injustices and legitimate grievances – often, the problem was less the substance of the conversations themselves and more social media’s in-built bias towards the provocative and inflammatory. Below is a run-down of the year’s most heated debates, in the hope that we can finally lay them to rest.


In January, a random 25-year-old furniture designer in New York became first an overnight folk villain and then, as the tides of opinion shifted, a kind of poster boy for the indiscriminate savagery of the internet.

It all kicked off when a series of young women uploaded TikTok videos cataloguing Caleb’s fuck-boy ways, which ranged from ghosting to sending the same playlist to multiple gals. While this behaviour is no doubt hurtful, the internet was quick to cast Caleb as an arch-abuser, someone who was “love-bombing” a parade of women by starting out keen and then losing interest. As his name began to trend across the planet, it quickly became clear that the punishment outweighed the crime; a backlash gained pace, and the pro-Caleb faction was eventually victorious.

This event became a kind of cultural turning point, when many observers began to realise the limitations of describing ordinary human thoughtlessness with the language of abuse. While it was a tawdry little discourse – and no doubt a horrendous experience for everyone concerned – perhaps its legacy will have a more positive impact than most. The next time a private individual goes viral and is thrust against their will into worldwide infamy, we should probably do our best to ignore it. 


If we’re talking about the Twitter/TikTok axis, much of this year’s most bizarro talking points hinged on ableism. Many, many things were described as ableist, including but not limited to: joining an outdoor picket line without wearing a mask; an account pretending to be a cat telling someone they could do their own grocery shopping instead of driving to the store to spy on a gig economy worker; the phrase ‘chronically online’; making chilli for your neighbours without first securing their consent; suggesting that people who write fiction should read books; Mitski asking fans not to use their phones at her gigs… I could go on. 

Many of these instances were obviously annoying. But as is often the case with online discourse, there was also a tendency to over-correct: it seemed as though the very idea that some people struggle with activities which the majority find easy suddenly became fair game for mockery. As writer Rebecca Jennings recently argued in Vox, “it’s often in the reactions to these assertions where people extrapolate the most ungenerous reading and then dogpile on the person trying to call out injustice.” When we focus our attention on only the most outlandish grievances, we can get to a point where the very concept of ableism is deemed trivial and whiny.


A bit of advice: if you are a nepo baby and nepotism discourse is kicking off, the best thing you can do is keep quiet. Turn off your phone. Give your social media passwords to a friend. Retreat to a sanitarium in the Swiss alps until it all blows over. The very worst course of action, as Lily Allen discovered this week, is to be defensive. People are generally forgiving of the beneficiaries of nepotism – provided they are likeable/and or talented – but if they betray the slightest whiff of self-pity, they’re in for a rough time. 

Obviously, nepotism is a bad thing. And yet it’s impossible to deny that it occasionally slaps: is the filmography of Sophia Coppola a worthwhile trade-off for living in such an unjust and exclusionary society? It’s impossible to say. Plenty of nepo babies are talented, but so are many others who aren’t afforded the same opportunities. At the end of the day, though, we should be fighting for a system in which everyone has the time and money to pursue their passions, rather than recalibrating the demographic of a narrow creative elite. Meritocracy, while it would be better than what we have now, is not an egalitarian idea. If we lived in such a world, where a minority of people enjoyed wealth and fame based on talent alone while everyone else was condemned to struggle, that would also be bad. Instead of demanding a slice of the pie, we should be throwing it in the bin, and baking a better pastry altogether 🙂


Celebrity cheating scandals have always been big news, but something about the tone in which they were discussed started to feel different this year. In the not-so-recent past, these trysts were the stuff of salacious gossip, but there was now a newfound air of moral gravity. It often seemed that people weren’t so much titillated by these scandals, as solemnly and sincerely outraged. No event summed up this new paradigm more than the revelation that Ned from The Try Guys (a popular YouTube show) had been having an affair. While no other scandal inspired quite the same level of wounded anger – although Adam Levine’s sexts came close – there was increasingly the sense that cheating is no laughing matter. This is kind of reasonable: cheating isn’t de facto abusive, but the level of manipulation and subterfuge needed to sustain a long-term affair can feel a lot like emotional abuse. But given how frequently it happens, there’s also a solid case that it’s both an individual moral failing and a structural flaw built into long-term monogamy. But we only ever seemed to talk about the former.


Throughout the same period, polyamory attained a higher level of visibility than ever before; there was a deluge of articles and essays on the subject, and some of its adherents even started positioning themselves as members of a marginalised group, with the term “polyphobia” gaining traction.

Obviously, this incurred a backlash. Polyamorous people, according to the counter-narrative which emerged, are pretentious and ugly; when they’re not “fuck boys”, in it solely for the sex, they are self-righteous evangelists who think they’re better than everyone else. More sympathetically, many women spoke about feeling pressured into non-monogamous relationships they weren’t truly comfortable with, or felt that men were using a veneer of progressive politics to pursue their own desires at the expense of others. (“Men are trash” would be too reductive, but…)

Soon, there developed a push-and-pull between two extreme viewpoints: “polyamorous people are all embarrassing losers” versus “monogamous people are all shrill, reactionary prudes carrying water for the patriarchy”.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle. Many poly people on the internet are corny and sanctimonious, for sure, and any honest defence of the practice must reckon with that fact. But the nature of social media – where the most provocative takes receive the most traction – means you are far more likely to encounter their opinions. There are plenty of cool poly people out there minding their own business – they’re just not writing lengthy threads about it on Twitter.


There was one upside to the cost-of-living crisis: when millions of people were plunged into poverty and found themselves struggling to survive, British conservatives looked deep into their hearts and, like Scrooge on Christmas morning, found an unexpected reserve of humanity. Oh no, wait… I just remembered this list is only about things which did happen! 

From summer onwards, as the economy went into freefall and bills sky-rocketed, conservatives reacted by insisting that anyone who complained about trivial luxuries – such as not being able to afford food – was really just a spoiled little brat. While this rhetoric is nothing new, the cost-of-living crisis made it seem more detached from reality than ever. Just a couple of years ago, these people talked about the 1970s as a time that Jeremy Corbyn wanted to drag us back to, a nightmarish dystopia of endless strikes and rotting corpses piling up in the streets. But suddenly, the 1970s became a halcyon glory age, a way of hammering home the message that people today are too soft: yes, I woke up each morning with icicles forming in my bedroom window and a severe case of pneumonia… but I loved it! 

Faced with misery on a mass scale, the right doubled down on its lack of compassion. The message was clear: there are no legitimate complaints in modern-day Britain. If you are suffering, it’s your own fault. If you are poor, you are entitled to nothing: no pleasure, no joy, no distractions, no little treats or luxuries; not even the most fundamental means of survival. I don’t like to generalise about the character of England – there are plenty of kind and decent people here too – but the cost-of-living crisis exposed a deep vein of wickedness running through the country.


It feels uncomfortable to admit now, but I do actually enjoy some of Shakespeare’s work – Pericles, Prince of Tyre meant a lot to me growing up as a queer teen in a small town where I never quite fit in. So when a ‘problematic authors’ list appeared on social media which accused the popular playwright of sexism and racism, alongside his arch-rivals Colleen Hoover and Jojo Moyes, I sincerely hoped that he would take on board this valid and much-needed critique.

Sadly, from the moment the allegations surfaced, Shakespeare made every effort to double down and evade accountability. He posted a screengrab from ‘Exiting the Vampire’s Castle.’ He responded politely to the people defending him and blocked everyone who was calling him out. Once the backlash reached a fever pitch, he posted a weak apology – “I’m sorry if my work offended anyone” – which made it abundantly clear that he did not understand the intersectional nature of the multiplicity of his offences. 

According to industry gossip, Shakespeare is now working on a new tragedy – Triggered – which tells the story of a genius playwright who gets persecuted by a mob of woke lefties. It’s disappointing, to say the least. I’ve cancelled my Patreon subscription, taken down my posters, and I won’t be actively supporting his work going forward. 


Back in October, Taylor Swift dropped the video for “Anti-Hero”, in which she weighs herself on a scale and sees the word ‘FAT’. This did not go down well. While intended as a depiction of her own struggles, many people understandably felt it perpetuated the idea that being fat is something to be feared. When it comes to body image and weight, there is an additional pressure to be sensitive, and the fact that so many people did find the scene upsetting can’t be discounted. 

All of this was fair enough, but the ensuing discourse did eventually spiral out into some strange directions – most notably the claim that body dysmorphia is in itself fatphobic. For a start, this betrays a misunderstanding of what body dysmorphia actually is: according to the official diagnostic criteria, it’s not about being distressed by perceptions of overall weight (which is a common feature of eating disorders), but specific perceived flaws in one’s appearance, which are often entirely unrelated.

There is a case to be made that societal fatphobia does play a role in the prevalence of eating disorders, if not body dysmorphia, which would explain the disparity in rates between different countries. This is actively a good argument to make, too, in the sense that it encourages solidarity: regardless of your body size, your life can be made worse by societal fatphobia – so it would be liberating for everyone to dismantle it. But it’s also true that some people have eating disorders for reasons which have nothing to do with a fear of gaining weight, something which was, for the most part, lost in the discussion.

This wasn’t a wholesale ‘bad discourse’, as lots of people were making good points, and I think it’s worthwhile to acknowledge that, even when you’re struggling yourself, you can still cause harm. The issue is more that social media is a terrible forum in which to discuss complex, nuanced and emotionally fraught subjects. 


Elf Bars were this year’s “drink of the summer”, the closest thing we had to a White Claw or Aperol Spritz moment – don’t ask me to explain this because I can’t and I won’t. The garishly coloured disposable vapes were everywhere. Across the nation, good-natured but heated debates about the comparative merits of “Pink Lemonade” versus “Strawberry Raspberry Cherry Ice” raged late into the night. I myself succumbed to Elf-mania. Before long I was vaping in bed and vaping in the cinema; even during Zoom meetings, I would pretend to turn my camera off due to technical difficulties and then reappear with plumes of vapour engulfing my face – it’s called professionalism.

But the tide of public opinion began to turn against Elf Bars, partly because they’re so terrible for the environment. As an Elf-head myself, I would struggle to dispute this – obviously, we shouldn’t be buying and then chucking out a lithium-powered plastic product every week. It was fun while it lasted but the dream is dead: for the sake of Mother Earth, it’s time to return to smoking rollies.

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