Trolls, bullies and us

There are three types of people who intentionally cause other people hurt on the internet.

First there are the trolls; those the IT purists will tell you emerged long before Twitter and online opinion sites. From what I’ve read (and I’m sure I’ll be corrected if I get it wrong), the troll’s main goal is to provoke anger or other extreme reaction from their subject and then feed off the energy that is generated by that emotion.

Then there are the bullies, who are quite different to trolls. Anyone who has been subjected to bullying can attest that it manifests in many ways – ranging from outright threatened violence to subtle but sustained denigration. In contrast to the troll, the bully’s main goal is to feel superior: either in strength, intelligence, wit or popularity.

And then there is the third type of person who intentionally causes other people hurt on the internet: the rest of us. Yes, you and me.

There are times for pretty much all us online (I’d venture), when we just can’t help but say some something hurtful to someone else. We might do it because we’re outraged by their behaviour or something they’ve said. Sometimes we do it because we don’t agree with their point of view or find it simply ridiculous. And sometimes we do it because other people are doing it too and we want to fit in.

I’m not without guilt: I admit that I get a bit Old Testament at times, lashing out at people who sledge others or have caused me hurt in the past. Yes, I have also (quite often) ridiculed the cohort of people known as The Greens and Their Supporters.

But in a similar fashion to that described by GrogsGamut in his book, these days I mostly try to exercise self-censorship in the hope of preventing something that could degenerate into ugliness, and I rigorously moderate the comments on my blog for the same reason.

Unfortunately, relying solely on self-restraint will not do much to reduce the hurtful ways in which we sometimes voice our opinions, emphasise our disagreement, or attempt to appear witty and entertaining to our friends.

As Jonathan Green pointed out this morning, online human behaviour is no different to that which occurs offline. So maybe we need to start pulling the two worlds into better alignment.

In real life, if one of your friends rolled down their car window and yelled some of the sledges that are made on Twitter to a passerby, what would you do? Would you laugh and pat them on the back? Maybe reinforce the insult with your own witty contribution? Maybe you’d pretend it didn’t happen? Or would you say, hey, that’s out of line?

What about the same behaviour in the pub, at the footy or at a party? I’m pretty sure most of us would intervene somehow and try to defuse the situation, rather than turn a blind eye or succumb to the pack mentality and join in.

I understand the reasons posited by experts as to why people think they can get away with extreme behaviour on Twitter and similar places. They feel less empathy because they can’t see the body language of their “victims”; they breach societal boundaries because they are largely anonymous and not accountable for their actions.

Nevertheless, in most cases bullies on Twitter and elsewhere (and people like you and me who can also be hurtful), have friends and followers who have ways of communicating with them.  If there were more occasions when sledgers and bullies were told by their peers that they were out of line, degeneration into pile-ons and flamewars could more often be avoided.

So next time someone you know says something hurtful on Twitter, what will you do? Will you laugh and retweet them, reinforce the insult with your own witty contribution, or perhaps pretend it didn’t happen?

Or will you send them a DM or text and say, hey, that’s out of line?

Postscript: A very considered, and relevant, contribution to the discussion.

Why I’ve changed my mind about Slutwalk

I’ve just read Amy Gray’s gut-wrenching piece about the sexual abuse she was subjected to from the age of seven. I despair that yet another warm, funny, spirited and talented woman that I barely know but admire on Twitter has brutally suffered not only from the actual violation but also society’s inept response to the real causes of sexual assault and abuse.

As Amy explains:

Unfortunately, lack of knowledge about sexual assault can actually exacerbate the pain already felt by the victim. Though they may not mean to, others can make mistakes, can’t provide support or say things which can alienate the victim further. It may be because they don’t know better, it may be because it’s easier to blame someone else than accept the senseless and cruel violence that is sexual assault. Outmoded beliefs or myths about sexual assault perpetuate the cycle of shaming and abuse. We need to start breaking these cycles.

Protection is not granted because of the clothes we wear, how much we’ve had to drink, how we may have danced in a club, if we’re allowed outside to play or any other factor presented as defence. Protection is granted for every single member of society because society works best when we are treated the same without exception. A person told to ‘lie back and enjoy it’, ‘you shouldn’t drink so much’, ‘you shouldn’t have lead them on’ or that they are ‘strays’ or ‘dressed like paedophile/rape bait’ is being told they don’t have the same rights as the criminal who attacked them.

Amy’s words made me question whether my view of victim-blaming is much more black and white than those who’ve actually experienced sexual assault. I would never, and have never, rationalised rape according to the dress or behaviour of the victim.

But in the past I’ve questioned the value of  Slutwalk, an annual event at which Amy Gray will speak this weekend. I unequivocally support the central tenets of the Slutwalk movement: that sexual assault is violence, not sex; that no behaviour or dress justifies sexual assault; and that it is unjust to blame the victims of sexual assault for their violation.

My concerns about Slutwalk were the broader implications of a campaign that not only says “my dressing like a slut is not an invitation for rape”, but also urges women to embrace their inner “slut”. Some supporters interpret this as being able to dress and behave however one wishes, wherever one wishes. For me, this ancillary message distracted from Slutwalk’s main objective and confused every woman’s right to not be sexually assaulted or blamed for her attack with the right to do whatever she pleases.

However, reading Amy’s piece today, I’ve come to realise that perhaps embracing your inner slut is more about giving oneself permission to be oneself, without fear of physical attack, societal opprobrium or torment from misdirected guilt.

Amy’s piece made me realise that victim-blaming is much more nuanced from the victim’s perspective, and that by rejecting Slutwalk, I may have inadvertently been denigrating its cause.

So this year I will support Slutwalk, probably not by walking (because I’m an introvert and don’t like crowds), but certainly in the discussions that surround it.

Grog’s Rise of the Fifth Estate

It’s probably not cool to blog about a book that mentions you, but I’m going to do it anyway because the release of Greg Jericho’s book this week has been excitedly anticipated by sections of the political blogosphere and Twittersphere for what seems like forever.

Yesterday, the book officially hit the bookshops, although dead-tree copies were hard to find. Diehards like me paid for the iTunes copy and surreptitiously read it at work that day.

Firstly, I’d like to say that the book is mostly free of the graphs and tables that distinguish much of Greg’s* political writings. That was a relief to me, because while Greg’s prose might be the poor cousin to his economic analysis, I actually enjoy the former much more. That’s probably because I don’t speak economist and as a literature wonk too, Greg does have a lovely turn of phrase.

The book was always going to be built around the story of Greg’s shameful and baseless outing by James Massola of The Australian; and it certainly tells that tale in confronting and gory detail. We can only be grateful that the story turned out to have a happy ending – the many other possible endings were not quite so sun-shiny.

But in an act of publishing brilliance, Greg has also been able to capture a snapshot of Australian political discourse at a time when many of the moving parts are spinning wildly. I’d venture that it’s a first for the Australian political scene.

Greg simultaneously gives us a history lesson on the genesis of political blogging in Australia (from which I learned a great deal), stark and perceptive insights into the way people treat each other online (in discussions on female bloggers and “not reading the comments”), frontline stories from the war between bloggers and journalists, and an examination of how Australian politicians and the media have attempted to either suppress or embrace the dialogue that foments on new media platforms.

I was particularly taken by the book’s narrative thread; the nod to Yeats’ “widening gyre”, where things fall apart and the centre cannot hold. Greg writes:

The MSM and those in power – politicians and governments – seek to hold the centre, but the internet and the social media world is a cyclone. It is a centrifugal force spinning control away from the centripetal forces of the establishment that is seeking to manage and formalise it.

This is a book that journalists may find difficult to read, challenging as it does their willingness to seek the truth over an easier news angle or headline. Equally, it challenges bloggers and the proprietors of online news sites to take responsibility for, and devote resources to guiding, their rabid and bile-filled commenters. Fans of the transformative nature of Twitter will feel mostly justified. Those that demand continuing delineation between conventional and new media will not.

Regardless, this is a book that anyone interested in contemporary Australian politics should read.

Dead tree and ebook versions of The Fifth Estate by Greg Jericho can be obtained here.

*By all means read Greg as Grog, depending upon your preference.

Belling the Abbott cat

To bell the cat: To undertake a dangerous action in the service of a group.

So that this does not become a pissing competition and miss the point altogether, this post is an attempt to capture all of the articles and posts that have challenged Tony Abbott’s merry dance with the truth. Posts from bloggers are marked in this colour. I’ve included those that I’ve noticed – let me know in the comments or on Twitter any other examples and I will include them:


Equality these days means having to take abuse too

Burning effigy of PM John Howard, Nat Library of Aust

Do feminists want equality for women or not? If they do, then they need to accept that any person who holds the office of Prime Minister will sometimes be described in extremely offensive terms.

Honestly, is calling John Howard a cunt any less offensive than calling Julia Gillard a cow? Is the placard wielded at one rally depicting Gillard as Bob Brown’s bitch any more hateful than the burning of John Howard’s effigy at another?

No, they’re not. I don’t buy the line that the use of a gender-based epithet somehow magnifies the injury intended upon the recipient. As I’ve written before:

While the words of protest and criticism levelled at Julia Gillard are disrespectful and even abhorrent, they’re not the first to be used against an unpopular Prime Minister. In the battle of words and thoughts that is politics, people often throw the first epithet that comes to hand. The fact that some of this abuse is gender-based doesn’t make it sexism.

While a woman might be called a bitch, a man could be called a prick. Either could be called a fuckwit. The gender of a word does not invest it with any more hate than another. In fact, some female terms of abuse can apply equally to men or women. Either an elderly man or woman crossing the road in front of an impatient hoon might be called a “silly old cunt”. Anyone who lavishly courts the press could be called a “media whore”. “Bitch” and “bastard” are usually gender specific, but they carry about the same level of insult. Equally, “male” words can be just as readily applied to women. Dickheads and arseholes are not exclusively men.

So, instead of trying to beat up this week’s “old cow” comments about the Prime Minister as the latest blow to feminism, how about we tackle the real issue: the apparent acceptability of hate speech in public rallies, forums and online political discussions.

It’s been going on since at least the Howard years, or do we prefer not to remember that?

My lost love: books

Tonight I’ve been talking books with @rosepowell and @margotdate on Twitter.

I love, love, love books: once I could easily get lost in a book to the exclusion of all else.

I remember when, at times, I would sequester books like a squirrel in a pile beside my bed, waiting for the end of semester or the Christmas holidays.  Then I would spend hours at the kitchen table, on the couch, beside the pool, under the tree, or in bed, immersed in some other world.

Sometimes I would put down a book once I had reached the beginning of the last chapter in the knowledge that I would soon be leaving this world, to grieve a little before I had to say my final goodbyes.

More often than not I would shed a tear or two at the end, regardless of the happy or sad ending.

But today, books are my lost love. Since being diagnosed with depression and now taking the appropriate medication, I just don’t have the attention span needed to read a book.

I’ve tried, many times, in both dead-tree and digital form, to align my heart’s passion for books with the diminished capacity of my chemically-constrained brain. Sadly, my mind wanders within 30 minutes and I must move on to something else.

That’s not to say I regret having to sacrifice books for sanity. Without medication I’m not sure I would be here at all. I also have a loving, respectful and supportive relationship with my daughter that I may have otherwise destroyed in my depressive state.  And I manage to find meaningful, if sometimes frustrating, employment, which helps to pay the bills.

So I relegate books to the drawer that holds the other lost loves of my life – to be treasured and occasionally unearthed with smiles and fond reminiscences.

For the record, here are my favourite books:

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