Hard News by Russell Brown


Poor Choices

I don't think Deborah Hill Cone set out mock or bully Charlotte Dawson in her Herald column. I think she felt she was expressing a message of solidarity with a woman of a similar age, but she presumed far too much about someone she never met, projected too much of herself on the recently deceased. It was an ill-advised column.

And while by no means everyone who read it felt that way,  enough did that you can still read about it on Twitter, two days later. People are still calling her a "disgusting excuse for a human", impugning her looks, shouting "you make me sick" into the ether.

You could safely guess that at least some of the same people have previously expressed their horror at Dawson copping the same -- and worse -- from people she didn't know online. It's a good thing that Hill Cone is not, so far as I know, on Twitter, but the outrage seemed no less furious on Facebook.

So it wasn't a good choice for Hill Cone to write what she did, the way she did. But it wasn't a good choice either (although the potential for offence was patently less great) for Charlotte Dawson to last month throw herself into the faux controversy around Lorde's frustration with being jostled by local media and offer, unbidden, this advice:

"Unless you're very mediocre you need to get out of there - you just have to if you want to keep succeeding otherwise it'll just crush your spirit."

Charlotte was pitying herself, not Lorde, and I dispatched a snippy tweet observing that "The last person Lorde needs advice from is Charlotte Dawson." Which wasn't exactly untrue. But perhaps I shouldn't have felt so clever as I watched other people retweet it.

This year, I watched as a female friend was unwittingly drawn into an exchange with an unstable man whose tweets became darker, more gendered, more threatening. I know it goes on all the time, but I was shocked by seeing it unfold in real time -- which, Twitter being Twitter, was all of 10 or 15 minutes. The guy was a Public Address reader -- he'd even set up a regular donation. I hope he never, ever comes back. He is not welcome. And I know that it can get much, much worse than that for women online.

This year I've also watched, glumly, as some poor sap became the subject of that day's Twitter pile-on, and wondered, sometimes, what became of the benefit of the doubt. Wondered how much of this angry one-to-many speech was was being uttered for the benefit of peers, or, like my tweet about Charlotte, just to feel clever.

This isn't to say that we shouldn't call bullshit when we see it, or argue like the blazes. But I'm trying to be wary these days of the potential for hurt in Twitter's many-to-one dimension, whoever's on the sharp end of it. I was surprised at the way Michele Goldberg's Twitter-wars essay in The Nation was dimissed or worse. At how often people seemed content to use one form of bullying to rationalise another.

I realised recently that someone with whom I was arguing a lot had blocked me -- and what a liberation it was not to be being riled so often by what he said. I felt better for it. For such a simple medium, Twitter has remarkable emotional heft and complexity. I see people actively and openly using it to reach out for emotional support. It's not that hard to understand why Charlotte couldn't walk away, even though her connection sometimes gushed with hate.

As Damian notes, it can be easy for the public to forget that people in the media are still people. And yet it's salutory to recall what it was acceptable for her media peers to call Charlotte Dawson on mainstream TV in 2004. But I wouldn't want some emotionally-charged "Charlotte's Law" regulating everyone's speech either.

To be honest, I don't know what you'd do to pre-emptively alter the behaviour of the kind of people who told Charlotte she should die, or threaten the rape of any number of women who have dared to be visible online. They're just beyond my ken. Except, perhaps, to do what we can do ourselves. A wise woman said this a couple of days ago as she wrestled with a response to the column I considered in the first paragraph of this post:

Sometimes people make poor choices, and sometimes that might be because they're struggling with their own hearts and minds. No one's going to change that. But perhaps it would be a bit better for everyone if there was more latitude for anyone to fuck up sometimes.

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