Friday, 11 July 2014

Nethui, Trolls and the time I swore at a judge.

I missed Nethui's second day because Real Life intervened (I regret nothing) but today I was back with a hiss and a roar and WHAT a day to be roaring.

There's a lot I could discuss about the various workshops I attended and the wonderful people I met (and the reuben sandwich I ate at Federal Deli- I could talk that up for a long time) but instead I'll skip right to the meat. Enter the trolls.
Seriously. You owe it to yourself.

I wasn't even going to go to the session on Trolling. I wanted to keep this as professional development, so after an excellent session on gender issues I found myself in a session on education that somehow managed to be talking about everything other than what I was interested in, and after twenty minutes of reading the twitterfeed from the troll room I made my excuses and left.
You know when you walk into something late and you can hear pretty much every word that's already been said, just from the atmosphere in the room? NZ4 at Skycity had that. It was an oppressive heaviness in the air that felt like walking into a wall. I took a seat at the back and got listening, a huge double screen showing the twitterfeed in real time.

The conversation was fast-moving and had a snark-factor that made it clear that the people in the room who didn't take trolling seriously were being louder than the ones who do. 
The feed and the spoken words were not matching up, much to the obvious discomfort of the facilitator who was battling hard against a weirdly hostile group. 
It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a safe space. I gave up on being nice and took the mic after a couple of comfy-looking white guys agreed with each other on the joys of playing "Devil's advocate". It was time to stand up.

I'm not going to repeat myself verbatim, because too adrenalined, too fast-speaking, but my point was this, once I'd told them to stick their "Devil's advocacy up your arse"

If you are in a position of privilege, you are arguing purely from an intellectual standpoint. You can be as difficult and contrary as you like because at the end of the discussion, you have not been directly affected. But the person you're arguing against? It's not just an intellectual discussion. It is a judgement on who they are. It goes to the core of their being. These discussions are triggering. They are emotional. They are draining. And for you to joke about the joys of devilish advocacy shows your lack of empathy and understanding of the issues that you are advocating against. That's what trolling is to us. It's an attack on our selfhood, our experiences. And you should knock it the hell off.

 There was a bit more to it. I got personal. I talked about me. I  got a round of applause though, and there seemed to be a shift in mood. A swing away from the self-congratulatory types and not before time. I thought I was done, and started thinking about how I was going to write this down.

Then THIS GUY happened. Old white man, a few rows in front, who trotted out....

"Maybe it's just my generation, but in my opinion "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me"...."

If I'd stood up harder I'd have literally hit the roof instead of just figuratively. Mic in hand, already switched on.....

"With all due respect I think your opinion is horseshit."

I COULD HAVE MIC DROPPED RIGHT THERE AND IT WOULD HAVE BEEN AWESOME YOU GUYS. But instead I went all-out. Again, not verbatim, but....

Saying that words have no power to damage is to disregard the experiences of marginalised, oppressed and abused people of every age, gender and colour. It disregards the huge emotional, mental and social damage done by verbal abuse in relationships, the classroom, the street. Ask many victims of domestic violence and they will tell you that the bruises will heal but the put-downs, the erosion of self-esteem, the insults take years, a lifetime even, to recover from. Some never do. Children attempt suicide over "just words". To sit there and tell this room that words have no power shows the casualness and disregard with which you clearly use yours.

I sat down, heart going like I'd collapsed over the finish line to some race I didn't know I was running. Mercifully, the time bell went and we were done.

 I felt like I'd shrunk. Like I'd yelled into space and I was waiting for space to yell back, to tell me to shut the hell up. I was waiting for violence, I now realise. Curled up against the punishment for arguing with my societal "betters". It's hard to shrug off that feeling you shouldn't argue in public, even when you're sure you're right. It's still hard.

"....and you didn't even say "Your honour""
What I got was more shoulder-pats, thank yous and affirmations of my words than I had ever thought I deserved. My phone went bananas as people messaged me with thumbs-ups and likes and positivity. The twitterfeed petered out, a few critical of my language (yeah, I could have been more polite, but it's hard being the one always having to take the high ground in order to be heard),  lots of support from others. I decamped to a nearby cafe for a sandwich and a debrief with a couple of wonderful, engaging people from my many nights on twitter talking about these things. It was there that I found out that Mr. Sticks and Stones was in fact Judge David Harvey, international expert on online legal issues. And I called him out in front of a packed room with an international live stream. There's something you don't get to do every day.
 I'm still processing how I feel about all this. Recently, I have felt safe enough and found the courage to speak out about issues of violence against women, politics and abuse both online and in real life platforms and it has been one of the most rewarding, though challenging, things I have ever done. I have had to come out as a victim of abuse, of assault, to people who see arguing the personal experience of others as a fun thing to do of an evening. I have laid myself bare in public in an attempt to make people see the culture we really live in, as opposed to the one we kid ourselves we inhabit. I speak out because I have met too many people who are never heard, never believed, never given any chance to talk without interruption and if through throwing myself out like this I can force out some space for other people to speak freely and tell their stories then the trolling, the insults and the dismissal will have been worth it.
So Matt Bellamy is me, and the hole is Twitter. Every. Damn. Day.

As ever, I like to do more than just reflect but move things forward. If you were there, if you were following, if you're just reading this for whatever reason, then please, please bear in mind the following. It'd be great.

  • The person talking about their personal experience, especially if it is unpleasant, is doing so for a reason. It is not easy to relate these experiences, especially in public. Please listen with respect and without interruption. Do not press for more details, interject or object. 
  • Like playing "Devil's Advocate"? Think about the position you are arguing for. Who are you arguing against? Why do you feel the need to do that? If you are DAing with someone who's clearly uncomfortable with your line of argument, knock it the hell off. One man who read and commented extremely negatively on my article on rape culture admitted he wasn't interested in the issue of partner violence at all, he just wanted "to make a point". Not interested in the topic? Then listen or bugger off. 
  • Just because a topic is being discussed does not mean another issues does not exist. Talking about violence against women DOES NOT mean that those discussing it are saying partner violence against men does not exist, or that partner violence does not exist in GLBT relationships. It just means that violence against women is being discussed. Don't want to discuss it? Go away. Want to talk about the violence men suffer? THAT'S A DIFFERENT (if related) CONVERSATION. 
  • When you interject a conversation about minority issues with "what about the men/white people/straight people" then you actually just need to go away as you are trolling and you know it
  • It is NOT the job of the people having the conversation to educate you. Don't understand something? Google it for goodness' sake. In the time it takes for you to derail the conversation with your questions, you'd have found it out yourself already. 
I'm a white person so I have that privilege. I confess that there have been times when a person of colour has made a statement about white people and I have felt that rush of "But I'm not like that!" I've had to work to keep my damn mouth shut. It's hard to confront the negativity with which the group(s) you belong to are viewed by others who don't have your privilege, but if you want to be a decent person you have to deal with that discomfort and learn from it. Compared to living in fear of ridicule, hate and violence I'd say you/me get off extremely lightly. It's the least we can do to shut the hell up and listen instead of just listening to ourselves tell everyone else there is no problem.

If we're ever going to fix the ills we live with, we first have to acknowledge they exist.

Thanks to everyone who supported me to speak out today, and every day. You're all pretty amazing.


  1. Good bullet points!

    Is 'person of colour' back in fashion as a term, then? Or is it the preferred term in Oceania?

    1. PoC is how I've seen non-white people referred to in academia and popular media on racial privilege for a few years now, referring not just to black people but all non-white ethnicities. From what I've read the phrase offers an alternative to the "othering" of "non-white", and the global inaccuracy of "ethnic minorities". Predominantly a US thing but then a lot of the most widely-available work carried out on racial privilege comes from there.

      Happy to be corrected though!

  2. I took part in this session. I don't normally speak up in these heated debates, but I really hate that old 'sticks & stones' rubbish. The opposite is the truth.

  3. Ilu & I am so so proud of what you did & said. You're the best x
    - runningwhio

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