A few months back, I wrote a newspaper item proposing that local news broadcasts aimed at “youth” were a bunch of tooting arse. This is not a contentious claim, as you who have seen these programs will agree. If you’ve not viewed The Weekly or The Project, just imagine that BuzzFeed made a baby with Miley Cyrus’ lingerie drawer then left its political education entirely to Bono. These shows are shit so I said they were shit and, in fact, so shit, that even a clear thinker like Waleed Aly could not deliver these formats from their shitness.
This very mild criticism of a very decent intellectual was met with some hostility. No person threatened to rape me, as is the current vulgar mode, but quite a few persons told me, by both social media and email, that I was a pig endorsing racism. I explained I was endorsing only the off-switch. I went on to enjoy a series of private exchanges with an angry person who explained that to critique Aly at all — even to say that he was a good communicator compromised in an awful format — was to discount the important public work he had done in combating racism.
I tried to explain that one could hold the simultaneous views that (a) The Project is a bunch of tooting arse and (b) the work of combating racism is important. She conceded the point a little, but then recounted a version of an argument we’ve been hearing a lot lately. “Waleed is important. We know this by the threats he receives”.
To give Aly all due, he has stayed relatively silent on the matter of threats. Then again, he could choose to publish an illustrated hourly digest of his bloodiest death threats and remain relatively silent, these days. Alongside an unflattering mention in an Andrew Bolt column or a seat on the Q&A panel, the threat of horrible violence has come to signify importance for progressive commentators.
In recent days, social and traditional media produced by Australians have been full of horrible violence. Specifically, that committed against women by internet comment. Currently on social media, many female users are appending the names of their online aggressors with the hashtag #EndViolenceAgainstWomen and on traditional media, the most celebrated victims of this violence are offered sympathetic airtime.
I shan’t offer all the details of the story for two reasons. First, I know you’ve not been able to dodge this undodgeable front page item. Second, I have no wish to face the tedious absolutism such specific discussion would produce. Popular modes of feminist speech do not currently tolerate questions well and if one was, for example, to suggest that “naming and shaming” potentially angry men makes all the strategic sense of poking a hungry bear, one is hit with the violence of slogans. You are “silencing women”, “denying the reality of violence against women” or you are a pig endorsing rape.
What you cannot be in urging for a better ethics of contention is someone who knows “importance” when they see it. We can only know this by nature of the threats received.
Although far less important than Aly, I am in occasional receipt of violent threat. I will, like him, elect not to describe them. This is, in part, because I believe that the disclosure of such threats is an amplification of them. I achieve nothing by this style of terrorism threat alert but to raise anxiety. I have no wish to normalize these threats; they must remain understood as transgressions, however commonplace they have become. The matter is for me, the Australian Federal Police and possibly a magistrate.
This is not, for a minute, to suggest that online threats and humiliation should not be held as personally important. Regrettably, I wrote an entire dreary book once on how important they were to me. But, this doesn’t mean they’re that important to anyone else and even leaving aside the fear their disclosure can unnecessarily engender in others, we might begin to think about how they reduce the power of our own expression. Because these threats are not what makes our expression important.
I am speaking here particularly of those who can be said to speak in a more traditional “public” forum. Writers and other members of the media class have a particular responsibility to express themselves well. Social media users, of course, can knock themselves out describing trauma, naming names and shaming men, discount airlines or burger joints. And I say this not because I believe that social media users are irrelevant to the public conversation — the minute you think that, you are yourself headed for irrelevance. I say this because there’s no point in telling anyone, including misogynists, on social media how to behave.
But, writers and other public persons in the business of words might do well to reconsider making their private fear, however legitimate, a public fact. Less for their own sake than for the sake of their work.
A few years ago, I noticed that many persons, even big celebrities, had fallen into the habit of describing or reproducing the social media abuse they received. Initially, it was shocking and sometimes even funny to see the obscene cant of BBS users move into the light of the social internet. The hyperbolic bloom on insults like “die in a fire” wilted and mutant threats grew in their place and what we have now is an internet full of some persons engaged in competitive obscenity and others, often writers, trying to work out how it happened.
I don’t really know how it happened, but I know that to say this obscenity is the result of bigotry alone is misguided. This is not to say that it is not a good impulse that drives, for example, a gay writer to publish a homophobic threat he has received or a female newscaster to publish hateful comments she has read on her appearance. It’s just a misguided one. It does only half the job of explaining the reasons for this kind of obscenity and it begins to do a very good job of explaining all your discourse.
To describe threats is an intellectually diminishing act. I tell you that my communication of such-and-such an idea attracted such-and-such a threat. You are then encouraged to judge the idea not for its merit but for its ability to produce threat.
The idea is not important. The trauma victim becomes important. The claim that “Clementine Ford is important for women” should be made about the growing body of this writer’s work and not about the threats she has received. The violent attention of barely literate misogynists has become the register of a good thinker. Which is a shame. It should be her work.
We can be sure that even if he prefers not to discuss them, Aly receives many death threats. He is, after all, a handsome Muslim scholar with a voice like soothing balm. White-hot idiots who suppose that the privileges of Middle-Australia have been stolen by Allah and not by corporate hunger threaten this reasonable man.
And this is terrible, of course. But it’s not “important”. Violent threats don’t make Waleed Aly important. His impressive knack for relaying difficult analysis to a broad audience does. His deep knowledge of our state institutions, our foreign policy and colonial history does. These things make him important. The proof of the pudding is not in the beating.