Razer: why violent threats don't make a commentator 'important'

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.

33 responses to “Razer: why violent threats don't make a commentator 'important'

  1. Razer is right about the Project and in fact she’s very soft on Mr Aly. While he’s an interesting albeit somewhat soporific intellectual, he’s not the font of all wisdom. He is also a pious man, which worries me when it comes to public debate. Yes, he’s fought racism, but many of us have and without a TV show to boot.

  2. Nice piece of writing, Helen. Some fine points, well made and as usual you had me reaching for a dictionary. As to what and whom is ‘important’, I suspect that’s a very subjective thing, along the lines of “in the eye of the beholder”.

  3. I’m not sure if all these words were written to condemn Waheed Aly, or to praise him. Ditto women’s issues and problems. Ditto political correctness.

    One thing I do know is you used an awful lot of words in a fit of self-awareness-and for what?

    Anyway, have a good and happy Christmas.

  4. I had read that piece on the Drum and couldn’t quite put my finger on why it left me with such disquiet. Felt the same way watching Leigh Sales and others reading out their online abuse. Thanks for throwing some bright light on this dilemma. The really ugly trolling reminds me of “flashing” – “look at this I can jump in front of you and show you my dick and there’s nothing you can do about it”. Online communication has provided so much opportunity for bent personalities to let it all hang out everywhere. Waleed Aly’s decision not to publicise it is one way of dealing with it, but then he is a bloke and would presumably not be exposed to the foul misogynistic stuff. Racist threats of ugly violence is ghastly. Threats of gang rape invokes the particular horror that women live with in the most anxious parts of their psyche. Is naming and shaming a useful way of fighting back? I just don’t know but it has nothing at all to do with Clementine Ford’s contribution or otherwise to public discourse.

  5. I have read Clem Fords column a few times and immediately dismissed it as the writers equivalent of a chic flick where the girls get to beat up the boys. So I stopped reading it. It seemed facile. In fact that whole ‘lifestyle; section of the fairfax media strikes me somewhat as fluff. The issue is that any controversial comment will invite the loons and the haters. And anyone can do it, why would a professional writer waste their time advertising the mere fact of this?
    Make any comment where somebody appears to get something for nothing that everybody else has to work or pay for, eg welfare, land rights, migrants, etc and wait for the floodgates of negative feedback, some of which will be totally nutty.

  6. This is a wonderful piece Helen. As is Mike, I am roughly the same age as yourself and grew up listening to your commentary (and the playlists you played), reading your writing (primarily the Big Issue and Daily Review) and finding your intelligence, candour and willingness to call a spade a fu*@ing shovel (or to put it in wonderful prose) so vital and in need of wider airing.
    In any event, I work in the public education sector and students (many of who see themselves as consumers who have paid for an education, so b’god deliver it to me) are quite content to criticise (sometimes bitterly and personally) n their lecturers. I must admit I find it awful hurtful and imagine that, given the aforementioned qualities of your writing, you must have had to have sought a means to deal with the hateful trolls that you doubtless attract (apologies. I haven’t read the ‘dreary’ tome on the subject). The world of commentary is no place for the thin-skinned and my admiration is only heightened by the subtle reminder (unintended mayhap) that women who are prepared to continue to counter the imbalance have to endure daily. As in any forum and any place, the violence and abuse endured by women – and inflicted by men – is inexcusable and, as is an excursion into the comments section of an online news article an excursion into personal inadequacy as pathos (and those fictional escapdes published by News Ltd. are indeed a swamp I’ll not venture into again!)
    I completely agree that the highlighting of abusive responses to a considered piece of observation attracts should be soooo far secondary to the observed. Let’s hone in on the message, not the bile it attracts. However, Mike’s notion that the gradual decline of the incompetent gatekeeper ‘smoothing out the edges’ seems fanciful given the floodgates (no pun intended Mike) that social media and the beguiling anonymity it affords has provided small people (not physically – y’know) with a means of bigging themselves up.
    I do worry, indeed I do – but thank you again for succinctly and powerfully nailing it!

  7. Helen, I am reliably challenged by your thinking and greatly appreciate it! Thanks for a thought-provoking piece that refuses to personally demonise, and instead philosophically cogitates.

  8. Helen, I love you.

    I also love Waleed – well at least the Waleed on RN’s ‘the minefield’, less and less so the one on ‘the panel’.

    …….. I love both of you because of your ideas, your tools of language – and that you both challenge me to twist and think.

    I have read Clementine’s work in the Fairfax press and am just generally ‘meh’. Not offended – just unimpressed.

    To the best of my knowledge I am not a mysoginist. I am definitely not a rapist or a hater – I am just a lover of good ideas and reasoned debate. I wonder though if this is what I would be assumed to be if I posted this comment in hers or Sackville’s forum?

    1. I always think it’s better to love the ideas than the people who have them. And, with all respect to the very good communicator Aly, neither he nor I have ideas that are particularly ours.
      I wouldn’t worry about what might happen to you in comments sections if I were you.

      1. I love you (and Waleed) too.
        I want to wrap my arms around that prickly intellectual that you are and give you a big personally inspired hug and a smoochy, smoochy kiss on the cheek. Why abstract the ideas from their progenitor, or even mere agent, as you humbly demand? You are bloody awesome. Admit it!

  9. Totally agree its simplistic to validate or canonise Ford only for outing online abusers but I cant agree there wasnt any merit in the act.
    Im certainly not saying she courted patronage but she’s a wonderful writer that more people could benefit reading who otherwise wouldnt have.
    For high profile feminists not to broach the subject of rampant on line abuse is absurd. If not them who?
    To do it in spectacular style?
    While yep it sure pokes the bear, is it the bears attention thats necessary or women’s? Do we need to convince them? Can we?
    My experience is it helps to be confident tackling the bear.
    Women like Ford give much needed inspiration to some of us who desperately lack it.
    On the surface it was a vulgar cliched girl power moment but empowering messages that resonate deeper should not be discounted.

    1. I guess it’s anybody’s guess if the Reality TV style reveal of this and many other similar actions will do any good. The argument is so often that it’s better to act than sit ’round and think but, personally, I have come to believe the opposite is true. If the best the “left” can do is offer up a naming-and-shaming campaign and amplify hideous graphic insults that few people would have otherwise seen, then maybe we do need some thinking time. This might feel like a great revolt. It is my opinion and suspicion that continued focus on individual bravery and individual cowardice is a personally moral and not a broadly political exercise.
      I appreciate that there are some things you might enjoy about this sort of writing and that you believe there are others who would do well to share the perspective contained. For mine, though, the very popular project of being an “inspiration” to women is basically conservative. Or, more to the point, neoliberal. It’s about aspiration, about being lifted up personally by others and one’s own empowerment.
      In my view, writing about social matters is not such a performative act. I.e. I don’t believe that the act of writing as a journalist is itself activism. It’s discourse and it must not pretend to “inspire” and “change” as so many women’s magazines have for so long.
      A writer may not constitute herself as an old-fashioned role-model. But, so long as she is still consciously something of a role-model, she is, in my view, following some very questionable traditions.
      God, I wish more women would just write about things without putting their personal trauma at the centre. I wish they would dare to talk about complexes of power without having to introduce the raped bodies of others. And this goes for much of women’s press and not especially for Clem.

  10. Dear Helen

    I love your ability to get to the nub of an argument.
    I must admit that albeit I am an infrequent user of facebook I am sometimes teempted to call some people on the rightwing drivel they post.
    However as the great Barney Frank US senator used to say “…whats the point , it would be like talking to chair!”
    I do miss Waleed on RN drive

  11. I’ve been hoping you’d broach this subject ever since Clem Ford started making a daily appearance in my “news” feed about a week ago. As much as i love this piece i can’t help but feel there is more to be said about Clem Ford’s recent attempt to take back the cyber night. I appreciate that you will no doubt be inundated with abuse and hate mail already as it is in spite of the respectful nature of your criticism.

    At the risk of sounding a tad cynical her entire media presence of late reeks of opportunism and pandering to those co-inhabiting her tight little bubble and reveling in outrage. Not that being opportunistic is always necessarily a bad thing but it is when you’re supposedly helping people. I don’t think anything Clem has done is the past week has done anything to help people who receive abuse online. It’s nothing more than a series of fleeting ‘you go girl!’ moments from a false idol. Of course saying anything even remotely critical about her actions automatically makes you an abusive troll on par with Hitler. You’re either with Clem or against her, there is no middle ground.

    Clem and her feminist minions named and shamed her abusers but wouldn’t it be far more interesting to find out how many of these men were tweeting anonymously? It’s only naming and shaming if these abusers try to hide their identity, otherwise you’re simply re-tweeting with a poorly conceived overly ambitious hashtag #endviolenceagainstwomen.

    There is nothing heroic about dwelling on your cyber bullies and fueling public outrage in a pathetic attempt to cling to the spotlight. There is however something exceedingly admirable about someone writing something with genuine conviction, no matter how unpopular the opinions expressed, knowing full well she will inevitably attract a fresh new hell of bile and vitriol and yet having it published online anyway.

    1. I don’t think Clem’s motivations are really very important. For a few reasons.
      First, she is just one of a good many, quite respected people doing a thing that is now seen as legitimate. I have seen many ABC journalists reproduce their hate mail, for example, in social media.
      Second, I am pretty sure that Clem genuinely believes that what she is doing is good, both in an emotional and a creditably intellectualised way. I am *absolutely* sure that she’s not to be held accountable for the way in which people read her as heroic. The ABC drum piece I linked to, for example, is one of the truly shitty responses to her project. Readers of Clem and not Clem herself should be charged with this harmful apotheosis.
      Third, and most importantly, this is not about Clem. I mean, I know people love a cat fight and I have received several messages saying “I wish you’d gone harder on her”. Why would I? Clem didn’t invent this era of empowered victimology. She just lives in it.

      1. Definitely not trying to start a cat fight, i think. I know Ford’s not responsible for her readerships reaction, I just wonder whether or not she revels in being the catalyst.

        I really liked the piece you published today on Bad Hostess. Did you read Tanya Levin’s response to the NM boycott? Kilbride’s piece was awful (if you’re so afraid of criticizing someone like Ford that you need to spend the first half of the article talking about how great feminism is and how every time Emma Watson farts a feminist gets her first rainbow coloured pitchfork then maybe write about something else!) but Levin’s follow up almost makes up for it.

  12. Thanks for some much needed sense on this Helen. I just wish you would hit home harder and clearer.

    Clementine Ford’s choice to very publicly engage with abusive nutters and to ignore articulate educated male victims of female abuse who politely and confidentially write to her with facts and figures is both extremely lazy and extremely effective. Copping some abuse on facebook doesn’t make you a good person and doesn’t justify you in enabling a significant proportion of all domestic abusers.

    The rate of men being murdered by their partners is around fifty percent of the rate for women. It’s significantly lower, but no stretch of the imagination could call it insignificant in comparison. Men are at far higher risk of violent death in all other settings and are twice as likely to be murdered over all as women.

    The rate of women dying prematurely of heart attacks is around 15 percent of the rate for men.

    Does Ms. Ford believe that women are overwhelmingly not at risk of heart attack, or would she like to withdraw her statement that men are overwhelmingly not at risk of domestic homicide? Does she want to withdraw services for women having heart attacks or introduce some protections for men and children who are abused by women?

    Clementine’s answer: Ohh Ohh Hey everybody, look over there, some bogan called me a slut.

    So what? Some bogan called me a rapist and that is a much bigger problem for my abused children and I than it needs to be because of the nonsense she and a few others like her have built their careers around. What I wouldn’t give for the luxury of merely being called a slut on facebook.

    Clementine Ford writes for a major newspaper and has a responsibility to defend her statements with facts and figures, not distract from them by carrying on about pathetic insults she gets from the dopeyest losers she has offended.

    1. I have precisely zero interest in demeaning Ford personally or professionally. And, if we’re to talk about journalists who misrepresent reality: how about those from News Corp who actually report fiction as fact and do not, as Ford does, offer opinion clearly labelled as such.
      I don’t think her work is without value and I don’t think she’s 1% the demon she’s made out to be. My point here is how public readings of certain writers allow them to emerge as heroes on the basis of attack. So, I have no interest in demonisation. I have, as I often do, a very explicit interest in progressive writers refusing the affective techniques and responses of their neoliberal peers.
      Please. Please. Don’t make this personal. And don’t ask me to diss. I won’t.

    2. “The rate of men being murdered by their partners is around fifty percent of the rate for women”.
      Citation needed. I only point this out because you say Ford ‘has a responsibility to defend her statements with facts and figures’, and you’re doing exactly not that.

    3. You are being selective with facts, so perhaps Ms Ford was entitled to ignore you, although I have seen her deal with this canard in the past

      It may be true that the rate of men being murdered by their partners is 50% of that for women. What you fail to mention is that the partners doing the murdering are predominantly male.

      While intimate partner violence is not confined to one gender it is pretty clear that it is predominantly a male problem, especially when one includes all the other forms of oppression and control which make up the matrix in which it occurs.

      I find myself agreeing with both authors – the like of Ms Ford’s abusers appear to be predominantly inadequate males who do not need to bask in the glory of any attention they may get, but nor do we need them to go entirely scot-free, so if she manages to nail one occasionally so they actually suffer consequences, all strength to her arm.

  13. “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.”

    This is a really important distinction Helen, but the fact that you (rightly) felt that you had to wrap it in so many layers of “of course I’m not saying…” points to the problem – most people can’t see past their group affiliations and biases and any attack on something or someone that they identify with must be responded to (often with MAXIMUM SOCIAL MEDIA FORCE) regardless of the merits.

    I think this is a feature of humans rather than of social media or the internet or modern society or whatever thing grumpy old people (I’m about your age so this is a rapidly narrowing category sadly) are complaining about now, but it’s sure a lot more visible now that everyone can tell the world what they really think.

    I do believe (with faint hope some days) that better global communication and the lowering of the gates around so many sources of information (and the welcome slow decline of the gatekeepers, those corrupt and incompetent business and governmental institutions) will eventually produce a better-informed public and smooth out the edges of the groups we place ourselves in, but that’s a long way off in the distance.

    “The proof of the pudding is not in the beating”

    Nice.

  14. We are well past the stage where detailing this abuse is instructive? Was it ever, except for illuminating to the extremely sheltered how badly people can react to ideas that confront them? We’ve known for a long time now that people can be very awful when confronted with challenging analysis, and that the internet has only increased access and volume of this awfulness – pointing it out over and over again doesn’t add much. Back to the useful stuff please.

    1. Maybe you should look at the results of the elections in Europe where the far right surged in the polls and now look ready to grab power in France. Helen writes with all the comfort her physical appearance gives her without the need to justify herself. When things get tough she blends back into the comfort zone knowing all the while (like all good right wingers do) that the establishment will print vast reams to support her position and eviscerate the opposing view.

      Logging abuse is a way of marking the depth of that view .

        1. The unsupported assertion that The Project was ” 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”. Could only come from a rightwhinger

          1. How is a dislike of a program, which is explained over 1500 words in a link contained in the first par of the text, “right wing”?
            Leaving aside that my view is that The Project is actually too moderate and unsurprising and not “left wing”, if you like, enough, you do get, right, that you can dislike a telly program for various reasons, none of which are political.
            Jeez, Love. If you’re making political assessments based on taste in programs on channel ten, you might want to consider doing some reading.

        2. I should add that on any metric you would like; The Project is funnier, more informative and balance than any comparable show. The need to identify this how in the manner that you did, I could only conclude would come from someone from the far Bernardi right.

          1. So, your argument is
            1 Mark likes The Project
            2 Mark considers himself left-wing
            3 Therefore, anyone who does not like The Project is not left-wing.
            Pls think about the poor informal logic here, son.

          2. Helen what I assessed was why someone would write such an article and not take into account the media landscape that is Australia, dominated by the Murderdochs (Channel 10). The attacks on the ABC by the Libs and the spineless defense by the CEO which would indicate that there would not be a whole lot of resources placed into said ABC programs (but you may know better) and they would be very gun shy at the moment . Of all the tabloid type news programs these are the most balance within the media landscape trying to lift the embarrassing far right wing stuff to some place which would provide some insight into the issue.

            You’ve identified a high water mark and slammed those that have tried to attain that level and lazily ignored/omitted their environment. The other that write for the right are the recipients of corporate welfare to shout their agendas.

            So my point is why write all those words and miss the main point.

          3. Mark. What “point” am I missing?
            My contention is that The Project appeases an audience that already holds very mild, centrist views about love and understanding. My contention is that it appears to be opposition but is mostly just platitudes along the lines of “war, what is it good for?”.
            Now, believe it or not, a single person can simultaneously find the absolute, up-front idiocy of Bolt and the compromised, hidden liberalism of The Project irritating.
            If you are deciding what to like based on who hates it. Well, I guess this wasn’t the article for you.
            But, do enjoy your black and white thinking. It’s all the rage these days.

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