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Tara Moss and her famous friends offer little help in ABC’s battle with cyber-bullies

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On the eve of her husband’s election as Circus Peanut in Chief, Melania Trump broke a long campaign silence to address the topic of cyber-bullying. This scourge, she intimated in a speech that otherwise disclosed her teen crush on dreamy President Reagan, would be her central focus as First Lady. No boy or girl should be bullied online!

Coming as it did from the spouse of a troll, this declaration was a bit rich. Just how one advocates for a kinder online culture while also campaigning for a Twitter account from which brutal hyperbole pops like flatus is anybody’s guess.

Equally mysterious, though, is the near-universal call to clean up the latrine of the internet. As though such a thing could ever be done. From both conservative and progressive commentators, the cry comes to correct the crimes of millions nonetheless. “Words have weight,” says Tara Moss in her new ABC documentary Cyberhate. This view of language as the world’s most significant force has been upheld by so many, from Jacques Derrida to Donald Trump himself.


For Trump, as for Andrew Bolt who is interviewed on Moss’s program, it is freedom of language that will guarantee broader freedom for all: we just need to stop those politically correct police! For Moss, as her every interviewee save for Bolt agrees, it is freedom from certain uses of language that will deliver the same guarantee.

For anyone who believes that there are conditions outside language, this show is not for you. Moss’s world is made entirely of language with almost nothing preceding it, and her guest list is made almost entirely of those who make its public use their paid labour.

“Like so much professional media, this program has professional media as its focus.”

Being such a worker myself, I do understand how draining, sometimes debilitating, online threats can prove. But, I also understand that my experience is not illustrative of the broader one. However, featured subject Van Badham, a writer, appears entirely convinced that her plight is representative. As does comedian Joel Creasey, one of several modestly known guests who explain just how much language has hurt them.

I’m sure this is true. Given that I remain in the care of a discount psychologist after twenty years of similar shit, I could not sincerely urge my media peers to “harden up”. I would urge anyone, however, producing a documentary about the newly emerged phenomenon of cyber-bullying to seek comment from well outside the knowledge class. My problems are not everybody’s problems.

If Badham or I are assailed online, we can rely on broad support. Heck, we can even be paid to write entire moving memoirs about our harrowing experience just as soon as it unfolds. These are not luxuries enjoyed by a majority of internet users. To continually draw parallels between a cultural elite—that’s what we are; you can tell, because we keep being invited to use our words with maximum “weight”—and everyday people strikes me as reprehensible.

What does the young woman facing online threats of rape have to learn from me or Badham, women whose work it is to publicly speak? The answer of Moss and several of her knowledge worker subjects is “never to be silenced” and to continue to speak powerfully about being a woman. It seems not to occur to any participant in this program that most women on the internet simply speak about everyday things. The courageous injunction to “never be silenced” is addressed entirely to those media workers who speak about their marginalised identity category. I don’t know where this leaves a majority who are attacked when, say, posting pictures of their dinner or their new kitten.

Like so much professional media, this program has professional media as its focus. The lives of writers and entertainers are now so commonly held by other writers and entertainers to be the most “relatable” ones. Which is perplexing. This is an era where many consumers spit the phrase “mainstream media”. This is an era where prominent media and celebrity endorsement worked to undermine the election chances of a presidential nominee. This is an era where people have good cause to have the shits with a media class whose whining, both progressive and conservative, comes from deep within its own arse. Which might have been an interesting question for Moss to ask of her subjects, actually: do you think there’s a reason that people who work in media cop it?

“There is a little practical advice on this show for the everyday victim. Don’t engage with abusers. Do be aware of your legal rights. There’s some really impractical advice, too…”

Per Married at First Sight, there’s a little neuroscience thrown in. Moss pops herself in an MRI machine and reads offensive tweets. By these means, we can all say, “See! Look at the brain chemistry changing,” and agree that the immaterial nature of language becomes material in the brain. Neuroscience’s unreliable status as a science notwithstanding.

There is a little practical advice on this show for the everyday victim. Don’t engage with abusers. Do be aware of your legal rights. There’s some really impractical advice, too, especially as Moss cheers on the activist Carly Findlay for her empowering decision to post on Reddit*—please, god, never do this—and several interview subjects call for an end to anonymity online. A proposal that would have quashed the formation of movements like Black Lives Matter or the Arab Spring. Nearly everyone asks for harsher legal penalties and wonders why the police aren’t doing anything. Which are only questions you can ask in a world where language has the most weight.

None of this is to suggest that cyber-bullying is not a harmful practice or a topic with which we should not engage. It is to urge for a better intellectual framework when discussing it. “Words have weight,” sounds like a smart thing to say. But it excuses the person saying it from examining those other heavy things in the world. This program is about as post-material as it gets.


*An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified the web-forum at which Ms Findlay posted. The author’s apologises. This has been corrected.

[box]Cyberhate with Tara Moss is on ABC2 this Wednesday, March 15 at 9.30pm[/box]

33 responses to “Tara Moss and her famous friends offer little help in ABC’s battle with cyber-bullies

    1. Jay, that’s a shame as Helen is only expressing an opinion and it is worth watching even if it is only for greater awareness of a growing issue.

  1. I read somewhere that the word is not the thing (Einstein, Russell) or the map is not the territory (Alfred Korzybski – general semantics, Science and Sanity). What meaning we ascribe to a word or words received is very much a personal construct. If this is so we can make decisions as to what is fact, opinion, insult, real, fake etc. Whilst I understand that online attacks on the person can be traumatic the extent to which this is the case is how this stuff is received and managed by the ‘offended.’ Far better that kids understood that the words they hear or see are not the territory i.e. they (the words) don’t (need not) define them. Exposure to the reality of cyber bullying in a safe place where kids are taught that words can hurt (depending on personal interpretations) but only if we allow them to and that we can learn to view things from other perspectives. Epictetus observed a long time ago that it is our interpretation of the event/thing or estimate of it (Marcus Aurelius) that can make us feel and act as we do. The cyberspace juggernaut may not be tamed or totally controlled but how we experience it can be I believe.

  2. Yes, interesting points about the obsession among media “personalities” that they themselves are newsworthy and the amount of onscreen mutual masturbation being somehow relevant

  3. She didn’t call language “the world’s most significant force.” She just said “words have weight.”
    I do agree, though, that these days way too many members of the media are focused on interviewing each other. Silly.

    1. I did not quote Moss as using these words. I made the point that this program was led in its thinking by the very broad view that ideas and language create reality.

  4. bullying of any serious kind is criminal behaviour and the perpetrators need to be held accountable by whatever means possible

  5. Helen,

    I wish I could disagree with you – just once. Then I could really cross swords (or light sabres, if you preferred).
    But no, you’ve done it again. Behind all the miasma of this cyber-bullying expose is a profit motive.
    Behind the profit-motive lies the justification for the motherhood statements so prevalent in this programme.

    Rather than seek solutions, it plays the ‘victim’ every opportunity. Vacuous comes to mind.

    One of these days, dear Helen, it’ll be just you and me Mano-a-Femo, but I won’t hold my breath.
    Pretty please, just once, can’t I disagree with you?…I mean it must be hell to be right all the time…lol

  6. It is easy to diss others’ work and this is of course Helen Razer’s trade mark as she derides what others do. People like to know how celebrities deal with life issues. If ordinary people can see that those brave people in the public eye can deal with situations it helps them make a slightly provocative remark themselves and risk backlash. It builds the courage needed to make comments as women are engaged and redoing more than talking about meals online. This assumption in itself is incredibly We need hope in our lives and knowledge about it. The ordinary person is not so silly as to think that every piece of advice from a celebrity is wisdom from on high.

    I wait for Helen Razer to find anything positive to say about the work of other women. It looks as if all she can do is snipe from the sidelines. It is easy to do that, but like the pollies who attack each other, all it really does is undermine the whole of their sector. Yes the women of the media are in a privileged position just as the men are. However we have men talking to us telling us about our lives every day. Why pick on the rare woman who dares to do the same?

    1. Yvonne. I am a regular critic of works and actions performed by men. I afford women the same respect.
      Perhaps you could afford me such respect and argue with what I have written rather than what you imagine to be my moral shortcomings.
      I believe this repeated celebrity focus, most particularly within a week of programming on the national broadcaster which purports to be about the scourge of bullying, is damaging.
      I do not believe that women only talk about their dinner. But, many of us, men and women, on our social media accounts do talk about everyday things. This is not a judgement. It is a statement of fact. That anti-bullying media focuses so relentlessly only on those with something “political” to say when most people go about talking about their favourite films or whether or not it is bin night is, in my view, poor. I believe I have explained why. If we want to make this entertainment actually relatable, perhaps occasionally we might speak on behalf of those who have lesser voices.
      I am sick to the back teeth of hearing “brave” women applauded for simple retweeting and story-fying their threats. They say, again and again, that their particular oppression reflects that of all women. This is simply not true. This behaviour is narcissistic and deluded, like much mainstream media of the present.
      This is not abut me not being a good sister. Which, in your view, seems to involve applauding anything anyone who identifies as a woman does. It is about me having the shits with anti-intellectual media that purports to solve problems, but gives us elitism instead.
      Please don’t cut-and-paste your tedious tone lectures from the pages of the Daily Life. Go back there and have your biases about (an entirely false) world of feminist solidarity confirmed.

      1. This has to be one of the most brilliant responses I have read on the internet for along time. I completely, and naively, misunderstood your position on this Helen. Intellectualism, and interrogation of arguments are, in my opinion, the key aspect of critiquing any proposed idea or argument.

        I am sick to death, of a group of women who highlight themselves as feminists, fighting for women’s empowerment, only to espouse that their struggles are those of every woman, every day. In my experience, exactly as you describe it Helen, when I talk to the women I know, this is just not true. Furthermore, the argument that we are constantly told by men in the media what to do, is BS. There are stacks of women out there doing the very same thing in popular culture. When we simply ignore, or forget those women, we then inturn undervalue their contribution. What you have done Helen, by critiquing this piece, regardless of the gender of the person producing it, is as you have said, providing them the same respect.


      2. Daily Life – What on earth are you imagining? I don’t even know what you are talking about.

        As an ordinary person who engages with other (extra-) ordinary women I understand your unwillingness to be subjected to critical analysis – I am quite sure you are not a good sister.

        I can only speak for myself but agree that it is deluded and narcissistic to speak so patronisingly about ordinary women as if you are not part of the media elite. I am not suggesting that everything that a woman does should be applauded but you condemn without giving any credit for anything positive. Your cynicism will not help the sisters nor the brothers but is based on contempt for the work of others in your field.

        Cyber bullying is a problem. Have you ever thought that perhaps the reason that women who are prominent, who have dealt with these issues may be of help to those who are dealing with the many forms of cyber bullying that occur, is because they are prepared to put themselves in the frame and other women appreciate them in a way that other women appreciated the work of the suffragettes? Those who fought for the vote were very prominent and had to face worse than just nasty words, but every woman since has benefitted from having a vote.

        Your piece does nothing to help ordinary women navigate the dilemmas of modern trolling/bullying without just going back into the domesticity box. It is also designed to stop viewers from sampling the program. So much easier to pull other women down who are working to make a difference provide a fair critique of other’s work. Having Read Moss’s book I am sure that there will be some value in what is presented.

        1. Critical analysis is fine with me, Yvonne. All you are providing, in addition to “don’t criticise other women”, is the common non-argument of “what are you doing to improve women’s lot”?
          Nothing. But, then again, I didn’t claim to. I’m just trying to improve the telly.
          This program is, in my view, destructive. For reasons that I have outlined and those expanded on by Jim, below.
          It is a program largely about what it is like to work in media. If it were honestly presented as such, it wouldn’t be a problem.
          For the nth time, comparing my struggle (which I plainly say is abnormal, despite your claim that I pretend, somehow, not to be part of a privileged cultural class) with that of most people bullied online is fruitless at best.
          If you find Moss inspiring, that’s great. Ask yourself, when you finally do view the program (I had assumed you were also a media worker and had access to a preview by the way you so meticulously defended it) if it genuinely does anything for ABC stakeholders. The overwhelming majority of which do not work in empowering women’s media.

          1. Well good work Helen. What is needed of course is legislation to deal with death, rape threats and the creepy types of statements which are so common for women. To get that of course requires general awareness in the community and an ABC program will help that. We know what you don’t like the approach taken and are very defensive about that view. Your assumptions are a flaw as I am so far from working in the media the idea made me smile. I am an ordinary woman who you are trying to speak for. Or perhaps I am not ordinary because I do occasionally read your articles and sometimes even get to the end and even more rarely respond. The challenge for you is to show how the issue can be dealt with. This will never be done by ordinary women who do not work in the media. Maybe the show is boring for reasons other than celebrity which is in fact something women will watch. You could suggest that 4 Corners could do a better job by looking at the impact on women in general but probably unlikely to happen unless someone loses her life. But that would involve you looking for a solution to the issues you outline. But don’t worry – the blokes here agree with you. That is all that matters. #NotAllMen

          2. Yvonne. Legislation already exists to deal with these threats. It is Section 474.17 of the Criminal Code . I am familiar with it as I have invoked it to police many times. That this was not made known to you or mentioned on the program is not my wrongdoing. It is that of producers fare more interested in serving the idea of media stars as victims than the needs of actual victims.
            Where was the mention of this law? Where was the advice on how to enact it? Where was some practical advice on the use of VPNs or other means for maintaining one’s privacy and why on earth didn’t we go through the (very difficult) process of reporting such a crime or obtaining an intervention order?
            You can knock yourself out with your accusations about how I am, apparently, buoyed by men. Or, you could think about how this program is another example of media that prefers to revel in famous victims than do anything to spare real victims real heartache.
            Instead, what we have is a program that begins with the disrespectful falsehood that Charlotte Dawson was killed by trolls, that then calls for laws that are already in place and finally asks for an end to anonymity online. Which is such a monumentally fascist and stupid request. If a kid in need of online mental health counselling must disclose their real name, do you think they may be dissuaded?
            It is rubbish. The fact that the producers meant well is not enough.
            Finally. I am a television reviewer. I believe that I am doing what I can in that capacity. So, do stop it with the “what have YOU done?” I have pointed out serious flaws in the hope they will not be repeated.

    2. Sorry Yvonne but how exactly are these people ‘brave’? And why is their personal narrative a substitute for broader analysis about what actually constitutes bullying, what is existing policy and why / do the settings need to be recalibrated?

      I have worked in this space for over a decade. I have run civil bullying matters, workplace bullying matters and prosecuted stalking matters. I have investigated and engaged in dispute resolution of bullying in hundreds of cases. And I’ve been part of policy development in this space in Victoria. Helen has raised points we continue to grapple with when looking at the policy settings. And she raises the excellent point that media / celebrities are simply not indicative (or in my opinion, even helpful) when practically dealing with this issue. These people have at their disposal resources most people cant imagine when they are faced with cyber bullying. Some of the people on this show coild be fairly judged as cyber bullies themselves.

      So the valid criticism is: why is the ABC doing such a superficial and counterproductive foray into such a critical topic that effects everyday peopl? It’ll help Tara et al sell some more copy / books but in terms of meaningful change, I’m afraid it will give the impression that there’s progress when there is in fact, none.

      1. Thanks for your comment, Jim. It reflects what I have heard from several mental health practitioners and advocates concerned that the celebrity experience not only fails to serve the (obviously) far more widespread everyday one, but that such moments of glorious healing entertainment offer a false sense that mental health is taken care of.
        In an address last year, Dr Patrick McGorry described awareness raising as constituting a “glass ceiling” for funded access to therapies. Something that most of the people on Tara’s show could easily afford.
        Australia has one of the lowest proportions per GDP for mental health funding of any OECD nation. Further, our rights at work have all but disappeared, making it far easier for bullying to occur in the workplace. But, the ABC’s now dependable response to such matters is to tell everyone to care deeply.
        I’ve had jack of this bollocks. I understand that this stuff might rate better than a genuine attempt to address people’s real experience of fear and alienation. I understand that there is an audience for putatively edgy feminists who earn their living from complaint that they are being silenced. And, sure, some of this stuff might “inspire” a few girls, just as someone who is slightly larger than your average television hostess might make some girls feel better about their bodies.
        But when it comes to being bullied and threatened by an anonymous person? I can tell you from real experience that such light entertainment, which purports to chart this territory, would be an insult to its victims. It’s like treating anorexia nervosa with a plus-size fashion parade. Completely inadequate, and possibly damaging to its purported audience.

        1. God, you’re funny! Your anorexia/plus-size analogy is gold. Also, agree with you re: the semi-well known Aussie ‘slebs’ deciding to heal the world one troll at a time. It’s naive and arrogant and only baits the barmy army.

        2. I’m so glad you raised the erosion of work rights in this area. Awareness of that is about the only awareness canpaign I can get behind these days.

          And yes. For those people who are cyberbullied, this advice is horrendously counter productive. I mention it in a reply above, and I cannot improve on your analogy (which will be used in an inservice this year). When faced with Tara Moss smiling saying ‘be brave’ on a shiny tv show, the person riddled with anxiety, fear and depression just adds ‘self loathing’ and ‘I’m failing’ to the mix.

      2. Without attitudes changing then there will be no change. We see that in relation to domestic violence which even when front of mind has had funding cuts and policy changes so that the work has to continue to push back to protect women who are overwhelmingly victims. The failure of many to see women’s experience as valid is one of the biggest impediments to change. Speaking out in this context is brave as it takes time and energy to get people such as yourself “experts in the field” to validate women’s experience as being of a different quality to that of men with threats of harm being far more common.

        1. Sorry but this program does not validate the experience of the literally hundreds of women I have met who who have been bullied and cyberbullied. It is counterproductive, therapeutically damaging (yes, many are in therapy and yes, before you ask, I’m also a trainee psychiatrist) and implicitly says to them ‘you’re doing a terrible job at coping and dealing with whats before you’. The failure to respond ‘bravely’ is then internalised, pathologised and goes on to reinforce other negative stereotypes – in some young women (on social media seeking validation), it leads to thoughts of worthlessness, shame, self blame and self loathing.

          The fact is, the personal narrative simply sets people, and young women in particular, up to fail. And there is a large amount of evidence now becoming available to show just how damaging ‘awareness’ campaigns like this can be, to the mental health, recovery and long term relationship and employment prospects of people affected by cyber bullying. Before you insinuate that ‘experts in the field’ devalue the unique experiences of women and other people we work with, perhaps look beyond the work of Tara Moss et al or the inane rantings of other columnists. Its not only baseless and incorrect, its insulting.

  7. Thank you Helen for returning to that dry wit only you can promote in such a way. Without taking anything away from your article you may have wantedk to dig at why we are so cosy with Trump. He is meaningless to me and yet people want to know his latest blog. It will be a mix of bullshit, hate speeech and unbackable lies. One more thing. We mere men cop a lot of shit or I do from the authorities who should know better. They have no life other than they come out from their rocks after dark and troll the internet in an attempt to make others lives as dull and boring as theirs. Thanks again. Keep up that under current of Razer wit I love.

  8. I find it ironic that those who are perhaps the worst perpetrators of online bullying are now claiming to be champions of the cause. ‘Never be silent’ eh?

    My experience with Badham is exactly that. I disagreed with her sentiments on twitter once. I believe I pointed out that Poodles Pine and Mincing were unnecessary homophobic slurs. Ms Badham disagreed and a pile on ensued where I was painted as a racist misogynist. But it didnt stop there.

    ‘Never be silenced’ smacks of hypocrisy as every working person who has lost their job at the hands of (these champions of the cause).

    (I did not and indeed due to having excellent friends and a first rate legal education pushed back hard against the trolls who tried to have me sacked at work / rendered friendless).

    I am aghast but not surprised that the bullies have bullied their way into the bullying sphere. That their advice is being adopted without reference to their own behaviors (or say, actual experts in the area) shows just how abysmal public discourse has become.

  9. Hello Helen.
    Thank you for calling it as it is. I was disappointed (again) with the ABC for the Mental Illness program. My sister’s experiences in this area were daunting to put it mildly.
    My only little response was your casual remark about the neurosciences.
    Yes, the unscientific attempts at causation and correlation with offensive language in brain activity using an MRI is not evidenced-based science.
    Whilst Neurology is an incomplete science, it is currently our best and most reliable field of scientific and medical pursuits.
    My wife, Annie, is long suffering from MS, yet continues to remain a strong and determined person.
    Annie has, and continues to, receive the best and most supportive outcomes and treatments possible from the neurosciences and her neurologist.
    Recently, Annie underwent a procedure to alleviate and potentially cease the pain and issues associated with her MS related Trigemenial Neuralgia.
    I responded this way out of concern that a passing comment on the sciences has in today’s world of anti-science, anti-intellectual and pseudoscience.
    Otherwise, please keep up the good work.

    1. Lucas! No! Not to disrespect the neurology at all.
      Neurology and neuroscience are two distinct disciplines.
      We can have the greatest respect for neurology, a true medical science that admits its limitations.
      Neuroscience, (and I know that some research departments that contain neurologists are named Neuro Sciences, just to confuse matters) is itself a pseudo-scientific interdisciplinary study, in which one may become a doctor having completed a Bachelor of Arts. A la Sam Harris.
      The results of neuroscience, as distinct from neurology, are not yet legally permissible. While it is possible that the vague things people say about MRI neurochemical readings (very different from the diagnosis performed of MS lesions) will one day translate into science, at present, neuroscience is more like nascent psychology.
      Sorry for the misunderstanding.

      1. Good article, but the glib dismissal of entire fields of scientific endeavour such as neuroscience – pseudoscience really! – is careless to say the least.

        Perhaps point to the carefree use of research to come up with pseudoscientific conclusions in books by Malcolm Gladwell or Johan Lehrer. But not in a one liner dismissing the whole enterprise.

      1. The (often) young people toiling in the dark satanic mills of underfunded PhD programmes are doing excellent science. Neuroscience done with proper regard to scientific principles is admirable.- the uses to which these heroic, again often young and disenfranchised peoples’ work is not. No-one who hopes to be published in reputable journals relies on tenuous MRI results as described. Neurology draws its breakthrough treatments from pure research, completed in faculties fighting for every last dollar. The MRI sequence in the documentary is lazy storytelling and lowest common denominator pandering. It doesn’t then help to denigrate an entire field of scientific enquiry and those who labour diligently within it, by suggesting it is pseudo science – it isn’t. Use your media privilege to attend a neuroscience faculty with an open mind. The precision and dedication required in this field will impress. The insights the researchers glean offer hope to the hopeless. The people within the field make enormous sacrifices to be there. We should laud them,
        not peddle falsehoods about their claim to scientific legitimacy.

      2. I’ve got to agree with Helen here . . . . neuroscience (as distinct from neurology) is just the latest evolution of junk science such as phrenology and neuro-linguistic programming.

        Other than that, I share Helen’s disappointment that once again, the Australian media looks up its own arse in search of a story.

        1. This is completely incorrect. Neuroscience is a real field of science. Just because popular pseudoscience communicators spout complete bullshit does not besmirch an entire field of science.

          Neurology is a branch of medicine. Neuroscience is the scientific study of the brain at the molecular, cellular and developmental level.

  10. I agree with all of this. I wonder if bullying is just one of the less attractive parts of human nature and as such can’t be counselled or talked out of society. Surely the focus should be on making people resilient against such threats and language. Helen if only more left-wingers were as sensible as you I think a great deal more progress would be made from this corner.

  11. I saw all versions of this 10 minute x 6 episodes by clicking ahead and jumping the 1 min intros. Very bad science. Who chose the troll’s mask? It was established he wanted anonymity, but did the show choose the image, or did he?

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