Glossy Covers: Bringing darkness to light

If you've ever spent time around a dinner table with someone who was domineering by nature, meekly having your say in hushed tones beneath your breath, you'd know that it stifles your ability to have your own opinion voiced and heard. While not all of us want or wish to be liked, we at least like to be heard. And if we're not, we're prone to taking that pent-up frustration and unleashing it on our nearest and dearest, others or ourselves.

I can barely imagine the frustration of asylum seekers who act out as they do. And I often wonder what causes people to vent their vitriol online, more particularly under the generic pseudonym "Anonymous", a word that strikes fear in the eyes of your average blogger and which has come to represent the seedy underside of the internet where seething hatred manifests as in the underground tunnels of Afghanistan where the Taliban make their home.

 What's driving the haters to hate, the invisi-bullies to bully, and what can be done to protect those who join online communities to have their say in a rational, thoughtful, web-enhancing way?

Christine Jackman's cover story, 'War of Words', in The Weekend Australian Magazine makes some ground in this regard. Bringing to light some of the nasty, threatening and intimidating comments directed at anti-violence campaigner, media researcher and 2010 Australian of the Year state finalist Nina Funnell, Sky newsreader Jacinta Tynan, advertising executive Sean Cummins, anti-pornography campaigner Melinda Tankard Reist and Kids Free 2B Kids founder Julie Gale, while weaving in her own hate mail experience, Jackman canvasses "cyber-bile", rumour masquerading as fact and the repercussions for those targeted (Cummins contemplated suicide).

The comments following mUmBRELLA's post on the story further the discussion but also highlight the very best and worst of the blog platform: "Grow a set of nuts mate," says an unsympathetic Dave. "It is no wonder that so many people go overseas for bigger opportunities and to escape the small minded comments of the pathetic few who are being encouraged by those who provide the veil of anonymity for commercial gain," writes Darren Woolly. "The best revenge Sean is the continued success you have earned. I am sure it makes these sniveling commentators cringe at their own continued failure."

The issue is manifold and complex, as is anything to do with human action (and reaction): do people snark up simply because they vehemently disagree with what the person in question is saying (or believe their intellect/knowledge is superior to theirs and must make this known); is it environmental/contextual (hence, if your blog is dishing it, it can expect to receive it, too); is it reflective of a wider socio-cultural lack of accountability and good manners; is it jealousy/Tall Poppy Syndrome; and how should the internet free-for-all be regulated to ensure the safety of its participants (and, if it is, is this another case of nanny-state madness?).  

Dr Stephen Harrington, who lectures in media and communication at QUT, had this to say to Jackman: "That gap between the promise [of the internet] and the reality has generated anger and resentment among some people, and they really let that anger fly when they are given even the most tiny chance to have their voice heard. The comments section of a news article is a good example. I think some people use those forums to attack everyone who disagrees with them because they have been told that their opinion is equally valid to everyone else’s, and they feel they have the right to say whatever they want to, no matter how tangential it is to the actual item under discussion."

According to American psychiatrist Abraham Maslow, there are seven basic human needs that motivate people to certain behaviour patterns: 1. Psychological: nutrition, elimination, sex, sleep; 2. Safety: security, stability and freedom from fear; 3. Love and belonging; 4. Esteem: self-esteem and esteem from others; 5. Self-actualisation: to know self; 6. Desire to know and understand; and 7. Aesthetics: beauty, music, religious experience.

If these needs are not being met, it can drive people into vengeful or irrational behaviour. Rev. Dr. Gordon Moyes, former CEO of Wesley Mission, writes in his autobiography that for the homeless a bag of possessions can become vital to their security; take it away and they might kill you. However, if they feel safe, their motivational activity shifts upward to satisfying their needs for love and belonging.

Jesus – the man who told us to love God and others above all the other commandments – was not shy of overturning tables when he thought the behaviour in the temple was not respectful. It is biblical to keep others accountable for their actions; to take your brother or sister aside privately and point out the error of their ways. This is why I have always appreciated those who take time to email, or even call, to point out discrepancies or factual errors or to have their say. That connotes respect, grace, generosity and good manners in my books.

But for those whose opinions stir up the very worst in humanity, like Funnell and Tankard-Reist and Gale, because they touch on its deep-rooted faults, the criticism is par for the course. The apostle Paul knew this only too well, encouraging the Corinthians in his first letter, "I am not the least concerned with the fact that you are deciding what is right and what is wrong with me... Neither you nor anyone else can put me down unless I first put myself down (and I'm not doing that)... Though I don't know of anything against me, my ignorance doesn't mean that I am correct in my appraisal, because the final evaluation is in God's hands."

We are not always gracious and well-mannered beings, try as we might, because we have either not been raised that way, environmental conditioning causes us to act that way, or we are having a shitty day/week/life and don't have the emotional maturity – or sense of personal responsibility – to deal with it in a positive way; hence, if I suffer, everyone else must too! This is why certain rules are and should be designed to keep us (both producers and commenters) in line.

While GWAS has 'The Pollyanna Code of Commenting Conduct' (read it here) and a guiding mission statement, I've also considered banishing anonymity altogether (would you believe the Blogger platform doesn't have the option to deselect 'Anonymous'?), but have thus far been grateful that so many of the comments enrich what I post and widen my world view. Other bloggers have said goodbye to comments full stop. Perhaps there needs to be a blogger's Neighbourhood Watch?

The outsourcing of comment filtering, as reported in The Digital Gloss Files, is likely to continue as more online media producers and organisations tighten the reins to avoid defamation cases and weigh up the cost benefits of spending their time editing/deleting/ruminating over the comments sections. "Would you rather have online staff spend their time playing traffic cop in the comments or producing work for the site?" asked Justin Ellis of Nieman Journalism Lab. Those sites more reliant on active and vocal comment communities have their work cut out.

With the freedoms afforded to us in a developed society come responsibilities. When our basic needs are met, we really have no excuse to act up, though of course we will slip up, in which case a "sorry" can help to heal the wounds we inflict. While an online utopia is fanciful, as with the environment, we can all do our part to set a positive example for the next generation of online users – less abuse, more good and fair use – by considering what kind of online world we want them to live in before we hit  'publish'.

Should tweens blog? Perhaps not until we adults get our act together. Or maybe they can teach us a thing or two?


Kathy W said...

My ten year old son loves to make mini videos and post them on Youtube. However I helped him disable the comments section as I couldn't bear some cruel, twisted person ridiculing or abusing him.