After These Tragedies, We Need To Take A Long Hard Look In The Online Mirror
Imagine this: you’re at the pub with a bunch of mates.
You see a stranger walk up to a grieving mother at the table next to you, and they drop this snide remark: “Your daughter was stupid, self-involved and she deserved to die.”
What would you do? Ignore the comment and say nothing? Pretend you didn’t hear it? Or pull the person up for being a total and utter jerk with absolutely no compassion or common sense?
Most of us would answer the latter. But, that's not what we do in practice.
Because that exact scenario plays out literally millions of time online every day, and most of us are so oblivious to how callous and cruel people are these days that it barely registers.
It’s time for it to start registering.
Reading or watching the news is almost always harrowing, but over the last week or so, the headlines pouring forth have been utterly heartbreaking in their display of just how low we’ve collectively fallen as a community.
Take the young woman from the UK, Madalyn Davis, who accidentally fell to her death off a Sydney cliff over the weekend. Instead of offering condolences online, people have been calling her stupid and vain.
“My daughter was not self-obsessed, she was a wonderful beautiful person that made a mistake,” her grieving mom wrote on Instagram wrote. “How can you write such things? She has a little sister and brother who [are] reading this.”
Or the children’s storytime event that went horribly awry. Held at a Brisbane library on Sunday, it involved two drag queens reading stories and doing arts and crafts with young children. Before long, a group of Young Liberals entered the event and chanted "drag queens are not for kids".
Less than 24 hours after their protest, which was widely criticised and went viral, one of the protesters, Wilson Gavin, was found dead. A friend of his said that in the hours after the footage went viral, Wilson was relentlessly and mercilessly trolled online with vile insults, taunts, and even suggestions that he die. People known to him were reportedly contacted, and some called on his university to kick him out.
There are many, myself included, that don’t agree with his protest, but what he did was legally protected. He was engaging in his right to free speech. And unlike the cowards that sit behind a keyboard and send nasty commentary into the Twitterverse, he was willing to put his face and name to his beliefs.
He was only 21, and it must have felt to him like the whole world was against him.
The response to his tragic death on Twitter has been… illuminating. There are some who have expressed regret for lighting the pitchforks and jumping on the bandwagon. Some are very kind. There are some who thoughtfully call for a community that allows “people to grow or redeem themselves”.
And yet, there are still a whole host of comments along the lines of: “I know I am supposed to have sympathy, but…”
When I interviewed Julie Bishop for a magazine story last year, I asked her about social media and the impact it had on her as a political leader.
“These days, anyone with a mobile phone is a photographer or journalist in that they can provide images and audio, very quickly -- and it can go viral. You have to be extremely conscious of that phenomenon. You are essentially ‘on’ most of the time, and you are aware that as a public figure you’re constantly under surveillance.”
Doesn’t that sound utterly exhausting? Particularly when society right now seems to be allergic to tolerance. If someone does something that irks us or isn’t in complete alignment with our own views -- whether it’s a slight inconvenience or it’s seriously bumping up against our core beliefs -- we feel the need to say our piece.
And say it we do.
In news comment sections, on forums, on social media. We say the most appalling things, express the most vile beliefs and shout our outrage and despair in the comment sections as if the person we’re talking about or to isn’t a real person at all.
Has it really come to this? Have we honestly and genuinely reached a point where we have forgotten to treat each other with even the most basic modicum of respect, let alone kindness?
There are certainly questions to be asked around how accountable social media companies are for the content that gets shared on their platforms -- Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are all trying in their own ways -- but we also need to hold ourselves up to a more compassionate standard.
It’s time we call Time of Death on it all: on the faux outrage, and the keyboard warriors, and the knee-jerk reactions, and this bulls*it mob mentality that makes us believe we need to share our opinions unchecked, constantly, relentlessly, and with no concept of how it impacts others.
This means that when we see people being openly horrible to each other in a variety of ways right in front of us, we need to consider our bystander’s responsibility -- if not to encourage kindness, then at least to promote neutrality.
The next step is to actively be kind. It’s not even that hard to be kind -- in fact, it’s really bloody easy.
Begin by remembering what your mum told you on the first day of school: if you don’t have something nice to say, then say nothing at all.
Next, adopt the BBQ Rule. The BBQ Rule states that before you post a comment anywhere online, think about whether you would comfortable saying it publicly in front of your mates or your family at a BBQ.
If it doesn’t pass that test, then pause to reconsider the contribution you’re about to make. Does it leave a good taste in your mouth?
We could also all benefit from taking a page out of Johnny Valkyrie’s book. Johnny, one of the drag queens who was involved in the original protest, posted this message in the aftermath of the tragedy. If this isn’t kindness and tolerance personified then I don’t know what is…
He wrote, in part:
"My heart is breaking for the family, friends and community affected by the passing of Wilson Gavin. He was deeply troubled. He needed love. Wilson, I love you.
Wilson, I forgive you.
Wilson, I see you.
Wilson, I pray for you.
What you did on Sunday was unacceptable.
Who you were was not.”
If you are struggling with mental health and want support call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression, anxiety and other mental health issues contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.