Remember: Words Have Power. And sympathy is not empathy.

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Yes, I know. Another Charlotte Dawson post. Another social media person making commentary in order to get some Google Juice. Another person who has been the victim of online harassment speaking out. Another person sharing their story.

I know you’re fatigued with the discussion, because so much has been said already, but hear me out. Because whilst Charlotte Dawson’s Twitter bullying saga, landing her in hospital, and subsequently in the mainstream press, has been done to death, there is something I want to say about it.

There seem to be two, rather polarised, camps on the events of last week. The first, in Charlotte’s defence:

  • Decrying the bullies (and “trolls” being lumped in for good measure);
  • Calling for harsher legal consequences for online behaviour;
  • Calling this a feminist issue, where “strong” women are frequently targeted online with vicious attacks;
  • Criticism of telling a person, who has openly battled depression and lost a partner to suicide, to kill themselves (and rightly so).
  • That to criticise Dawson’s own contribution to the events that unfolded, is ‘victim-blaming’;
  • Commenting on the bigger picture of violent behaviour online, that stalkers are a very real problem for ‘celebrities’, and that you cannot understand unless you are in that position.

The second camp, are not terribly sympathetic of Dawson’s situation, and:

  • Say she is a troll herself, and therefore deserved everything she got;
  • Say that as a public figure she needs a thicker skin;
  • Say that she needs to disengage and detach from it, and accept that this is ‘how it works’ online;
  • Say that Dawson contacting the girl’s employer (a University), means that she was the one to overstep first;
  • “Don’t Feed the Trolls”;
  • Defending the definitions of harassment vs trolling (which are very different things, with different intent) and expressing concern that people who provoke for a bit of fun are going to be labelled “bullies” and hauled through court for “harassment” (a valid concern).

I think I have summarised most of the commentary, aside from the extreme , that my peers, the media, other commentators & friends have said over the last few days. I took a few days to really digest what was going on, and how I can provide some original thought on this subject that has been done to death… and I am still firmly… empathetic. More on that in a moment.

My point is, that despite people being polarised in their support (or lack thereof) of Charlotte Dawson, every single one of those points above… is true. It is all true. They are all factors in a complex issue, where… there are no absolutes, no right, no wrong. And as such, because I am still on the fence and believe that everyone has a legitimate point to make, I am going to recount some personal experience to try and make a broader point.

Like most people who are active on Twitter, I witnessed the incident in question. Honestly, when all the hubris hit, my immediate thoughts were that Charlotte Dawson was handling this… like a bit of a n00b. We’ve all done it. We knew it would happen eventually — you provoke the wrong person and BLAMMO. So when things got nasty, I honestly did not expect things to go the way they did. Because as you and I both know, Internet, a bit of fisticuffs is something that kind of goes with the territory.

  • It goes with the territory of being a public figure.
  • It goes with the territory of being online.
  • It goes with the territory of being a woman online.
  • It goes with the territory of having an opinion, on anything, ever, on the internet.
  • It also absolutely sucks balls when you are subject to an attack, particularly when you are battling with depression and suicidal thoughts on top of it.

Thing is, this stuff doesn’t just happen to celebrities. It happens every single day to ordinary people. It happened to me. It has happened to friends. I have had escalations and vicious attacks online that are certainly not for the faint hearted — ranging from a bit of rivalry & heated debate, to being systematically targeted by packs, to doing something I never thought I would and make a Police complaint & file an AVO.

Now, you all know by now, that I am not exactly innocent. I have been part of communities well-known for their snark and sarcasm, enjoy a bit of a playful poke and have built (and benefited from) a persona that is dry, sarcastic and snarky. I only ever target people who I think can either take it, ‘get it’, or are fair game (e.g. Reality TV show contestants & celebrities).

One of whom, has been Charlotte Dawson, who did one of her famous “RT the “bully”” things on me, on a fairly innocent-in-context remark, with NO opportunity for correction or recourse. To 30,000 Followers. It was a joke, during the Celebrity Apprentice, about a caricature. Not a real person. I said it. I own it. And I probably deserved it. But I don’t know that her response was entirely fair given the context. She was on Celebrity Apprentice, for fuck’s sake.

However, because I am a reasonable and fairly reflective sort, I learned from it. It made me think for a while about the role that sarcasm and snark, under the guise of “funny”, can hurt people, even if it isn’t my intent.

So, yes, in short, over the years, I have been complicit in some things I regret. Usually as a result of a misunderstanding (a big downside to relying on sarcasm rather than wit), sometimes because I saw bullying and harassment of others and didn’t speak out, because I knew that I would then become a target.

I have also been the target of harassment. I always intellectually knew that it wasn’t me, a real person, but my caricature, they were targeting (something that Dawson could actually try to understand). But, I have also struggled with an anxiety disorder for the better part of 20 years. On the good days, I can take it and dish it out. But on the bad days… it can be enough to push me over the edge. And quite literally, it did when I had a complete breakdown in 2010, partially as a result of Twitter abuse that escalated into full blown harassment. It wasn’t pretty. Claims about me as a mother in my most vulnerable time post-separation. Being called things that noone, ever, should ever call another human being (and remember… I defend the C word…). Of course, the abuse was not the only thing. It was not the cause of my breakdown. But to deny that it wasn’t at least a significant contributor, well, that would be a lie.

I don’t really talk about it. I let people think I was OK. But, I was terrorised. There is no other way to describe it other than… terror. Not just the self-inflicted terror of having a Formspring account (which I deleted quickly in an attempt to ‘ignore the trolls’), but absolute terror at logging onto my email, to work, to see what had landed in my inbox. Terror at checking my voicemails because I was getting abusive messages. Terror at even going online in case another well-meaning friend decided to tell me what was being said about me by those I had blocked.

I haven’t really talked about it till now. Because I was afraid. I am still a little afraid, to be honest. So, then, to try and preserve my sanity and emotional state, I completely deleted my blog, that I had been writing on for 7 years. I deleted my Twitter account & my Facebook account. I even contemplated (and trialled) changing my name at one point, just so I could do my job and be left alone. I was forced into virtual reclusion.

Bullying is not as simple as ignoring it when it escalates to that point. This is not a couple of negative responses. This is relentless. They follow you. You CAN’T just block it without taking napalm to your entire online life. Luckily for me, after 6 months, it settled down and I was able to rebuild my online profiles again. It briefly resurfaced, during the iPad thing, but… thankfully I was less psychologically vulnerable at that time and could take it.

I have been where Charlotte Dawson is, on a smaller scale, and It. Was. Fucking. Horrible.

And, like her, I have said things I regret, or crossed a boundary. Some may even believe that I deserve everything I get. I make no excuses, and have recently decided to reduce the role that negativity and sarcasm has in my life, and in the way I communicate. I have learned this the hard way. My point is not that I didn’t contribute to it, or to justify myself or look like a victim, or even to try and defend Charlotte Dawson, but to highlight the very real impact that these things can have on your psyche when you already struggle to begin with.

There is a difference between being sympathetic and showing empathy. I for one feel tremendous empathy for Charlotte Dawson right now. Even if I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for her actions. It is unfortunate that she has had to learn the hard way, and I hope that, rather than play victim and deflect all of the blame, she does at least acknowledge her role in it, and try to… be better. Engage positively. Lose the snark. Lose the sarcasm. It hurts people and you know what? It hurts people.

And yeah, you may just tick off the wrong person one day.

Learn from this.

Peace.

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