It is a rare weekend in the life of this journalist that five opinion pieces are published in major newspapers in response to something I wrote. (Paging you Julia Baird, Crispin Hull, Anne Summers, Miranda Devine and Melinda Tankard Reist. And for good measure, paging you too, Eva Cox, even though your article wasn’t published on the weekend.)
Actually, let’s be honest - it is completely unprecedented.
And while this kind of response is a bit of dream that goes to the heart of Why We Write (to make people think! to start conversations!), the aftermath of my profile of controversial Australian anti-porn campaigner Melinda Tankard Reist has been, shall we say… “challenging”.
A few things I’ve learned over the past couple of weeks:
1. People are more likely to talk about things they hate than things they like. Sad, but true. In my fantasy life, people talk about my articles because they are bowled over by my wisdom and astute analysis. In real life, a big response means big emotion. And big emotion usually means negative emotion.
2. And hell - I focus on the negative, too. I got plenty of positive emails, Facebook messages, blog responses and Tweets from friends, sources (pro- and anti-MTR), Sunday Life readers, fellow journalists, colleagues and so on. But what did I notice most? The handful of people on Twitter who were outraged that the article had even been written… or that it had been written in a way differently to the way that they would have written it. Most of which wasn’t even directed at me personally.
3. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. By the beginning of week two, when Melinda-gate had turned into #MTRsues (although Tankard Reist says she actually only requested an apology), I was wishing it would all go away. But the ferocity of the initial negative reaction meant that people who maybe originally read the article and thought “hmmm, that’s interesting” began to respond, and the debate began to take a more moderate feel, through articles by Eva Cox and Helen Pringle, blog posts by bluemilk and the Hoydens, a post on MamaMia fielding near 300 comments, and finally, that weekend of five opinion pieces. Most of these would never have happened if there wasn’t the initial strong negative reaction.
4. Maybe we need to rethink the way we campaign online. Tankard Reist says that social media has increased the level of vitriol outspoken public figures receive. Leslie Cannold says that “what it really does is expose backroom bullies”. But Tankard Reist is a dogged tweeter herself: as I wrote in my article, it’s a key part of her online campaign strategy. And how can Cannold’s behaviour over the past two weeks be described if not as bullying? (Albeit in full public view.)
Tankard Reist isn’t the only one who campaigns in this way. Many readers of this blog will recall American feminist Sady Doyle’s similarly tenacious approach to extracting an apology from Keith Olbermann and Michael Moore for their dismissive attitude towards rape in the aftermath of the Assange scandal. The woman Did Not Stop Tweeting. And I for one admired her for it. But is it really a fair or effective way to campaign? My internal jury is undecided.
An activist friend suggested it depended on whether we’re targeting corporations (who have staff whose job it is to deal with this stuff) or individuals. I’d suggest it also depends on whether we want to change people’s minds, or we want to change their public-facing behaviour. Which brings me to my final point.
5. I’ve written a lot about the ethics of engagement for people who put themselves or their work into the public sphere. Namely, that you have an obligation to listen as much as you talk. Just because you have a platform doesn’t mean you’re always right, or that you’re the only one with things worth saying. I still think that’s true, but I’d add to that if you want people to listen to what you’re saying - whether you have a big platform or small one - you also have an obligation to engage in good faith.
I don’t attract nearly as much counter-commentary as Tankard Reist (or Naomi Wolf, who inspired my original posts on this subject) - and certainly not as much negative commentary - but I have learned over the past fortnight that if you listen to everything that everybody says, you’ll soon sink into a pit of neurotic despair. So while the temptation is always to try to win over those who “have you all wrong”, I’m going to do my best to focus my energies on those who build ideas rather than batter individuals, and who discuss rather than destroy.