Vitriol, Anger, and the Art of Response


The outrage over the publication of a New Matilda article on feminism has at least one upside, writes Somayra Ismailjee.

A simple click on New Matilda’s home page today, even the briefest look on Twitter, will show that the floodgates of outrage have recently broken over the decision to run a mansplaining piece on feminism. Even more overwhelming is the chain of responses that have followed.

Websites that publish differing views on the same topic often attract debate; readers will side with one or the other, or neither, usually resulting in a cycle that generates both more interest and content. The argument that favours this phenomenon is that ‘debate is healthy’ — what other way to further understanding of a subject than to constantly engage with, criticise and question it?

For the less privileged in society, there’s a downside — these arguments turn our struggles into little beyond banter. A lot of nuance is lost along the way. Causes are conflated in the struggle for relevancy; the digital bounds of the internet may be limitless, but our attention spans aren’t. Writers try to attribute importance to the issues they deem worthy — sometimes, it’s well off the mark.

There is an objective reality behind subjective expressions of pain. It’s very difficult to quantify oppression, yet there are several avenues that we partake in. Lives lost is a big one — the double-digit figure of the Counting Dead Women project shows us that misogyny, toxic masculinity and domestic violence take a very real toll. Suffering is concrete and factual and emotional and burgeoning, and we must treat it so. Reductive thinkpiece battles on an esteemed platform don’t do it justice — the root behind much of the anger at New Matilda’s recent editorial decision.

When we see something that doesn’t align with our worldview, we seek to change it. After reading the three responses New Matilda has published so far, my question was “Why are so many getting it wrong?”

What we are seeing is growth made public. Social justice is a process, and all of us are constantly learning to dismantle the systems in which we’ve been complicit. There are many valid criticisms of internet ‘call-out’ culture. In smaller circles (think university clubs, Facebook groups), the mistakes are dealt with more subtly. Still, things often get heated. When someone makes a mistake — an offensive joke, a problematic view, a blatantly oppressive or violent behaviour — it is easier to deal with it empathically, to truly educate and inform them.

A good friend once pointed out that these spaces are rooted in vulnerability — subsequently, they’re also emotionally charged. On a larger scale, where the discussions are not in comment threads on a Facebook post but entire articles run through established media outlets, it is easier to misunderstand, to feel rage and be callous. The learning curve becomes impersonal.

This is not to say that women owe men politeness, nor do people of colour owe white people kindness, nor any other example. If there is one thing each of us owes the world, it is accountability.

On the internet, journalism functions as spectacle; when it comes to social justice, our politics become performative. Every click, ‘like’ and pageview carries some sort of meaning with it. We can choose what we pay attention to, and we can choose what we drown out. We have the power to silence violence and vitriol by uplifting certain voices and shunning others.

Yet, the same biases and imbalances of power that exist in the ‘real’ world seem to be replicated consistently throughout the virtual sphere. Too often, the voices we choose to uplift are the ones that feed off an already-substantial platform, while the marginalised are pushed deeper into obscurity. It may not be conscious, but changing this requires conscious intervention.

Emily Day’s piece was not the right way to do it. Drawing parallels between the criticism of a high-profiled white woman and an Aboriginal man in Australia is ignorant and invalidating; a point I can only do justice to by deferring to one of the nation’s leading Aboriginal journalists, Amy McQuire.

On Facebook, she points out that the dominant feminist narrative is framed around middle-class privileged white women, saying “I was disgusted to see the number of posts comparing the piece to if New Matilda had published a white person explaining black affairs — well news flash, this happens often in the MSM, and it receives no where near that level of ‘outrage’. And also, the comparison is completely ridiculous because it misunderstands the history of paternalism in this country and the media’s role in the suppression of Aboriginal voice.”

Very few of the people angered by the article that spawned this saga are truly harmed by it. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with women centering themselves, but when you are a white woman constructing false equivalencies between misogyny and racism, comparing them as though they’re binaries, you are harming women of colour.

In the same vein, when you are prioritising one terrible thinkpiece on feminism by fanning its flames while letting the story on disability justice next to it sit idly, you are harming disabled women.

When I read Tanya Levin’s piece this morning, I mostly skimmed over it — the gist of the article was evident from a read of its title. Her concluding lines are “I’m not a victim of much. I’m a white, Jewish, Western, university educated woman in good health who lives in Australia, a paradise that is comparable to none. I am one of the most privileged people on the face of the earth. That patriarchy’s got nothing on me. And there’s not a mean tweet that can take that away.”

That’s great for you, Tanya. Truly. So can we get back to the women who are harmed by patriarchy? Who are non-white and cop racism too, or don’t have access to higher education, or aren’t in the best of health (and can’t afford to be)? After all, who is feminism here for?

How, then, in the quest for editorial balance can a publication stay true to its audience? Commit to a particular view. Jack Kilbride angered a lot of people. The only positive takeaway from his article was seeing New Matilda’s readership laid bare. The overwhelming response showed that people who read this website expect better — outrage has been a positive signifier.

We are fooling ourselves if we choose to believe that journalism is pure objectivity in this country. New Matilda is known for social and political progression — not through dishonesty, but by the insightful voices it has chosen to support throughout its history. Why let that change?