Online trolls: What if we killed them with kindness?

 abc.net.au  5/20/2017 8:11:54 PM   Samantha Selinger-Morris

Posted May 21, 2017 06:11:54

Dawn O'Porter knows all about the bile that can rise in your throat when you're the victim of incessant name-calling online.

"Trolls," the Scottish-born columnist, author and TV presenter wrote in The Huffington Post in 2012, are "total f***ing arseholes with no self control, major self esteem issues and nasty, evil souls that leave them desperate to make other people as full of hate, sadness and loneliness as they are".

By the time O'Porter's internal geyser burst, she was already a household name in her native Britain, having made dozens of quirky first-person television documentaries on topics ranging from lesbianism to breast cancer.

She had also, by that time, been called everything from an "arsehole" to "like Louis Theroux if he'd had 90 per cent of his IQ replaced with cupcake frosting".

No part of her was safe from ridicule, from her appearance ("What the f*** is with the shape of your head?"), to her politics (one journalist accused the presenter of, according to O'Porter, "making a mockery of feminism" after she cavorted naked on top of a bus, in her documentary Dawn Gets Naked).

O'Porter responded to that last "low blow" by writing that exposing and celebrating her imperfect flesh had been part of her examination of the societal pressure for women to look perfect and telling it to "piss off".

But the damage had been done. Being trolled so badly had already stalled her career, sent her spiralling into depression and damaged her relationship with her now-husband, Bridesmaids actor Chris O'Dowd.

And she's not alone: more than 20 per cent of women surveyed in a new Australian study reported feeling depressed after experiencing harassment online, with 5 per cent saying it made them feel suicidal.

If you or anyone you know needs help:

What if we responded to trolls with kindness?

So it's little wonder, then, that O'Porter has chosen as the subject of her first adult novel, The Cows, how hard it becomes for women to like what they see in the mirror when society is screaming judgemental ideas at them about how they should look, work and parent.

In the book, Tara, a working mother, is rendered housebound with shame after a video of her masturbating in public goes viral, and she is labelled a "pervert" and "an unfit mother".

Stella, who is desperate for a child, feels judged by a female blogger who proudly advocates childlessness, and ends up subsumed with rage and addicted to online trolling herself. (She trolls Cam, who derides women who see themselves as "victims".)

But O'Porter offers a radical approach to those who shrink women with cruel taunts and labels.

Instead of following the accepted protocol of lashing out at trolls, and other judgemental people, and shaming them back, some of the characters in The Cows offer them empathy and kindness instead.

For example, Tara, a television producer, helps Stella by offering to make a documentary about how grief and shame led to her trolling other women online.

"What has happened to you over the course of your life, what you are facing now, it's a legit reason to go crazy for a bit," Tara says to Stella when she hears about her grief, and subsequent rage. "I understand why you lost it."

That we should be kinder, and more understanding of one another — even of those women who peg us as belonging to a group they look down upon, whether it be stay at home parents, horny mothers, or childless working women — seems to be the main message of O'Porter's book.

"One journalist on Twitter last year called stay-at-home mums 'jobless idiots', which was a huge catalyst for me writing the book," says O'Porter, who, until recently, thought she might never want to have kids.

"It riled me so badly."

Motherhood is rife with judgement

But becoming a parent — O'Porter's son, Art, is two — has also meant entering a new arena, rife with judgement.

"You see other people's kids not sleeping through the night, so [you think] 'they must be doing something wrong'. I catch myself saying it sometimes," she says.

"We shouldn't judge other people, but we do. I think it makes us feel better, and makes us feel righteous in our choices. It's a really terrible human trait."

For O'Porter, it meant falling into depression. After relocating to the United States for work in 2008, She lost both a documentary television series she was making, and a regular column spot.

This was a huge step down, from having become famous, in Britain, for documentaries like Super Slim Me (in which she starved herself as part of an investigation into Hollywood's obsession with size-zero women) and My Breasts Could Kill Me (about breast cancer, a disease that killed her mother when O'Porter was six).

And then, a bunch of women started trolling her on Twitter. Strangers to her, they insulted everything from O'Porter's "general personality defects" to — most painfully — her writing skills.

"I became paranoid that I was really hated and that my work was crap," she has said.

"I felt nervous putting any writing out there when I knew there were people so willing to slate it."

Still, O'Porter is no apologist for trolls, and says she now blocks those who are "rude" to her online.

She has also decided to write books full-time — she's previously written young adult novels, and a couple of non-fiction books — and move further away from TV work, in order to avoid being scrutinised about intimate matters she would like to keep to herself.

And so, like Tara, in The Cows, who regains her confidence after declaring online that she refuses to let "hypocrites" define her, so too is O'Porter grabbing greater control over her own narrative.

"I don't want to dig into the details of my life, my child," she says, reflecting on a recent television interview in which she was asked about her experience with childbirth.

"But I had to go along with it, because I didn't want to look like a dick. I wish I'd said 'no'.

"That's why I write," says O'Porter, who has already sold the television rights to The Cows, and plans on writing the screenplay.

"No-one else can tell me anything."

Topics: novel, feminism, relationships, women, social-media, parenting, internet-culture, information-and-communication, united-states

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