Thursday, June 20, 2019

What have we become?

There’s been a marked increase in abusive and threatening behaviour directed at New Zealand politicians and even those who work for government at any level. The video above, from TVNZ’s One News, talks about the abuse and death threats received by Auckland Councillor Penny Hulse, as well as some of the others who have been threatened. The reporter, Katie Bradford, has also been abused and threatened on social media. What have we become?

To normal people, it’s obvious that it’s NEVER okay to act like this, to abuse, bully, or threaten the lives of people especially when they’re just doing their jobs.

My friend, Councillor Richard Hills, publicly shared the link to the video on Facebook, saying, “this shouldn’t be happening and it’s happening way too much.” He added, “the abuse and vitriol directed towards politicians and staff especially female staff/politicians is out of hand and should not be tolerated.” No sensible person could disagree with that. But then he also added:
I get obsessive bizarre homophobic stuff that I ignore and police investigated my own death threats earlier in March and council followed up on some death threats and other comments on a certain page last year. It’s disappointing that’s for sure.
I was aware that he’d received homophobic abuse, but I wasn’t aware that he’d received death threats, let alone that they were referred to the police. But the saddest thing of all is that I’m not in any way surprised about all this.

However, things have become a LOT worse in recent years.

The One News report touched on some of the wider context, namely, that the extreme abuse is often related to specific issues or aspects about politicians. As the One News report mentioned, Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman was given Parliamentary Security escorts at Parliament following an escalation in threats made against her after the lone MP for the neoliberal Act “Party” called her “a real menace to freedom in this country”. [See also: “Golriz Ghahraman on dealing with the ‘scared, panicked, angry mob’”].

It’s also not just politicians who receive harassment and threats of violence. For example, people working for Auckland Council are frequently abused and threatened, too, though most of the time the newsmedia doesn’t report it. One time recently the media did report it—by participating in the abuse.

In April, a woman from Auckland’s North Shore dumped 19 dead ducks, presumably killed by avian botulism, in an Auckland Council customer service office. The article claimed that “allegedly” the dead ducks had been “left rotting beside North Shore ponds for three days” before the woman took them and dumped them in the Council offices, thereby endangering the health and safety of the staff, anyone visiting the office at the time, and any staff who might attempt to remove the dead ducks. Worse still, the Stuff news site clearly knew about the stunt in advance, since they had a reporter and camera crew there to report it, yet they did nothing to stop her. Why doesn’t that make Stuff an accessory? [Note: Stuff’s irresponsible and reckless behaviour is why I won’t link to the article; if you must read it, copy and paste this link: http://bit.ly/2x6eENc].

The most serious threats, such as death threats, can always be referred to the police, but the larger question is, how do we stop this reprehensible behaviour from happening in the first place? It starts with the rest of us. When I shared Richard’s post on my personal Facebbook, I said:
Each of us can play our part: There are things we can do to stand up to the bullies while still keeping safe from them. But one of the best strategies is to be kind to everyone all the time, and for one simple, powerful reason: Children are watching; we need to live like the adults we want them to become.
Let me be clear: Practicing kindness by itself won’t fix this, but it can help by setting an example for children to follow, and it can also give the victims of abuse a level of support—a kind of soothing of their wounds. There are also specific things we can actively do, too, while keeping ourselves safe.

Most of this sort of abuse and bullying happens or begins on social media, and there are anonymous ways to deal with that. When we see a comment on social media that’s particularly vicious, and especially if it threatens or advocates violence against someone, we must report it. Facebook and Twitter alike often choose to ignore threats, but reporting’s an important to do, anyway, and the bad people won’t know we did it. I do this all the time, so I can vouch for the fact it’s safe.

If we feel a little braver about a comment left on a Facebook Page, we can report it to a page Administrator, however, they may sympathise with the abuser, and we may end up being attacked on their page. We must choose our battles carefully. Don’t post screenshots or summaries on Facebook/Twitter to “name and shame” the aggressor; ironically, that could make the companies punish you for bullying.

In the real world, we can sometimes stand up publicly and challenge someone who’s being abusive, at least if they’re not violent and unlikely to become so. However, the person may have a weapon (most likely a knife in NZ, unlike the USA). It may be safer to do other things. If the person seems to be violent, or likely to become so, ring the police. It’s better to ring them for nothing than to risk it escalating into something terrible. After you ring the police—and only after that—you might start videoing the abuse. It could be useful in the event the police prosecute, however, if the person sees you doing that, you could become a target.

Sometimes we can safely intervene directly, as I did back in 2017. In that post, I also shared a graphic (at right—click for a larger view) by artist Maeril, who shared it on her Facebook Page. It shows an approach we can take if we see someone being harassed. It’s not without risk, obviously, but it can be very effective, regardless of the reason they’re being harassed.

At the moment, the best long-term strategy, and certainly the safest of all, is to model the behaviour that we’d want children to copy. If enough of us do that enough of the time, it will help. But the bigger solutions to actually fix this? At the moment, no one actually knows what they are. In the meantime, we all know one thing: This is not who we want to be. It’s up to us to make sure that this sort of thing will never be acceptable, that it will never be who we’ve become.

Footnote: Ironically, I first "met" both Richard and Penny through social media. So, social media's not all bad, all the time—but it could be so much better than it is. In my opinion, Richard and Penny are both awesome, and Auckland and New Zealand need more people like them in government and fewer bullies and harassers.


rogerogreen said...

Evben in Kiwiland, the decivilizing power of 21st century culture. It'd be easy for me to blame social media - and I do, to a degree, But it's also that people feel PERSONALLY threatened by views different from their own. A scary world.

Arthur Schenck (AmeriNZ) said...

I don't think social media alone is the problem, they just enable and even encourage the cancer to grow and spread. The mainstream newsmedia also has responsibility for being too frightened to call a spade a bloody shovel.

The cancer of decivilising populism is spreading here as well. One of our rightwing parties is rebranding itself as a populist champion of "free speech", which is code for white supremacism and proto-fascism (more about that soon).