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Conversing with trolls

Over the last month I’ve been working on a brief article on the uptake of gender-neutral pronouns in public institutions in Australia. ‘The Conversation’ is an online news and commentary site that curates cutting edge and controversial research by academics here and abroad. It often publishes explainers and fact checks that speak back to mainstream media coverage and 'fake news' around contemporary social issues.

In the last couple of weeks there have been several articles canvassing gender-diversity from the perspective of Education (responding to Scott Morrison’s tweet in which he referred to specialised counsellors in schools as ‘gender-whisperers’) and, more recently AFL policy changes pertinent to transgender athletes, and the evolution of the term ‘cisgender’.

I wrote initially in response to a political backlash to a ‘They Day’ video I had been involved in earlier this year. In a classic manifestation of media panic, for a brief moment non-binary and gender-diverse interviewees like myself experienced amplified voice and exposure via morning TV and Murdoch and Fairfax news networks. Some of the most voracious critiques were from the Australian Christian Lobby and of course, Andrew Bolt had his two cents to offer:

"If the tiny, tiny proportion of people who seriously don't like their pronoun want their colleagues to choose another, let them say so. No problem.

To make the millions of others walk on linguistic eggshells seems an overreaction - and one that gratifies bullies."

For me, a principal take-away from the whole experience was noting how precisely and wilfully opponents misconstrued some of the points put forth in favour of gender-neutral pronouns.

For example, the original invitation to discuss and think about pronouns with work colleagues on the first Wednesday of the month, turned into frequent assertions that ‘he’ and ‘she’ were being banned and employees were being forced to use ‘they’ for everyone. Just. Not. True.

In the video (which has now had over 11,000 views thanks to the controversy) I made a somewhat flippant comment on how it can be tricky to ‘reprogram your brain’ in order to use ‘they’ for people you may have previously known in more binary gendered terms, or in instances where their name has traditional gendered associations. This was spun into ‘the government is trying to reprogram our brains’.

Following publication of 'The Conversation' article last Friday, I spent most of the day responding to comments in the article thread. I discovered that potentially provocative articles are sometimes held back in a publication queue until a moderator can be assigned from The Conversation team, whose job it is to maintain a threshold for civilised discussion. They delete anything that doesn’t comply with community standards, which are outlined here:

  • Don’t attack people and don’t respond to attacks – report them and move on

  • Keep your posts on topic and constructive

  • Take responsibility for the quality of the conversations you take part in

  • Above all, respect others and their opinions.

I had notification of comments turned on so I received an email for everything that was posted. Several times, I was halfway through responding to a vehement accusation or something nonsensical, when they were deleted. For some, this may raise the question of free speech and censorship, while for others there is a clear line between hate speech and constructive critique. Clearly, with more experience than I, 'The Conversation' moderators err on the side of caution. And, as it turns out, with good reason...

Nearly a week later I was checking emails, half awake and waiting for coffee to brew, when I read the following, carefully considered personal email from an unknown sender:


Dear Mrs. Vivienne,

You're a fucking insane leftist fanatic, brainwashed by utter drivel and garbage, and you have no economically viable skills, hence you're a perpetual student living off my tax dollars.

I laughed hard at the youtube video filmed in Victoria of you and your disgusting little coterie of bizarre freaks and fanatics.

People see shit like that and they say to themselves she's a joke, and we will fight you every step of the way in your evil attempts to remake the world in your own twisted, confused image.

You people are simply the symptoms of civilisational dementia.

It would be nothing but a sick joke if you weren't jackbooted Nazis. But you're actually a threat to normal people.

We know this is your end-game.


First, I'll just point out that the above is another classic example of fake or deliberately misconstrued news. In fact Bill 89, The Child, Youth and Family Service Act is an example of child-centred policy and extremely unlikely to result in child-theft. Read more here:

Ontario Passes Legislation to Strengthen Child Welfare and Improve Outcomes for Youth

Province Putting Children at the Centre of Decision-Making

The email itself was a bit of a shock but I actually felt grateful that my opponent's spelling and grammar was good and that they were relatively restrained, resisting attacks on personal appearance or threats of violence against me or my kids. Fortunately I do not have the profile of prominent feminist and/or Indigenous and/or mental health activists like Celeste Liddle, Clementine Ford, Emma Jane or Sarah Reece.

Emma Jane and Nicole Vincent’s experimental ‘random rape threat generator’ offers a disturbing evocation of what it’s like to read personally directed vitriol at scale, and is sourced from actual tweets to actual women. If you’re up for it, check it out here:

I reposted the email on Facebook as an addendum to the original article that I had shared and received lots of gratifying affirmation from friends. Many advised a ‘don’t read the comments’ strategy and it made me think more about the pros and cons of engaging with people who have a strong alternate perspective to my own.

Despite everything, I still believe that conversations are fundamental to social change, which is why I’d written about ‘They Day’ in the first place.

So here are my pros and cons and some potential strategies to consider if you choose to wander where others fear to tread. They are all offered from my limited personal perspective and by no means apply equally for all people everywhere.

Reasons to read and respond

  • most querulous comments seek to clarify misconceptions (at least in carefully delineated filter bubbles like 'The Conversation' - I’m clearly not referring to troll magnet platforms like Reddit or YouTube here)

  • responding can demonstrate/model willingness to listen and traverse different points of view

  • according to 'The Conversation' moderator – responding can actually help ‘keep things civilised’ because commenters become aware of their exchange with ‘a real person’

Reasons to bunker down

  • some comments are shocking, personal and hurtful

  • lots of negative comments can have a cumulative toll and erode wellbeing

  • some astute comments hit soft-spots and can cause unhelpful self-scrutiny in vulnerable times

Strategies for persuasive engagement

  • distinguish who is receptive to discussion and ignore the others

  • look at respondent's online trace (e.g their twitter feed or search their handle on google) and draw conclusions from the overall tone of their interactions and unrelated communications

  • find points of affinity and emphasise those first

  • if 'striking out' on a particular angle, try an alternate approach (e.g sometimes I draw attention to how ‘they’ is also useful for representing multiple aspects of self, rather than purely signifying non-binary gender)

  • be warm, open and friendly in tone – i.e steamroller with kindness and empathy (I’ve discovered that this has double bang because, for someone who is up for a battle, a calm and polite response is infuriating)

  • know that many people will follow a thread so there is no need to respond to the same point twice

  • put aside time in a comfortable space with a stand-by safety net for dealing with responses

  • set an end time and have something to look forward to – a time when you plan to definitively 'switch off'

  • recognise escalation indicates that it’s time to ‘walk away’, then do so politely and firmly

  • anticipate opposition and set up pre-emptive filtering so that you can at least control circumstances of reception (e.g divert unknown email addresses into a folder that you can read when/if you choose)

For me this last point is the biggest reason for having a shot at civil discussion... but personal wellbeing is also paramount and only take on the battles you wish to. Everyday activists sometimes need stand-by reserves just to get out of bed in the morning!

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