Self-care strategies for social media users

A friend in her early twenties announces she’s joining twitter to debate feminist issues.

A leader in my field contacts me by e-mail to ask about my tactic of staged withdrawal from my twitter account, @onekind.

I tell my therapist about my battles on twitter and she laughs and calls it ‘Angry Birds’.*

We need to talk about the emotional sustainability of social media.

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Bio for @WeMelbourne

For the next seven days I’m guest hosting the @WeMelbourne Twitter profile curated by Sarah Stokely (@stokely). This week also marks the one-year anniversary of the first guest, so I’m feeling the pressure to live up to its full potential. I’m looking forward to showing my appreciation for Melbourne life as I live it.

Rather than clog up your timelines with tweets introducing myself, here are five quick facts about me. I’m borrowing these questions from The Guardian Australia’s weekly profiles of the guest hosts of my other favourite guest account, @IndigenousX, curated by Luke Pearson. This week’s guest is Summer May Finlay so please, hop on over and follow @IndigenousX quick smart.

Where are you from?

I was born at Emily Jessie Mac and grew up in Box Hill. I moved out of home when I was 18 — gay kid, Catholic single mum, you know how the story goes. I lived in the ‘South side’ gay enclave for eight years and the cafe lifestyle just felt soo cosmopolitan, but the drunks on the street every night, not so much. In 2008 I moved to Footscray and I’ve never looked back. Yes, there’s visible drug trade but the users are just another group weaving through the crowds and trying to get by.

On a longer timescale, Dad’s family came to Australia from the Netherlands after some years in Indonesia post-WWII. Mum’s family are Irish Catholic Australians going way back, but I was brought up thinking they were Danish — the nationality or family background of my grandfather’s adoptive father, who may or may not have also been his biological father. Complicated.

What do you do?

I’m a writer by disposition. I work in public and community health, planning ad campaigns and writing funding submissions. I also do community consultation and write policy and strategy documents.

I’ve worked on health issues like HIV, viral hepatitis, and cancer screening, and social issues like racism, social exclusion and stigma. I have worked with communities including gay men, people living with HIV and hep B/C, people who inject drugs, international students, refugees and asylum seekers.

I’m always pushing for projects that work with, rather than against the grain of the community in our priority groups — piggy-backing on the ways in which people swap stories and advice about health and social problems as a way of building community and a shared culture.

What do you plan to talk about on @WeMelbourne this week?

I’m hoping to be led by the @WeMelbourne community on what you’d like to hear about. But I’d love to talk about how the HIV epidemic has changed, how it does nobody any good to cling to old ideas about safe sex, and why it doesn’t help when opinion writers and politicians react with outrage to the idea of prevention strategies beyond condom use.

Why don’t we use condoms for oral sex? What are the alternatives to condoms? Are young gay men ‘reckless’ and older gay men ‘complacent’? Go on, ask me about it.

What issue in your community life do you think is most pressing?

I’m waiting for an Australian leader to stand up and say, 12,000 boat arrivals is nothing — so relax everybody, we got this.

I’ve done a lot of focus groups in my time and I know their limitations. People are not good at accounting for their feelings. The second you ask someone to explain why they feel X about Y, they start thinking too much and coming up with reasons that sound plausible. And what’s plausible is judged in terms of the social environment, so if it’s about politics, they’ll regurgitate what they heard from the public debate. ‘Queue jumpers!’ ‘Illegals!’

If you don’t know this, then focus group findings amplify talkback radio amplifies newspaper coverage amplifies electoral strategy amplifies focus group findings.

I’m willing to bet no political party has ever gone to a focus group in Western Sydney and said ‘would you feel better about boat arrivals if we spent enough on humanitarian settlement in your area so that refugees get a good start on life in Australia?’

People in Western Sydney know that social services are starving for funding; they know that inadequate support leads to school dropouts and crime; they’ve a hidden potential for generosity that any genuine leader would have the moral imagination to call on.

Who are your role models and why?

It will astonish her to read this, but I see my Mum as a powerful social activist. In my teens she edited the newsletter of Women and the Australian Church Victoria and railed against the he/him wording of the new liturgy in our Catholic parish, St Dominic’s, where, despite her activism, they still got her to do the readings every Easter and Christmas.

It takes a particular strength of personality to stand up to 2,000 years of misogynist dogma in your own community, and to speak out against it you have to first crash through all those inner walls of doubt and shame and politeness and self-restraint.

So you build up a head of rage and momentum and when you crash through it can look to the outside world like you’ve exploded out of nowhere… and that can make you look crazy and easy to dismiss.

In my adult life I’m still learning how to slow down and engage more gently and strategically. It’s tough going but I’m grateful for my role models on Twitter and in my community of practice, people who I trust and admire to give me guidance on keeping that trajectory controlled.

What are your hopes for the future?

I’m hoping to write up some of the lessons we’ve learned in the Australian response to the HIV epidemic and export them to the world.

Gendertrolling with Salman Rushdie

Last night I celebrated a good friend’s birthday at his sister’s restaurant, and this morning I woke with a marvellous hangover.  I love an occasional hangover because they’re so reliably easy to fix: toast with marmite and Oxford marmalade, strong black tea, soluble aspirin, Lupe Fiasco, a hot shower, followed by phở gà đặc biệt and cà phê sữa đá for lunch and an afternoon nap.  All these little rituals create an enjoyable program for an aimless Sunday.  At some point during breakfast, I replied to a tweet by Salman Rushdie.

I was moving pretty slowly at this point and it took me a while to even notice he’d replied.  When I did, what I noticed first was the massive derpstorm erupting on my ‘Interactions’ list.  You know at a public forum, when someone up the back asks a question, the moderator usually repeats the question so the rest of the audience can hear it?  The Twitter equivalent is retweeting someone before you disagree with them, so others on your stream can make sense of your objection.  But Sir Rushdie didn’t do that: he replied directly to my tweet and his followers gleefully piled on, all of them tragically mistaken as to what I had replied to him about.

It wasn’t about the word, ‘heroine’.  It was about his completely illogical argument:

Caster Semenya ran into trouble, if you’ll pardon a small sporting pun, because her performance on the field outstripped what’s expected of women athletes.  An Observer article claims “The IAAF says it was obliged to investigate after Semenya made improvements of 25 seconds at 1500m and eight seconds at 800m – the sort of dramatic breakthroughs that usually arouse suspicion of drug use.”  Yet the IAAF ordered gender verification testing and failed to protect her confidentiality in the process.

It’s impossible not to sympathise with Semenya over the ‘ordeal by gender’ she underwent.  Nonetheless, to conclude that she was vindicated by gender verification testing would be to accord that process far too much credibility.  It remains a deeply controversial procedure involving arbitrary line-drawing exercises amid the kaleidoscope of  multi-factorial influences on primary and secondary sex characteristics.  It was designed to pick out ‘impostors’ — people competing as women who were ‘really’ men — at a time when the sheer diversity and number of different intersex conditions was not well understood.

In the light of our new understanding of gender as a spectrum rather than a binary, ‘verification’ testing is begging the question.  Let’s imagine the ‘verification’ test instead said Caster Semenya was intersex, or that her physical sex was male.  To compete in the Olympics, she would first be required to undergo gender reassignment surgery.  This is analogous to the social model of disability: the impairment isn’t purely physical; it’s equally caused by the impoverished concept of gender used in élite sport.

Hence the challenge I posed to Sir Rushdie:  why support the system of binary gender differentiation that creates this kind of dilemma?

The answer has nothing to do with honouring Caster Semenya.  If you read it carefully, his tweet makes very little sense.  How can Caster Semenya be a ‘bigger heroine’ than two people not capable of being called a heroine?  Unless gender doesn’t matter to heroism — in which case, why even register the difference?  It would cost nothing and make more sense to write about ‘greater heroism’, but that wasn’t Rushdie’s real interest.

No, the answer comes from the delighted outrage of his followers.  Sir Rushdie wasn’t offended by my tweet; he wanted an excuse to rant about “PC language policemen”.  He was primed and ready to respond and didn’t even notice my tweet wasn’t about word choice.   We’ve seen this before, when Justin Shaw and Ben Pobjie wrote about ‘hysteria’.  It’s baiting up a crowd, getting them ginned up for action.  And they lapped it right up: huzzah, a chance to rant about political correctness and prove I think alike with Salman Rushdie!   Many of his followers were so concerned about the decline of the English language, they forgot to use verbs.

It was Britain that created a television show for Grumpy Old Men.  And a spinoff, Grumpy Old Women.  Given the thrust of this post, let’s collectively noun them Grumpy Old People, and permit me to abbreviate that to GOP.  (Which may give you a clue as to how such people are positioned in American society.)  Although they needn’t be old, there’s a strong correlation of GOP-ness with increasing age and self-importance, along with Relevance Deprivation Syndrome.

While I could quite happily watch 12 hours of Clive James in a sitting, his brand of mordant critique isn’t the usual fare on such television shows: instead, they’re invariably full of whinging about the price of milk (increasing) and the standard of English (declining).  No, the essence of GOP is trivia, and that’s what’s so sad about this little tiff on Twitter.  It’s Salman Rushdie performing cheap tricks for the peanut gallery; the smallness of it is depressing.  This incredible writer, brain the size of a planet, seeming unable to perform the most basic forward thinking about ‘how my endorsement of wider gender norms might reinforce the specific instance I’m decrying’.  Going from trolling an entire religion (if you’ll permit the exaggeration) to trolling a couple of feminists on Twitter.  And when challenged…