Inside Story

Love thine enemy

What happens when you meet the person you’ve done battle with online?

Jill Stark 16 August 2018 3769 words

When I told friends who I was meeting for a drink, they all asked the same question: “Why the fuck would you do that?” They were right to be sceptical. I was about to break bread with a woman who had publicly described me as a “social justice warrior straight out of central casting.” She routinely dismisses people with views like mine as “frightbats,” “feminazis,” and “comically deluded, fringe-dwelling, virtue-signalling lefties.” I was nervous.

Rita Panahi is an outspoken right-wing columnist for Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper and a social commentator on Sky News, 3AW and Channel 7’s Sunrise. She has created a strong brand as a conservative provocateur, with some tipping her as heir apparent to Andrew Bolt, her hard-right tabloid colleague. With more than 150,000 followers on Twitter and Facebook, she is fast becoming one of Australia’s most vocal media personalities. She prides herself on “telling it like it is.” Over the years, she and I have had many frank and robust Twitter debates. Her scorched-earth approach to public discourse has infuriated me. There is almost nothing we have agreed on.

Her background could not be more different from mine: born in Arkansas in the United States, where her Iranian father was studying to become an engineer, she moved back to Tehran with her family at the age of three. In 1984, after the revolution that led to the installation of Ayatollah Khomeini’s repressive regime, the family was accepted into Australia as refugees and moved to Melbourne when she was eight years old.

It is her memories of life under the Ayatollah — when she and her schoolmates were made to chant “Death to America” before each class — that helped inform a deep contempt for people who apologise for radical Islam, a topic she writes about with great frequency and fervour. She believes that political correctness is largely to blame for the Western world’s failure to combat Islamic terrorism.

Another passion is her intense displeasure with the latest generation of feminists, who she says obsess about trivial or imagined offences while “ignoring the persecution of their sisters in the name of Islam.” In a column to mark International Women’s Day, she wrote, “It’s clear the feminist movement has been hijacked by the regressive left with a level of hypocrisy and inanity unmatched in public discourse; just when you think these dolts have hit rock bottom, they find shovels and start digging.”

When I hit my own rock bottom — a breakdown that saw me crippled by anxiety and depression, leaving me unable to work for almost five months — I began to realise Rita was one of my red flags. Arguing with her was not productive; it was a unique form of self-harm. I’d see her tweeting about “SJWs” (social justice warriors) and “regressive left-wing flogs” and would be compelled to respond. It felt personal. I’d take to my keyboard and outline how wrong she was, mocking her arguments to the cheers of my followers. I could lose hours locked in combat with this woman I’d never met.

As I furiously tried to make her see reason, my stress levels skyrocketed. Our followers would join in, taking sides, which only added to the sense of gladiatorial theatre. I had to have the last word. I had to land the killer blow. I simply had to be right. Sometimes the exchanges would stay with me for days.

When I took a break from social media to rebuild myself, I could see that in these moments I was not in control. The ship was being steered by the child part of me that was desperate to be applauded by the crowd. The more anxious I became, the more I took to Twitter for reassurance that I had value. Perhaps I was even a bit jealous of Rita’s growing profile, rocketing me all the way back to the popularity contest of high school. Being seen and heard as I took her on would somehow give me autonomy in a situation where I felt powerless. But the anger was toxic. When you pick up a hot coal to throw at your enemy, you’re left only with burnt hands. So often, anger is externalised shame.

When I returned to Twitter, I thought of what Professor James Doty — founder of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education — had said about the benefits of showing compassion for the “other” and trying to focus on commonalities rather than differences. I still disagreed with most of what Rita said, but I could see our shared interests. We are the same age. We both love cats; we have a passion for the Hawthorn Football Club; and we share an enduring romance with the Italian Riviera. She has a wry sense of humour that is similar to mine, and on some issues, including abortion and gay rights, she is quite progressive. She is also a single mother, and I admired her independence.

The more I practised compassion, for myself and others, the less I felt like fighting. I didn’t imagine we would ever be firm friends, but I wondered if I could learn more about the world, and the people who view it differently from me, by getting to know Rita. And maybe I’d discover that, like me, her online persona was being driven by invisible battles.

I approached her on Twitter, and she accepted my invitation to catch up. When the moment came to finally meet, I was apprehensive. What if she didn’t show? What if she wrote about the encounter in one of her columns? I could just imagine the headline: “My Secret Meeting with a Feral Flog from the Loony Left.”

We met at a bar in Southbank, next to the Herald Sun offices, one evening after work, just as the sun was setting behind the Yarra. I was surprised how quickly I felt comfortable in her company. The conversation flowed easily. She is petite and energetic and has a warm, infectious giggle that makes her seem younger than her years.

I felt secure enough to tell her that in an angrier moment during one of our many Twitter battles I had fantasised about the two of us presenting a left vs right political podcast. I even had a working title: Educating Rita. She laughed, but seemed genuinely surprised that I had given so much thought to our online interactions. In her view, they had never been fights. The anger I felt was not an emotion she shared, although it is something people frequently bring up when they encounter her online.

“I’m often surprised when people say, ‘You’re so angry,’ because I’m never angry on Twitter. Maybe it comes off that way because unless you’re using a smiley face people can misread things,” she said. “That anger accusation always comes from the left, who, to be honest, I perceive as angry, and I’m thinking, are you projecting? Or is it just because my tone doesn’t convey the mocking or the sarcasm?”

As we sipped our drinks — pinot grigio for me, port for her — I suggested that people may perceive her as angry because of the language she uses. Among her favoured terms for those with whom she disagrees are “irrelevant bile-filled dolt,” “moronic nutbag,” “self-loathing broken,” and “deranged leftie loon.”

She said I was mistaking mockery for anger. “I just think some people deserve to be mocked. They are ridiculous, and trying to engage them… One, Twitter isn’t the forum for serious discussion, and two, they’re not worthy of that sort of discussion, they’re worthy of being mocked and dismissed. They’ve said something that is insane or absurd and you’re mocking that particular viewpoint.”

Mockery is an effective way to silence critics. In the kneejerk world of Twitter, it’s a weapon used with blunt force. And it can be vicious. Early last year, I found myself in the unfamiliar position of defending a right-wing millennial commentator. I didn’t know much about Daisy Cousens, other than that she was a writer for conservative publications including Quadrant and the Spectator, and seemed to be a self-styled alt-right flamethrower who prided herself on “triggering snowflakes.”

She had recently praised Donald Trump on Q&A, saying the president was like the “weird relative” who comes over once a year at Christmas and occasionally says embarrassing things but “ultimately you forgive him because he is nice and gives you the best presents.” So yeah, she was an easy target for parody. Her crime on this particular evening was to publish a breathless, first-person account in the Spectator of her one and only meeting with the controversial and recently deceased News Corp cartoonist Bill Leak, in a piece that read as part eulogy, part erotic fan fiction. She described “purring with satisfaction” after appearing on Sky News’s The Bolt Report, and praised Leak as a “gentleman, whose handsome face and unstudied smile left me strangely weak.”

I read it open-mouthed and cringing, wondering if it was satire. The late ABC veteran journalist Mark Colvin described it on Twitter as an “astonishingly bad piece of writing.” That was about as polite as it got. Within minutes, Cousens was a national laughing-stock. High-profile figures played to the gallery of their large followings, dredging up everything she’d ever written and eviscerating it word by word. She was ridiculed in cruel and inventive ways, described as “a cyst that had been left out in the sun,” a “thing,” and a “puffed-up nobody.” Her article was ridiculed as a “bug-eyed, slack-jawed piece of teen romance tripe,” “thigh-slappingly, teeth-grindingly awful,” and “Enid Blyton meets 50 Shades of something that should have been burned on a pyre.”

Women on the internet have copped far worse. But there was something about the gleeful, almost tribal way people rounded on Cousens that made me wonder what the hell we’re all doing in these moments. It was Lord of the Flies meets Mean Girls. People went trawling for old pictures of her, critiquing her looks, her youth and her apparently vapid personality. Memes were created, satirical poems written in her honour. Someone dug up a column she’d written for an obscure overseas website in which she claimed to have turned down sex with a famous athlete. A frenzy ensued as a bunch of women — many of them staunch feminists, who themselves have been the target of vicious online trolling — tore apart the piece, joked about who the sports star could be, or declared that the incident simply never happened.

As I watched it unfold I tweeted: “The Daisy Cousens pile-on is one of the harshest pile-ons I’ve seen in a while. It was a weird piece, but mob humiliation is pretty mean.” And so ensued a furious Twitter debate among my followers on whether Cousens should be defended or if in fact she deserved the ridicule because she’d set herself up as a right-wing provocateur and was therefore asking for it. People told me I’d backed the wrong side, implying I was a traitor to the left for not joining in the public shaming. I added, “Eviscerating a young conservative columnist who wrote something a bit silly is not witty or progressive. It’s just bullying. Maybe don’t.” After several hours I went to bed, realising I’d only thrown kerosene on the flames. In the morning, I logged on and it was still going. People were incensed that I didn’t share their fury.

Rita, who is herself a regular target for trolling and abuse, told me she “couldn’t give a fuck” about the flak she cops, and has grown a thick skin. But I wondered if she ever felt a degree of empathy for the people she disagrees with online?

“Sometimes I think they’re genuinely not well,” she said with a laugh. “I’ll think, there is something much greater wrong with you than your opinion on this particular topic, and your reactions aren’t normal. Quite often then you worry about how they’re reacting. You might be thinking this is a hilarious little exchange, but they might actually be in some sort of a shame spiral. You just don’t want to be adding to someone’s pain or discomfort.”

She has, at times, felt guilty for retweeting ridicule or getting involved in a Twitter pile-on. When I told her about my mental-health battles, she was sympathetic and kind. It is not an attitude she extends to everyone. “It’s hard to have sympathy for people who are genuinely unpleasant. Or their persona seems to be. I’m sure if you met them you’d probably get a very different impression from what you see.”

Which brought me to why we were there. I was curious as to how she viewed me. Online, she uses a broad brush to dismiss everyone on the left side of politics as “idiotic.” What did she hope to get out of meeting with this particular idiot?

“I’ve always thought you seemed like someone I’d be very happy to have a drink with or go to a footy game with or whatever. I’ve never seen you as the enemy,” she said. “It’s unhealthy only to have people around you who agree with you because then there’s not much boisterous discussion or diversity of thought. We’re not at war — this is Australia. It’s not like parts of the world where people you disagree with you literally can’t talk to because it ends in gunfire.”

She explained that she differentiates between the “ordinary left” and the “lunatic left,” and went on to describe my place on this complex continuum. “You’re somewhere between ordinary left and social-justice-warrior left. I think lunatic left is where you don’t want to be. Regressive left is very close to it, then you’ve got your social justice warriors and your ordinary left. So you’re in dangerous territory, you’re getting close to the regressives.”

When someone is essentially calling you intellectually backward, it’s hard to keep an open mind to their broader point. But I listened intently and found that despite the slightly obtuse way her points were being delivered, there remained in her views some areas of common ground with my mine. I couldn’t disagree with her belief that the mainstream media is out of touch with the average punter, given Brexit, Trump and Hanson came as a complete shock to almost every journalist who covered them.

Whether it’s coming from the right or the left, when we shut down debate, try to ban voices we don’t like, and label people with opposing views as stupid or inherently bad, we only risk further alienating communities that already feel ignored. “If you actually think that someone is evil then it gives you licence to not only dismiss their opinions but dismiss them as human beings,” Rita said.

This is the heart of the problem in our divided, digital age. When we separate ourselves into opposing camps and condemn the “enemy” as fundamentally bad, we dehumanise the target, making it easier to join the social media pile-on.

Nowhere was this more apparent than when Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a Sudanese-born, twenty-six-year-old Australian mechanical engineer, author and ABC radio presenter, found herself front-page news in 2017 after a seven-word Facebook post on Anzac Day, urging people to remember those in Australia’s offshore detention centres who had fled conflict, went viral. Social media, Liberal MPs and the News Corp papers went into overdrive, calling for her to be sacked, punished or deported, in a frenzied orgy of bloodletting that was revolting in its ugliness.

In the following three months, some 90,000 words would be written about Abdel-Magied in the Murdoch press, with the febrile reaction prompting daily death threats, rape threats, and harassment against a young Muslim woman whose greatest crime was to ask that people pause on a day of remembrance for our war dead to reflect on the plight of refugees fleeing war-torn countries. The abuse proved so extreme that she later announced she was moving to London, writing in the Guardian that she had become the most hated Muslim in Australia. In response, conservative commentator Prue MacSween announced on Sydney’s 2GB radio that she was “tempted to run her over.”

Leaving aside the transparent racism and Islamophobia that underlies the whole sorry incident, there is something deeply troubling about the anger running through these public shamings. As Abdel-Magied pointed out, the visceral nature of the fury weakens us all. It’s a raw, naked rage that divides us into warring tribes, constantly scanning the surrounding landscape for someone to blame.

Rita upset some of her fellow conservatives during the Abdel-Magied furore by not calling for her to be sacked. She told me that in a democracy it is fundamentally unhealthy to silence opinions we don’t like. In that regard, I share her concerns at the way some on the left, in a bid to be inclusive and intersectional, have driven a burgeoning “no platform” movement, banning speakers they don’t agree with from university campuses or glossing over the tensions between radical Islam and women’s or LGBTIQ rights. In some Muslim countries, women are being stoned to death for having sex outside of marriage and gay men are thrown from buildings.

Rita’s opinions might make some on the left uncomfortable, but as a woman of colour and a former refugee who has lived under an oppressive Islamic regime, she has a perspective that can’t be ignored just because it doesn’t fit the ideological narrative of those who view themselves as progressive. You don’t have to agree with her to listen.

“I think if you’re a powerful woman and lucky to be living in the Western world then you’ve got an obligation to at least focus some attention on women who are genuinely oppressed and don’t have a way out,” she said. “I find the abandonment of feminists of that group really quite ugly because that’s to me the biggest battlefront for women, instead of obsessing about sexist air-conditioning. I think it’s a responsibility we have, to focus on those women who are voiceless. It could have been me. It affects family members of mine, and it was just luck that I’m not still there.”

Despite what her critics have claimed, Rita is adamant she’s never written anything she doesn’t believe in. This is not part of a brand she has built to feather her nest. Indeed, she is independently wealthy, with an expansive property portfolio, and could have retired at thirty had she chosen to, she told me. She writes on issues she feels passionately about. During our time together I try to get her to open up. I’m looking for those invisible battles — that soft underbelly we all have. She is guarded and doesn’t give much away, but when I ask about her ten-year-old son, it’s clear that this boy — who on Instagram she affectionately dubs #TGC (The Golden Child) — is the centre of her world. His future informs much of her writing.

“As much as I joke about and mock certain things, and certain trends that are occurring, I do worry about him going off to university and being faced with that oppressive campus culture where you’re expected to think a certain way and you don’t have that diversity of thought or critical thinking being celebrated,” she said. “I would hate for him to go off and be exposed to that or be made to feel guilty because he’s male or to be blamed for things he’s not guilty of just because of the sex he was born into.”

After a couple of hours, we had to bring our catch-up to an end. She was heading to the studio to appear on Sky News’s The Bolt Report. As a condition of our interview I had promised to let her see the chapter before publication. “I’m trusting you,” she said, before adding, “I screenshotted the message. The one where you said you’d give me copy approval.”

I didn’t blame her. We were from different worlds. Over a drink we had narrowed the gulf, but the apprehension remained. No doubt I will continue to disagree with Rita on many issues. When she talks about the “broken dullards of the regressive left,” it will still make my teeth itch. And I’m sure my social justice warrior-ing will keep her in eye rolls for years to come. But I’m tired of being angry all the time. I remain a passionate advocate for equality, inclusion and the progressive causes that Rita might view as “SJW virtue signalling.” But I’m no longer convinced that righteous fury is the best vehicle for change.

The anger is corrosive. It diminishes me and my argument. I know it’s not easy to remain calm and dignified when the public rhetoric is so poisonous — especially for those in marginalised communities who face constant attacks on their humanity and are still fighting for basic rights. How do you remain stoic and gracious when you’re being told you’re an abomination? A terrorist? A dole-bludging waste of space? And yet, history consistently shows that the antidote to hate is not more hate. We need dialogue and open hearts. As the American writer Van Jones says, we have to see the dignity and humanity in all people. And at the end of the day, branding someone a moron has rarely changed anyone’s mind.

Meeting Rita won’t heal the world, but it has helped change me. She’s no longer just an avatar behind a series of tweets. I know I won’t find fulfilment in telling her she’s wrong. I can’t imagine ever ridiculing her again to win the admiration of my followers. My happiness levels do not improve by fighting with people on the internet. The anger I once felt when battling with Rita online — an out-of-control fury that would send my anxiety soaring and leave me empty — has dissipated. It’s easy to throw stones at an ideology. It’s much harder to hurl them at flesh and blood. •

This is an extract from Jill Stark’s new book Happy Never After, published this month by Scribe.