It’s Only Words: On trolls, free speech, and the last few days.
Before you read this I should clarify that I am not back on my Twitter account. My blog and Instagram accounts both automatically link to it and publish new posts, so this may publish on my account but I am not going to access it to delete it, because I have deleted the app and do not want to go into my account, and apologise for any confusion.
I have always tried to strike a balance between keeping you all updated with any major twists and turns in my frankly unusual life, without bombarding you with so much extraneous detail that the recipes get buried beneath an amateur imitation of a weekly glossy magazine. So, while there may not be red screaming circles of shame around my dark baggy eyes or shock horror headlines at being caught without any makeup on, I do feel I owe it to the loyalty of my readers to keep you informed about events and affairs. Of the ‘day to day life’ type, not the kiss-and-tell type, to be clear. It gets me in a little trouble sometimes, like the casual uploading of my Green Party welcome letter to my Instagram account being picked up by the Telegraph and subsequently plastered across the media, but those are the growing pains of a life led largely in public.
One of my old Labour Party friends, who is a local councillor and a man I admire and respect enormously, used to announce at the beginning of the council chamber that ‘this is a meeting held in public, not a public meeting. Which means that you may observe, but you may not heckle or otherwise disrupt proceedings.’ It is a sentence that curiously comes back to me every now and again, not quite fitting the narrative of my life since the first Sunday People article in December 2012, but there is something in there I can identify with.
In the autumn last year, I was at a dinner with some new friends, a lot of whom are also in the public eye. Needless to say, before the conspiracy theorists start rubbing their hands together, they were not my friends three years ago when I was a struggling single mother in Southend queuing up at the food bank; they are people I have met along this fantastic journey, got along with, and stayed in touch with. All friends start off as new friends, as the saying goes. I was hiding. It’s a trick of mine at dinners and parties, I blend into walls for the majority of the evening, or sit on the edges of tables admiring my shoes, or stand beside someone who is very gregarious, for about seventy per cent of the time. I’m not rude or arrogant or disinterested, I’m agonisingly shy. Yeah, me. Hey. When I put my hands on the lectern to give a speech, I’m not being pastoral or stateswoman-like, I’m doing it to stop them from shaking. If there isn’t a lectern, I ram one in a pocket. I threw my dinner up before I went on Question Time, walked onto the stage for Radio 4’s Dilemma with three beers in my hand I’d swiped from the green room (er, not realising there was a studio audience and feeling like a total lush as I plonked them on the table in front of me…) and I sit on a hand on breakfast television sofas. I’ve digressed. I’m shy. Always have been. I was the lead in most of my school plays and church productions, used to sing on stage, but I’m painfully shy. I used to get my brother to pay for my bus fare, or the Chomp bar from the corner shop after school. I wear sunglasses on the Tube sometimes. Sit with my head down. Cried on Channel 5 when Edwina started digging up my dead Grandad in a live debate to try to discredit me when all I wanted to do was talk about food banks. I digress. I was at a dinner party, hiding in the loo. For twenty minutes. I came out to find a New-Famous-Friend waiting to go in. Apologised for taking so long, while I scoped out somewhere else to hang out for a few minutes. She looked at me long and hard. “I get it. I’d rather be up here too, but my career depends on me being down there.” I nodded. Mine too.
I think the point of this is that, recently I’ve been on the end of some very nasty abuse on Twitter, unprompted and apropos of nothing, someone sent me messages out of the blue telling me to leave the country, telling me I should be sterilised, telling me I shouldn’t be allowed to breed, that ‘my sort’ should die. I was at a friends house, having dinner. It was 9pm on a Friday night, and some extraordinary hatred had flashed up on my mobile phone, in my face, at the kitchen table, in my leisure time, in what thirty seconds ago had been a safe space, a relaxed evening, that now had me frozen in my seat waiting for the next barrage. And it came. Like-minded people sending similar messages, the snowball effect of the extremists on Twitter once they have identified their target.
I locked myself in my friends bathroom and clicked onto the account. Racial abuse to Diane Abbott. Messages telling Owen Jones he should be hung. I sent a message to my followers saying that Twitter no longer felt like a safe space for me, and I deleted the app from my mobile so I would stop getting the notifications.
People have since sneered at my response. Told me to man up. Grow up. It’s just Twitter. That I’m ridiculous. That I clearly have no respect for free speech. It doesn’t hurt anyone. It’s just words. I’m a ‘feminazi’. And so on.
I went home from my friends house in a taxi, I didn’t want to walk down the street alone, sit at a tube station alone, be on a train, alone. I asked the driver to see me in. I jumped out of my skin at any shadow in my house as I locked it up. Because on that Friday night the world was new to me. If someone can shove their hatred in your face as you sit at your friends kitchen table eating a curry, your world turns on it’s head.
I stayed in bed all day on Saturday. Retreated beneath my duvet. I didn’t want to be out in this world of hatred and verbal violence and such darkness. I didn’t know it. Didn’t recognise it. My doorbell rang again and again young men with notepads that I glanced at through my window that I can only assume were journalists as various newspapers reported on the incident. I didn’t answer the door. At 7:15pm a Police officer came round. The incidents had been reported, and they needed to take a statement. I showed him the messages. Gave a statement. A man was arrested, after numerous incidents of which the messages sent to me were only a small part.
Today I left my house at 4pm. Head down. Eyes flicking at every stranger walking towards me on the street. Sunglasses on on the Tube. The man arrested roams free after 15 hours in Police custody, updating his blog with sneering comments and vile allegations about me, despite having his computer and modem confiscated by the Police.
It’s only words, people say. But words can motivate, words can inspire, words can wound and words can heal. The most beautiful poetry in the world, is made of words. The parables in the Bible, are made of words. The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock, is just words put in order. Dickens. Shakespeare. JK Rowling. Every film script, every newspaper article, every proverb, every song.
And so I repeat what I said on Friday night;
“Dear friends; Please do not retaliate to the trolls and abusers with abuse. Not in my name. Please, not in my name. Instead, if you believe in a God, Goddess, spiritual force, karma or universal balance, pray for peace. Meditate upon kindness. Wish them better – nobody who is whole and happy seeks out strangers to deliberately target hatred. Please, pray for peace. Send that out there into the world and extinguish the hatred with kindness. Stay positive. There are good people and strong voices here. Be one of them, and not one of the others. With love, because if I have not love I have nothing, Jack Monroe. 18 April 2015.”
It is easy to respond to anger with anger. Easy to ‘give it back’, to give someone a taste of their own medicine, but really, where does it end? My timelines still fill up with testimonies of nastiness, of bitterness, of anger and spite. Social media is fast becoming a sad and strange place to be. I have been guilty myself of sending messages in haste, and regretting them as they feed into the cycles of reactive outrage and it goes on and on and on. I’m begging you, please don’t contribute to that. If we want our social networks to be safe, kind places, we need to start looking at what we put out there too. I include myself in that.
When I was a child, my parents had a copy of a poem by Dorothy Law Nolte on their wall. I recently wrote it out to guide myself as a parent, but also as a person. I changed the word ‘children’ to ‘people’ to apply it here:
If people live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If people live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If people live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If people live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If people live with ridicule, they learn to be shy.
If people live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
If people live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If people love with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If people live with tolerance, they learn patience.
If people live with praise, they learn appreciation.
If people live with acceptance, they learn to love.
If people live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If people live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.
If people live with sharing, they learn generosity.
If people live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
If people live with fairness, they learn justice.
If people live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
If people live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.
Jack Monroe. 19 April 2015.