Tall Poppies, Cyber Bullies, Culture Wars & Antidotes–updated
The difference between them is how they responded.
The death of Charlotte Dawson is the immediate reason for asking the question – a death she seems to have chosen in response not just to depression, but to a vicious online hate campaign she could never allow herself to ignore.
Deborah Hill Cone wrote a column about the death of Charlotte Dawson, suggesting the path to the freedom she never found in life would have been to abandon the idea that what others think about you matters – “the path to freedom” for women over fifty, for example, (the age of which Dawson was only a whisker away), being to “embrace the idea of being subversive, powerful, batty old broads.”
Could you have been one of those, Charlotte? (It's why so many of us go back to university. We all want to be Doris Lessing, Mary Wesley, Iris Murdoch.)
But to get eccentric old bat status, you have to stop caring what other people think of you. That was particularly hard for you, Charlotte. Individuals with low self-esteem tend to be more concerned with what others think of them than what they think of themselves.
You felt shunned for being single, being childless, for having a mental illness. The truth is no one really cares. But for you that was even worse.
It is terrifying to think of becoming insignificant, being wiped out, being annihilated. So, ultimately, you chose to preserve Charlotte Dawson, the glamorous brand, aged 47, forever.
It wasn't just depression and “cyber bullying” that claimed Charlotte, argues Cone. It was, in a sense, living what my own favourite subversive old broad called “a second-hand life.” She wrote a book about it, the theme of which she said was
“individualism vs. collectivism, not in politics but in men’s souls.” The story opposes two different methods of approaching reality, including other people: using one’s own mind to the conscientious best of one’s ability—or surrendering one’s mind, in various forms, to the beliefs and wishes of others; being cognitively and psychologically independent—or being dependent on others for one’s ideas and values; seeking truth in nature, in the facts and laws of reality—or in society, in the opinions and unsubstantiated claims of others. [This novel] dramatises the life-promoting nature of the virtue of independence—of guiding every aspect of one’s life by one’s own mind—and, as a corollary, the inevitable destruction wrought by abandoning one’s mind.
If Cone’s commentary is correct, Charlotte Dawson’s sad end might be another tragic example.
But the culture wars are going meta. Cone’s column was not universally well-received. Ironically, the column itself attracted “cyber-bullying,” such that
you can still read about it on Twitter, two days later. People are still calling [Hill Cone] a "disgusting excuse for a human", impugning her looks, shouting "you make me sick" into the ether.
You could safely guess that at least some of the same people have previously expressed their horror at Dawson copping the same -- and worse -- from people she didn't know online. It's a good thing that Hill Cone is not, so far as I know, on Twitter, but the outrage seemed no less furious on Facebook…
So when the chips are down even anti-cyber-bullies very easily become cyber bullies – and the tolerant masses of liberalism become intolerant culture warriors out for blood and not satisfied until they get it. [UPDATE: Says Simon Pound about Cone’s online harassment, “Grubby, depressing irony how the defenders of someone hounded by internet bullies were so bullying.”] You don’t even need to be a tall poppy to be on the receiving end of liberal rush-to-judgement -- as John Tamihere, Paul Henry, Alasdair Thompson et al already know to their cost, once the pack of unlaughing hyenas have decided you’ve offended their sensibilities, right or wrong, they don’t care what bits of you they tear off in response.
Actor Alec Baldwin, himself a card-carrying liberal, has just become another victim of this online liberal clobbering machine – but being less sensitive than Charlotte Dawson he has come out punching against the modern-day liberal lynch-mob mentality in a long, thoughtful and well-argued piece explaining why he is saying goodbye to public life. It’s a piece that really deserves some reflection. (Words I never thought I would use about Alec Baldwin.)
But as Russell Brown points out in responding to Hill Cone’s column (it’s his description of reactions to it that I posted above), this doesn’t explain everything about Dawson’s demise. He reminds us that just last month Dawson
threw herself into the faux controversy around Lorde's frustration with being jostled by local media and offer, unbidden, this advice. "Unless you're very mediocre you need to get out of there - you just have to if you want to keep succeeding otherwise it'll just crush your spirit."
Faux controversy or not, that’s a sentiment many a tall-poppy has expressed in leaving this place. I remember Chris Lewis expressing it himself when he was driven out by the mediocrities running NZ Tennis. Writing then about his departure, I quoted on his behalf Ayn Rand’s words about the death of Marilyn Monroe, and the hatred-of-the-good-for-being-the-good that killed her. Rand quoted Monroe, words that echo some of what I’ve heard quoted by Charlotte Dawson,
"When you're famous, you kind of run into human nature in a raw kind of way," [said Monroe]. "It stirs up envy, fame does. People you run into feel that, well, who is she--who does she think she is, Marilyn Monroe? They feel fame gives them some kind of privilege to walk up to you and say anything to you, you know, of any kind of nature--and it won't hurt your feelings--like it's happening to your clothing. . . . I don't understand why people aren't a little more generous with each other. I don't like to say this, but I'm afraid there is a lot of envy in this business."
"Envy" is the only name she could find for the monstrous thing she faced [observes Rand in response], but it was much worse than envy: it was the profound hatred of life, of success and of all human values, felt by a certain kind of mediocrity--the kind who feels pleasure on hearing about a stranger's misfortune. It was hatred of the good for being the good--hatred of ability, of beauty, of honesty, of earnestness, of achievement and, above all, of human joy.
I don’t know Dawson well enough to know whether that describes her or not, I’ve never followed her career enough to know. But the reaction to her looks awfully familiar – it’s the same tall-poppy Chris Lewis characterises as the "the crab bucket mentality," “where anyone who is brazen enough to strive for success — or, god forbid, to achieve it — immediately becomes a target for the ‘crab bucket mentalities’ who, rather than strive for success themselves, derive enormous pleasure from attempting to cut the tall poppy back down.”
Anyone familiar with the behaviour of a bunch of crabs trapped at the bottom of a bucket will know what happens when one of them tries to climb to the top; instead of attempting the climb themselves, those left at the bottom of the bucket will do all in their collective power to drag the climber back down. And although crab behaviour should not in any way be analogous to human behaviour, I can think of many instances where it is...
Along the way many obstacles & barriers will be put in [the] path [of achievers]. One such obstacle, which brings me to the point of my article, is the tremendous amount of negative peer pressure that is brought to bear on anyone who attempts to climb life's peaks by those who have defaulted on the climb.
And whether those peaks represent success on the sporting field, in the business world, in the academic arena, or in any other realm of life, including life itself, there will always be those who give up on their quest to climb life's mountains, and instead choose to remain at the bottom of life's bucket — which would be fine, as long as they didn't then devote their destructive efforts, like the crabs, to pulling the climbers back down.
I think that describes the online and offline lynch mobs to a tee. Russell Brown is right that “perhaps it would be a bit better for everyone if there was more latitude for anyone to fuck up sometimes.” (And I’ll be eager to see him follow his own advice when the next Paul Henry/John Tamihere foot-in-mouth incident strikes.) But perhaps too there should be more simple respect for success from those who haven’t, and more self-respect and self-esteem from those who have.
As it happens, on this last, Chris Lewis recommends as antidote to the lynch mobs the very novel I mentioned above, by my favourite eccentric old bat:
In a world where the predominant trend is toward anti-achievement & anti-success, motivational fuel is something that we all need from time to time to propel us toward our goals. Which is why I would like to commend to your attention a book that provided me with a tremendous amount of motivational fuel very early on in my tennis career.
The book is entitled The Fountainhead, by the Russian/American novelist Ayn Rand. In the introduction to her book, she tells us, "Some give up at the first touch of pressure; some sell out; some run down by imperceptible degrees & lose their fire, never knowing when or how they lost it ... Yet a few hold on & move on, knowing that that fire is not to be betrayed, learning how to give it shape, purpose & reality. But whatever their future, at the dawn of their lives, men seek a noble vision of man's nature & of life's potential. There are very few guideposts to find. The Fountainhead is one of them."
At a time when, as a seventeen-year-old, I was just setting out to conquer the tennis courts around the world, an attempt that demanded excellence & achievement every step of the way, it was The Fountainhead that helped to inspire me in the face of discouragement from the "crab bucket mentalities" who told me I was wasting my time.
For anyone who believes in the importance of achieving his or her values & goals, who believes that happiness is the end result of such achievement, & that happiness is the norm when independence, in thought & action is promoted, encouraged & pursued, The Fountainhead comes with my highest recommendation.
It’s too late to help Charlotte Dawson. But for anyone else needing motivational fuel to succeed, or to shun their second-hand life, pass along a copy. It might just save a life.
Maybe even your own?