Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Talking Back

Cameron Edwards is a foolish young man.

Every Monday night during the ABC’s tweet-back programme Q&A, tweeters interested in politics warm up their smartphones, tablets and laptops, and tweet their responses to the various partisan statements made by the members of the Q&A panel. It’s a rowdy, undisciplined affair with views ranging from the literal middle ground all the way through to the extremes, and surprisingly, it’s usually well-informed, articulate and oftentimes, hilarious.

Iconic Q&A moments were amplified to greatness within the twittersphere: GetUp’s Simon Sheikh fainted on air, an audience member through a shoe at John Howard, Julie Bishop tried to kill a cameraman with her trademark stare, Germaine Greer became obsessed with the Prime Minister’s wardrobe choices. These are one-off, unscripted examples of what can happen on live television, with an equally live “participating” via social media.

Cameron Edward's series of offensive tweets
Last night’s Q&A sparked another twitterstorm, but this time, it had little to do with what was on the television screen and everything to do with what was on the twitterscreen itself. One viewer, a young engineering student at UNSW, chose to tweet a series of incredibly rude tweets addressed to Senator Penny Wong, who had been on the Q&A panel last night.

The viewer was Cameron Edwards, an insulter in the mould of an Alan Jones or Kyle Sandilands. With expertise rarely seen outside Sydney commercial radio, Cameron Edwards succeeded in tweeting a stream of insults directed at Senator Wong’s gender, ethnicity and sexual preference.

An hour or so later, after hundreds of people pointed out the error of his ways and forwarded screen shots of the worst of his tweets to UNSW, a rather embarrassed Cameron Edwards deleted some of the offending tweets, protected his twitter account (so that others cannot get access to his older tweets) and apologised. Today, he has emailed a personal apology to Senator Wong.

Two remarkable events happened here. Firstly, the deluge of disgust at Cameron Edward’s tweet was not organised in any away or affiliated with any group. In fact, the disgust was purely at Cameron Edward’s tweets. It was not arguing the substance of his tweets or supporting Senator Wong; it was just disgust and disbelief that anyone could be so stupid as to tweet those sentiments even once, much less multiple times and using such unacceptable language.

The second remarkable thing was that Cameron Edwards has ‘manned up’, and apologised, more than once. In fairness, his apologies on twitter last night and today lacked gravitas, but that may be nothing more than a reflection of the writer, and his lack of maturity. The apologies sound far more like the embarrassed backpedalling of a boy who has realised that he’s in trouble and he can’t lie his way out of it. I haven’t seen his emailed apology to Ms Wong.

Having said that, this is what is possible. This is why movements like Destroy The Joint exist. Last night, a group of people who are unconnected to each other, except by twitter, used their collective influence to state clearly that abuse is not acceptable in our society. It’s the same theme as White Ribbon Day, the Royal Commission into abuse of children in care, Prime Minister’s Gillard’s speech slamming misogyny, Destroy the Joint and Reclaim the Night. It’s the New Revolutionaries, starting to influence the way society develops.

And no, Cameron – booze isn’t an excuse. If you can’t handle yourself drunk, don’t drink so much. You took responsibility for your offensive tweets; now take responsibility for the sentiment behind them.

Then there is the other half of my night on twitter. A young psychologist named Holly made a poor joke about fat people and cake. She was challenged about whether the joke was appropriate by blogger and commentator Chrys Stevenson. What happened next was like peeling an onion. Holly sounded so superior and so shallow when she eventually confirmed on twitter that she does not accept that there is a psychological element in the causes of obesity. For a psychologist, that’s a fairly naïve approach.

I can’t imagine that many people set out to be obese. I know that I’d be so much happier and healthier if I lost about 40kg. I haven't been able to do that yet. But I am what I am – imperfect - and being fat doesn’t give anyone the right to treat me any differently to how they would treat me if I was a size 10.

The battle with Holly is lost; we’ll get her next time, and if we don’t, it’ll be the time after that.

But we won the battle with Cameron Edwards. His apology may not be the most sincere apology, but I suspect that he has learned a lesson. I hope he's learned that the opinions he expressed and the language he used are not acceptable.

It’s not about point-scoring or popularity or one-upmanship. Nor is it just bad behaviour from yobs; these people are educated, articulate young people who should know better. So why do we engage with people like Cameron Edwards of Holly-the-Psychology-Graduate or Tony Abbott or Alan Jones?

Because as individuals, we are troubled by what we see, and our opinion matters too.


  1. Likening Holly to Tony Abbott or Alan Jones is ridiculous and loses your article any credibility. Whether or not you approve of the joke or chose to be offended is irrelevant. A one off joke on a subject you deem offensive is not in the same league as consistent and unrepentant behaviour that time and time again many, many members of our society declare unacceptable.

    Being an overweight person myself I can say I wasn't offended at all. I felt Chrys response was a massive over reaction when she released a barrage of tweets on both Holly and myself. Chrys seemed offended that I wasn't offended. The thing is, she doesn't get to decided what I should be offended by.

    You have confused the subject of a joke with the target. Yes, it mentioned a fat person, but the target of the joke was a Harry Potter spell, not a person.

    I completely disagree with your assessment above about Holly's joke and I do not accept that a fat joke is on the same level as a homophobic or racist joke, and I speak as a 'fat' person.

    1. Thanks for commenting. We don't agree, but I really appreciate that you took the time to consider a different perspective, and share it.

  2. Its good to have this kind of discussion. Everyone has a freedom of speech but making sure it is for the good!