Liam Hehir: Online abuse and the standard you walk by

Liam Hehir: Online abuse and the standard you walk by

There’s a lot of nastiness in the online public sphere, much of it tribal, petty and personal. Political commentator and Twitter enthusiast Liam Hehir has seen too much of it, and explains why he’s going to actively stand up against it.


I did a radio interview a little while ago and, at the close, the host asked about the viciousness of the comments people on Twitter make about me. He wasn’t talking about disagreements when I say something stupid, but the out-and-out nastiness based on innate characteristics that are usually beyond my control.

I’ve been lucky enough to do more media work than usual this year and so there’s been a lot more of it. Sometimes friends in real life or family members will stumble on it and, not comprehending how run of the mill this all is, will become concerned. Of course it doesn’t pay to give much quarter.

So the other night I said I was used to it but, when pressed, admitted that I do mind it. I mean, why wouldn’t somebody mind being the recipient of constant remarks about your clothes or your voice or your hairline. I don’t think anybody would be particularly happy about having their sex life called into question or getting comments about being physically unattractive. I don’t think anyone like intrusion into your private life or statements about your family.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about the normal hurly burly of politics in which I myself willingly participate. That kind of thing always will be rough and if you want to put your opinions out there expect them to be harshly criticised in the crucible of public debate, you can’t take that personally.

But I am not talking about that. I’m talking about comments that start with “Liam Hehir actually looks like that lmfaooooo” and which go downhill from there.

They’re not all random trolls. A lot of them are authors who have written for the same publications I have or appeared on the same television or radio programs. They’re people who have worked for think tanks and media organisations.

And while it’s one thing to have a bit of friendly banter with people that you’ve met in real life or struck up some kind of rapport with, these vicious people, who almost unfailing hold themselves out as being on the bleeding edge of empathy, are almost always unknown to me.

Whenever my occasional media work brings me into real-life contact with some left-wing person, it’s very rare for them to accuse me of being overweight, probably racist person with a disgusting lisp right from the get-go. Normally, in those circumstances, we have a pleasant talk and then exchange a few emails later on.

Online, a sort of inverse morality has taken hold. There is this weird code of honour which prevails about the only real assholes are people who are not assholes to Tory scum. Those who support a slightly different political party than them should be attacked personally and, moreover, it’s immoral not to join in on the fun.

We often use the word “tribalism” to describe such virulent partisanism. What we are seeing, however, goes further than that since members of different tribes can frequently have friendly relations. What we are talking about is sectarianism – hatred arising from petty divisions of the body politic.

We have more than our fair share of bullies and hateful people on the right. It may well be that our parade of horribles may be much longer than that on the left. And as a male New Zealander of Irish descent, I am fortunate not to experience the same sorts and quantities of abuse that many of my compatriots have to put up with.

Speaking from my own experience, however, I don’t any political philosophy has any kind of monopoly on personal cruelty. Not by a long shot. There are ghouls all over the place.

I’m sure a lot of them think they’re good people (or at least tell themselves they are). They are not (at least in their online life). They are, in fact, wannabe bullies.

What can be done about it?

Probably not much. But there’s something I once heard by David Morrison, the former Chief of the Australian Army, that really stuck with me. The standard you walk by, he said, is the standard you accept.

There’s very little I can do to protect my centre-right friends from the cruelty of left-wing voices, which are hardly likely to listen to me.

There is, however, quite a bit I can do to protect my leftwing friends from the same sort of stuff from the right. All it really requires is a willingness to politely but firmly tell people with whom you might have some pull to pull their head in when they cross the line.

As a rule, we don’t do this. I get a lot of messages from people alerting me to cruel comments and expressing private solidarity. Very rarely, however, are those people willing to antagonise somebody who likes them by pointing out that some comment or the other was not on. In most cases the best that can be hoped for is the silent disapproval of not joining in.

We are none of us perfect here, with a strong national preference for conflict avoidance and people pleasing. I have made a real effort in the past few years to actively criticise and ostracise those who resort to prejudiced attacks against people like Golriz Ghahraman and other public figures with who I have disagreements. I’ve had mixed results from that, but I do feel that, for the minority of New Zealanders who use Twitter, it’s made a small difference in helping to marginalise some petty and destructive voices.

Truthfully, however, there’s a lot of stuff that just goes by without a blind eye.

So my resolution for the coming term is to have more awkward conversations with people who cross the line into highly generalised, personal attacks. My focus is going to be there, and not on the left, because I think that’s where my opprobrium will go the furthest. Whether or not you would care to reciprorate, well, that’s up to you.


Liam Hehir lives in the small Manawatu village of Rongotea. He has been a conservative columnist since 2013. He is a practising Catholic and sympathises with the aims of the National Party, for which he formerly volunteered in a variety of low-level roles.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.