Something weird happened to me recently that involved right-wing conservative columnist Andrew Bolt. Don’t worry, it wasn’t sexual (or at least as far as I remember). Calling it a “fight” sounds too intense; calling it a “debate” sounds too scholarly. No, what transpired was a battle of minds, people. Instead of using our fists, we used our words! Instead of violence, we resorted to intellect! Rather than locking swords, we locked tongues and okay this sentence has become unexpectedly disgusting and I will end it now.
Anyway, long story short: Andrew Bolt wrote a column, I wrote a column in response, he accused me of provoking my readers to violence against him and then called me “a gay with comprehension issues”. Which I actually thought sounded quite cute, like I was someone who had a fabulous learning disability. But what happened next was like a scene from The Return of the King. Darkness descended, orcs swarmed over the hills and suddenly there were screeching wraiths in the air. All I’ll say is there really is no greater hive of scum and villainy than a News Limited website comments page. And once you have Andrew Bolt targetting you, the Public of Australia—Norm from Shailer Park; Beryl from Clapham—begin to bay for your blood.
It’s fascinating when complete strangers start happily spewing invective in your direction: you write terribly; being gay is a choice; we will hunt you down and kill you; being Asian is a choice. People have happily slagged me off on Twitter, calling me a “shameless attention seeker”, an “arsehole” and a “douchebag”. And while most of those things are probably true, shouldn’t we be keeping these judgements to ourselves?
To be honest, I was never really bullied or picked on as a kid. Considering I was a scrawny, homosexual Asian kid with orthodontics and scoliosis, who played the clarinet and enjoyed skipping rope during recess, it’s surprising I wasn’t targetted more. (Actually, it’s surprising I’m not dead.) I know I’m one of the lucky ones. Many people dear and near to me were bullied mercilessly in school—for their weight, their acne, their sexuality, their race, their religion—and spent nearly every day of their school life waking up with dread at the prospect of seven hours in uniform. I can’t imagine living with that. I think I would spew.
Stuff like this can leave us in tears. But as my friend Jess once wrote, “A sage and omnipotent being, known as ‘the internet’, once said something incredibly wise under a picture of a cat dressed like a gangster driving a pimp mobile. Haters gonna hate. And the truth is, there’s nothing you can do about it.” And you know what? Jess is right. The only thing we’ve got under control is how we choose to respond. Various songwriters and local neighbourhood drag queens will tell you the first rule: You must never let them see you cry.
And from there, think of how you’d like to respond by harnessing your spirit animal: a lion, a hawk, Germaine Greer. Personally, I like to harness Vazquez, the butch female military operative from the 1986 James Cameron film Aliens who, when confronted with the teasing chauvinist question, “Have you ever been mistaken for a man?” replied without missing a beat, “No. Have you?”
Nowadays, my standard response to strangers’ abuse is either to ignore it, or to baffle them with thanks. Recently, someone told me exactly what they thought of me (it wasn’t pleasant) and I responded with “Thank you very much, that’s so lovely of you to say.” Weirdly flattered by my kindness, that person started being nice to me. Sometimes, it turns out, internet trolls just need love, the poor, deformed sun-deprived creatures that they are. Others will remain horrible. And if you can’t come up with an excellent comeback quickly, you can always confuse them. Then run the fuck away.