I was on the way home from college last week feeling very tired and irritable as I lugged my acoustic guitar, case & backpack from train to bus after an intense day of musical collaboration. As my mind drifted through the things that have irritated me recently, I remembered a recent experience on the morning bus. In a misguided attempt to get it off my chest I posted the following message about it on the Bondi Local Loop Facebook group, which at the time had over 42,000 local members:
To the lady who abused me on the packed 389 from North Bondi the other morning as she alighted at Bondi Junction by shouting: "I hope your bag enjoyed the seat, you fucking prick": I would have preferred you to ask me politely to please move over during the trip if you wanted the seat. That would have given me the opportunity to point out the full sized acoustic guitar case that you didn't see was taking all the leg room on the seat beside me. That way you wouldn't have had to spend the journey fuming at me for no good reason, and I wouldn't have had to cop your misguided abuse. Please be more assertive in future, not passive and then aggressive. Thank you.
I failed to mention in my original rant that I have a chronic health condition that makes standing for long periods rather challenging. The bus in question didn't have a luggage space suitable for a guitar, and I didn't mention that either. Nor was the woman in question standing anywhere near me during the journey; she was behind me on the bus, and for all I know she may have already had a seat herself. Only at the very end did she express her disapproval, and she chose to do so in a manner that left me powerless to do anything about her complaint. I figured that even without this secret inside knowledge, it's self-evident that abusing people on public transport isn't an effective way to influence someone who is doing something you don't like.
Apparently many esteemed members of Bondi Local Loop did not agree though, and you could say that the tide of public opinion turned against me at this point.
When I logged in to Facebook the next morning, I saw a stream of derogatory comments about my personal character in reply to my post. I don't like internalising other people's negativity so I didn't keep a copy and I don't remember what most of them said, but I felt a mixture of anger and shame at the negative judgements complete strangers were expressing about me. I responded by deleting my original post, taking the growing stream of hostility with it.
Now I get that posting an open letter on a public forum isn't actually a good way to express anger to an individual. It was particularly foolish given that one of the things I teach my clients as a therapist is how to express anger constructively. But I wasn't expecting so many people to start putting the boot into me simply for taking up a precious seat on public transport with my guitar. This is obviously something that Bondi people feel very strongly about.
Over the course of the day I also received a stream of abusive private messages from self-righteous keyboard warriors with nothing better to do than spout vitriol at people they've never even met who reportedly do things they don't like. I deleted each of them as they came in too, and asked a group admin to please check that my original post was no longer visible in order to stem the tide of hate coming my way.
It wasn't until the next day when a friend sent me a message saying that I was "Daily Mail famous" that I realised how these brave keyboard warriors were still finding out about me: The U.K.-based Daily Mail were obviously having a slow news day and had published my "angry rant" on their website. With so much 'news' freely available on the internet, traditional media outlet revenues are crumbling, taking down journalistic standards with them. Evidently journalism has sunk to the point where abrasive reactions to a controversial Facebook post now qualify as newsworthy.
You can't believe everything you read in the newspapers though, and this Daily Mail article isn't worth the electrons it's printed on. The 'journalist' in question never contacted me for comment, never asked permission to republish my personal Facebook photos and mostly just restated what I'd already said in my "viral rant". Not that it actually went viral.
It's true that I'm a member of a men's group who often meet at my place to offer each other mutual support and encouragement. It is powerful, and yes, that's a good thing. I have posted previously seeking new members, but I don't lead the group; it's more of an anarchist collective. However this has about as much to do with the reaction to what happened on the bus as my shoe size. I reckon we'll have a good laugh about this at our next meeting though.
It's also true that I'm developing a unique combination of comedy and therapeutic techniques to help my clients deal with painful emotions. Hence the 'comedy therapist' job title. Sure it sounds unusual, but that's innovation for you.
But wait... it gets better. Evidently Today on Channel 9 are also having trouble coming up with actual news to report, so they took up the story and had a little panel discussion about it; again without bothering to contact me for comment. By this time the story was spun as though the bag was taking up the seat, rather than the guitar. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
The most accurate part of this report is when the presenter says "Obviously we weren't there, we don't know the full situation":
This really pissed me off. They broadcast my name and a picture of me from my personal Facebook photos, and effectively called me a douchebag. I'm currently studying music at TAFE on a disability scholarship because of my chronic illness; I may not look disabled, but that's the case with a lot of invisible diseases.
Reality check: Sonia Kruger just called a disabled man who has difficulty standing for long periods a douchebag for not giving up a bus seat that he was using.
But wait... it get's even better. In this part of the panel discussion on Today's Facebook page, Pru Macsween launches into a tirade where she flat out says I "Should be (dead). That bloke's a mongrel", calls me an "Ignorant pig" and turns this into a gender issue:
Pru and the rest of the panel totally miss the point that I had no opportunity to "explain to the woman" the situation because she chose to leave it until she alighted the bus to shout her abuse at me, leaving me powerless to do anything about her complaint. That's what inspired my "angry rant" in the first place; which if you actually read closely, is merely an assertive statement of how I would have preferred the interaction on the bus to go.
I'm a human being, and I have feelings. I find it hurtful when the media start piling hate on me and making harsh judgements about my character; again, without even bothering to contact me for comment or find out what actually happened. Am I really an ignorant pig mongrel who deserves to be dead for this? Would the haters have reacted differently if I had been on my way to the charity work playing music for adolescents with Downs Syndrome that I've been doing with A Sound Life over the past year?
Here's the ironic twist on Today's hate rhetoric towards me though: Check out Karl Stefanovic's comments about the impact of negative reporting about his personal life in... wait for it... The Daily Mail:
Karl is complaining about the very same media outlet who first published my post about the bus incident that I suspect Today then picked up and used to start spewing vitriol at me over. I think that's a bit of a double-standard there Karl.
Austereo are doing only marginally better when it comes to reporting actual new stories. They did at least contact me for comment, which I initially declined because I didn't think the story was newsworthy; because it's not. I also didn't know that The Daily Mail had already published the story, and thought I had buried this storm in a teacup by deleting my original misguided Facebook post. Without knowing anything more than what I said in that post, Triple-M proceeded to publish anyway.
I wouldn't exactly say I "lost it" or had "blown up online"; I was just channeling my anger into assertiveness. I guess if you don't throw in a little hyperbole, you can't make a non-story like this appear newsworthy. Because it isn't.
I changed my mind and ended up getting back to the Austereo reporter after I realised this story had been published anyway, sending them a link to this article. Their website still just says "Triple M has reached out to Mr Stoney for further comment".
But the really important issue here isn't about whether I was right or wrong to take up a bus seat with my guitar and backpack, or whether a man on a bus in a post-feminist era deserves verbal abuse for not standing for a woman who never asked him to, or even the way the social and traditional media vilify people with no regard for the truth or their well-being. There's a much more important underlying issue here about how we as individuals and as a society deal with anger, and the way that the moralistic judgements we've been conditioned to think are good for us actually contribute to our anger, alienate us from each other and ultimately lead to abuse and violence.
This is where I find the philosophy behind Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication really helpful. It replaces self-righteous moralistic judgements about what other people "should" and "shouldn't" do with empathy, compassion and an understanding of the underlying needs associated with the feelings of ourselves and others. I'm disappointed that mainstream and social media turned this into a gender issue about whether a man is entitled to take up a seat on a bus when women are standing. Instead, I would have liked to see the media use it's power to explore the deeper societal and personal issues here involving anger, abuse and aggression versus empathy, compassion and assertiveness.
After the hostility I faced on the bus, online and in the media, I feel a little nervous about taking my guitar on the bus with me now; but I still need to bring it to college. I'll continue to use the luggage spaces when they are appropriate but otherwise unfortunately it takes up space. I choose to use public transport because it's convenient and I care about the planet. I get that other people might not like it, but a life lived pandering to other people's judgements all the time isn't much of a life.
So what do you do when social and other media mocks you? It's tempting to just mock back; but that's what savages do. Fighting back risks inflaming the fire and good luck changing the minds of a pack of self-righteous social justice warriors once they've decided that you're the enemy.
Other people's animosity is mostly about their toxic projections, not about us. Still, being on the receiving end of a stream of hate can be quite triggering. As Taylor Swift says "Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. I'm just gonna shake it off, shake it off, off, off"
There's a time for standing up for yourself and a time to let it go by finding a way to get the anger out of your system without hurting anyone else, and moving on. Writing this article was part of that process for me.
As for why a U.K.-based online news outlet, a national radio broadcaster and a national television broadcaster can't find actual news to publish in place of this "story"; my mind boggles. Now I know how Schapelle & Rebel feel.