Over the last week I have followed with some interest the gathering social media storm that was prompted by a cartoon by Michael Leunig. The cartoon depicted a young mother so engrossed in her phone’s screen that she had not noticed that her baby had fallen out of the pram. The image was accompanied by a short poem which ended with the line that the baby was “wishing that he was loved like a phone.”
The negative response that the cartoon drew was in many ways understandable. Leunig had criticised a societal group who are often at their most vulnerable. It seemed to pass judgment on common contemporary behaviour and instead favoured a romanticised ideal of traditional motherhood. It was not lost on those that responded that Leunig seemed to be targeting young mothers and not young fathers and that his criticism was acting to reinforce gender stereotypes and was thus viewed as misogynistic.
The cartoon was followed by numerous opinion pieces, a reprise of Michael’s sister Mary’s cartoon of Michael being shot in the bottom, and lengthy responses by Michael Leunig and his son, Sunny.
The episode was reminiscent of a similar media storm from earlier this year when prominent author and educator, John Marsden, gave some publicity interviews about a book that he had authored. In an interview Marsden said: “a lot of the so-called bullying in schools is just kids giving each other feedback … it’s rare for a child who’s got likeable qualities to be treated in some sort of horrific or bullying way.”
The response to Marsden was generally condemnatory. There was little attempt to obtain clarification of what he meant by the phrase “so-called bullying” and in every response that I read this was substituted for “bullying”. The range of responses referred to his comments “downright dangerous”, and suggested that he showed “a lack of understanding”.
The responses to Leunig and Marsden can be compared in the way that their commentaries were both opposed by numerous, thoughtful opinion pieces published in Australian media. This is an appropriate manner to oppose published ideas and to propose alternatives. In many cases these were presented by individuals or spokespeople for groups who might historically have been excluded from power and thus marginalised from participating in this type of discussion.
However, what concerned me about both episodes was the toxic, vitriolic and often personal mudslinging that accompanied this discussion in various social media, comments and online forums. It seems that in these spaces it is not sufficient to state ‘I disagree with you because … ” but instead people rely on insulting, abusing and threatening in ways that we would not tolerate in the schoolyard or in our homes.
Sunny Leunig’s account of observing his father being pilloried is compelling reading. The attacks were so often not about the issue but were personal. He quoted some extreme examples that were published on Twitter: “I hope Leunig dies a slow and painful death” and “If I had the chance I would burn Michael Leunig alive”.
If this were a one-off it would not be so concerning. It seems that one of the failings of social media and participatory publishing is the speed with which the discourse degenerates to personal attacks that are not about engaging with the issue at the core of the discussion.
My concern is that our students are growing up in a time where they are increasingly engaged in this type of informal education that is inherently disrespectful and polarising in its conventions.
We have a right, and indeed an obligation, to thoughtfully counter ideas and viewpoints that are an affront to our values. However, social media has presented a manner of communication that is too frequently based in hatred, smugness and personal vilification and we must be very wary of the implications of these for our collective wellbeing.