The citizen journalist…

Dealing with aggressive commentators

What do we do when we are attacked online?

CATCHPHRASES and aggressive tone are verbal bullying tactics that are frequently used to close-down conversations. They are tactics which citizen journalists should be aware of because they may find themselves the target of them.

Their use by internet trolls is well known. They are also used by people with some grievance and, as the traditional Australian saying goes, by people ‘with an axe to grind’. It is not pleasant to be engaging in a civil online conversation and suddenly find yourself the target of people like that.

It was finding myself in that situation that stimulated this note.

Disrupting the harmony

The Retrosuburbia facebook is usually a harmonious and civil online location where people post items of interest and help each other with suggestions and advice.

When in March this year permaculture co-inventor, David Holmgren, posted an apology on behalf of the baby-boomer generation for leaving the world as it now is, his article provoked agreement as well as comments saying it was inappropriate to claim to represent an entire generation by speaking for them.

A constructive and respectful conversation followed in the comments. I wrote a longer comment exploring how the generation developed as it did. Then, there suddenly appeared this response:

Karen M Powers. Russ Grayson. fuck you and your mansplaining. You only speak for yourself. There is no we dude.

This was completely off-tone on the Retrosuburbia facebook. There had been no similarly aggressive post.

I think there is something citizen journalists can learn from this woman’s comment. Here’s my take.

She must be an American

Immediately on reading Karen’s comment, I recognised how similar in tone and catchphrase it was to so many others I have seen in American facebook discussions. On some US facebooks, discussion rapidly polarises and becomes uncivil and blaming. Bad language and insults fly, even between people engaged in the same worthy endeavour. This happens on Australian facebooks too, however in the social milieu the Retrosuburbia facebook caters to, the woman’s tone and language was out of place.

Could she be an American commenting on an Australian facebook, I wondered? A few minutes investigation disclosed that was true.

There is nothing wrong with commenting on facebooks based in other countries. The internet is a global communications channel. What revealed her comment as being made by an American was the terms used and the aggression in it. It seemed typical of other US facebooks.


Let’s look at the language.

Karen uses the term ‘mansplaining’, a term described this way in Wikipedia:

“a pejorative term meaning (of a man) to comment on or explain something to a woman in a condescending, overconfident, and often inaccurate or oversimplified manner”. Author Rebecca Solnit ascribes the phenomenon to a combination of “overconfidence and cluelessness”.

The term is also used in Australia among those with a gender and social justice focus — mainly tertiary-educated, middle-class people, according to comment and observation (that is an observation, not a putdown). It is not in common usage beyond that demographic.

There is no doubt mansplaining describes a real phenomenon in which a male speaker condescendingly explains something to a female irrespective of her knowledge of the topic or in assuming she knows little about it. The same sort of thing happens male-to-male where there is a professional or social status difference. We call it ‘taking down’.

A difficulty arises when, in cases such as that in question, a male writes explanatory text with no intention of talking down or mansplaining, merely contexting and clarifying. Explanation is a recognised journalistic form and accusations of mansplaining or some other derogatory term should not let a few complainants exert control over our work as journalists.

As one commenter put it:

“Andrew Curling. Karen M Powers. Mansplaining? I, like most objective thinking people, found no condescending attitude in the statement. Go be a victim elsewhere and learn to put a civil tongue in your head, please.
“Work on your grammar as well.”

As a put-down redolent with contempt and disapproval towards someone saying or writing something the complainant does not like, the complainant, including the one in question, engages in ad hominen attack, targeting the person saying something rather than engaging with their ideas.

Wikipedia defines ad homonen like this:

“a fallacious argumentative strategy whereby genuine discussion of the topic at hand is avoided by instead attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, or persons associated with the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself.”

The definition suggests how use of keywords and catchphrases can become a form of verbal bullying.

My comment on the Retrosuburbia facebook was far from mansplaining. It was contexting the issue being discussed. It was appreciated by some other readers, as they said in the comments. For some reason, Karen did not understand or chose to disregard my intent.

No place for bad language

There was also her language.

Swearing is commonplace, however its use in the commentary disregarded the verbal tone of participants on the Retrosuburbia facebook. Others commented on that, too.

Fallacious comment

Finally, there was her comment:

“You only speak for yourself”.

I never said I was speaking for anyone but myself, as another commenter noted. That was Karen’s assumption. In my work I only speak for myself, not having been elected or appointed to speak on behalf of anyone else.

The issue being addressed was not my assuming to speak for anyone else, it was David Holmgren doing that. Did Karen pick-up on that? No.

“But I think that no matter how smart, people usually see what they’re already looking for, that’s all.”
…Veronica Roth, Allegiant

There was more

The incident didn’t end there. Here’s the ensuing dialog:

Karen M Powers. Fuck you white dude for thinking that you speak for anyone but yourself. How about you aplogize for that.

In a comment full of Americanisms itself deserving of an apology for being so out of place on the facebook group, Karen introduces race into the dialog when it had nothing to do with what I wrote.
“White dude” is a value-laden Americanism we find on US facebooks and websites. It derives from the race issue in that country, however it stands out because it is not common language here. It, too, is pejorative.

The dialog continued:

Chris Badams. oh Karen, so much for harmony.
Karen M Powers. Chris Badams. so much for….wait….fuck you too. Mansplaining has never created harmony in the history of mansplaining.

Another comment:

“I think a lot of problems begin with angry aggressive words — I think it’s possible to convey conviction without abusing people and I encourage you to try. Best wishes, Angus”

What does this mean for citizen journalists?

What do we as citizen journalists make of this incident?
It was clear that there was no way a rational discussion could take place with Karen. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps she might have issues which account for her aggressive tone, however there is no direct evidence of that.
Usually, I think it best to treat commentators like this as we treat trolls, by not feeding them and ignoring their comments. Engage with those interested in constructive dialog. As the permaculture design system’s Bill Mollison said:

“Work with those who want to learn”.

Because the use of keywords and catchphrases like ‘mansplaining’ and any other loaded terminology can be an attempt to shut down conversation by discrediting the speaker or writer, it comes dangerously close to censorship.

Citizen journalists should expect to encounter this from time to time. We must not let cranky people intimidate us or censor what we write.


I still believe that if your aim is to change the world, journalism is a more immediate short-term weapon.
…Tom Stoppard