Culture of Confidentiality

multi-tasking

Clare Perry, the rising star in the Conservative Party and David Cameron’s new advisor on childhood has said some eminently sensible and refreshing things today which will no doubt cause Louise Mensch to turn a shade of green.

Mrs Perry, a mother of three, points out that it should not be assumed that children have an automatic right to privacy and that society as a whole has been complicit in a culture which allows children to make unsupervised and inappropriate contact with strangers any time of the day or night.

She argues, in the same way that I did post publication of the Bailey Report, that parents need to take ownership and responsibility for their children’s internet access on their laptops and mobile phones. If you don’t want your children to have unsupervised access to the net, either don’t buy them a device, or if you must, install various filtering software and blocks. If your child is up on the internet until the early hours of the morning, then the solution is simple – switch the darn router off. He who pays the piper, calls the tune!

I grew up in the eighties and nineties where having access to one’s own private telephone line was an unimaginable luxury, although admittedly in my day, mobile phones were simply beyond the means of most individuals, not only in terms of money, but also in terms of sheer size, with the look, feel and weight of a house brick. Like most households of that time, our telephone was situated in a very public place, on the hall table and consisted of an unwieldy non portable handset, with a dial – push buttons were the last word in decadence. As a result all incoming telephone calls were received in a public place, every word could be overheard and any talk about one’s love-life either with friends or heaven forbid the young man himself had to be couched in code, making the whole thing far more exciting that I’m sure it would otherwise have been.

Ever mindful of the bill and the fact that my father ran a business from home, calls had to be kept quite short and it would not have occurred to me to pick up the phone and make a call without first asking permission. As teenagers, if we did answer the phone and the call was indeed for us, we would have to inform our parents as to the identity of the caller. My father is something of an eccentric and used to delight in causing maximum mortification by deliberately winding up callers for myself and my sister. My best friend Anna, was regularly treated to a medley of hits from the King and I, female friends would be sung to and any male callers could be guaranteed either to have my father’s version of Stanley Unwin’s language, or worse still, not be allowed to speak to us until they had made the request or spoken an entire sentence in Latin!

It’s difficult to know whether or not the internet could have got us into trouble as children, my parents were sensible types but equally I can see how difficult it is for parents these days, many of whom might not be as conversant in the new technology as their kids, but Mrs Perry is right to state that parents have a responsibility to regulate their children’s internet access. Given that it is practically impossible to escape the internet in one form or another and that it will be an integral part of children’s lives, it does seem fitting that the IT curriculum should incorporate lessons on basic safety and service providers and the industry as a whole should agree a new code of conduct, along similar lines to the rules of broadcasting.

It goes without saying that children and adolescents do need to be afforded some level of trust and privacy and we need to be realistic that at some point they probably will use the internet to get up to some naughtiness or other (just as children used to look up all the rude words in the dictionary), but limiting the scope for mischief, whilst helping them learn responsible behaviour, can be no bad thing and neither should it be left entirely in the hands of schools or regulators. Parents do have the primary responsibility.

But has anyone spotted the huge inconsistency yet? Clare Perry has correctly pointed out how internet technology can be used to degrade , objectify and sexualise young girls who are often at the receiving end of sexual bullying, citing the terrible case of Chevonea Kendall-Bryan, the 13 year old girl who fell to her death from the top of a tower block whilst begging her boyfriend to delete a sex tape he’d made on her phone.

‘We’ve given our children all these opportunities to communicate in private, but we’ve lost the confidence to actually get involved in that.

You have to ask yourself whether or not confidential sex advice, access to contraception and abortions provided to teens without the parents’ knowledge or consent has enabled and encouraged that attitude. Whether the deliberate exclusion of parents from knowledge pertaining to their children’s development and welfare and usurping of parental role in the provision of sex education has produced a generation of impotent parents who lack the skills and confidence to intervene?

‘We have to feel more empowered to ask. Make sure your kids allow you to be friends with them on Facebook, ask them whether what they are doing is appropriate.

But whatever you do, don’t ask them whether or not they are taking large doses of synthetic hormones designed to subdue their developing fertility, don’t ask them whether or not they are having sex and whatever you do don’t try to prevent them from doing so. What your child is being taught about sex , whether or not they are engaging in sex or risky sexual behaviour, whether or not they might be aborting their unborn baby is none of your concern as a parent.

Whilst schools continue to provide under 16s with contraceptive advice, products and abortions without the knowledge or consent of their parents, frankly fussing about whether or not they have unfettered access to Facebook or the internet is like re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. How can parents be expected to protect their children when they are excluded from the most crucial and key decisions involving their personal health?

Make no mistake, the internet and mass media can have a deleterious effect on children’s development and expose them to sexual predators and unrealistic visions of sex, sexuality and body image. But just as harmful can be the physical effects of early sexual activity which stems from premature exposure to the internet and sexualisation. Isn’t it time for a double-stranded approach?

The power of Catholic bloggers

The Catholic theologian Professor Tina Beattie is this morning complaining about the ‘Sovietisation’ of the Catholic Church, following the cancellation of a series of public lectures at a Catholic University in San Diego. This comes hot on the heels of a cancellation of a lecture she was due to give at Clifton Cathedral in August.

The reason for these cancellations is that Professor Beattie openly dissents from Catholic teaching; she was one of the signatories to a letter to the Times stating that Catholics could in good conscience support gay marriage, she has supported abortion and suggested that Catholics ought to baptise their menstrual period every month, called Catholic teaching on contraception perverted and compared the sacrifice of the Holy Mass to homosexual sex. Deacon Nick Donnelly has catalogued the details.

It goes without saying that all of these statements are not only deeply offensive to faithful Catholics, not to mention those who may have suffered the tragedy of miscarriage, but also heretical. Though Professor Beattie has every right to describe herself as a theologian, although when I saw her debate gay marriage she demonstrated a wilful misunderstanding of Scripture even to my untrained theological eyes, what stretches credulity is that she identifies herself as a Catholic, given her wide-ranging dissent from Catholic teaching.

This is not a question of her academic freedom as she claims, but simply a question of whether she should be given a platform by Catholic institutions to promote her views. It does not matter that the content of her forthcoming tour was according to Professor Beattie, orthodox, being based upon Mary and Lumen Gentium, the problem is, that if Professor Beattie is invited to speak by Catholic institutions, it lends her authority, an authority which she then uses to launch dissenting views. If Professor Beattie wishes to discuss and expound her theology, she is free to do so at any public venue or institution, however the Catholic church should not give her credence or do anything which may endorse her kooky views.

As someone who is faithful to magisterium, which for many of us is not always easy, to hear Professor Beattie as an alleged fellow Catholic describe our way of life as ‘peverted’ is distressing and offensive. I should imagine that celibate Catholic homosexuals feel similar. What she has said about abortion and the baptising of menstrual periods is not only sacramentally and biologically incorrect, but also terribly upsetting. To equate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the moment when Christ becomes present in the Eucharist with sodomy is sacrilegious and offensive to all the faithful.

No-one is claiming that because certain views are offensive that they should be suppressed, no-one has the right not to be offended, Tina Beattie has every right to broadcast or publish her thoughts if she can find a willing platform, however the Catholic Church has every right to refuse that platform and withdraw its endorsement from someone who does not represent them and could seriously mislead people and endanger souls. The magisterium is non-negotiable, it is derived from Scripture and tradition, it is the body of teaching passed down to us from Christ himself and cannot simply be changed at a whim. Though theological matters can and should be discussed, as the Pope said to the English Bishops in 2010:

It is important to recognize dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate.

It is vital that the Catholic Church is seen to distance itself from views such as these, because as I discovered to my peril in the run-up to the papal visit, critics of Catholicism along with lapsed or struggling lay Catholics, seize on her words and use them as justification for wide-ranging dissent and condemnation of the Church, such as we have seen with this morning’s Guardian article. Those who are faithful to the magisterium are accused of being “ultra orthodox” or “fundamental’ and as a ‘Catholic theologian’ Tina Beattie’s words are used as proof that not only is one in error, but also the Church itself and that Tina Beattie is actually far more representative of the majority of the faithful. I had both Tina Beattie and Catherine Pepinster quoted at me by the self-righteous liberal mummy forum in the run up to the papal visit, in an attempt to prove that I had no idea what I was talking about. One contributor claimed to have been speaking with a “well-known Catholic female journalist on the inside” and came out with ludicrous claims, which were all eagerly seized upon.

With that in mind, I do have some sympathy for Professor Beattie, in that the cancellation of her speaking engagements will affect her reputation and her finances. It cannot be easy to bear public humiliation and for that she should be in our prayers, along with an intention that she may come to see the error of her current position. With regards to whether or not the Catholic blogosphere is to blame for a campaign against her, I think this is a little unfair. Some Catholic bloggers have highlighted their disappointment that she should continue to be feted as a Catholic theologian and thinker and called for a withdrawal of official support, but no-one has engaged in ad hominem or said anything that is untrue. Tina has been hoisted by her own petard and condemned by her own words.

I would however urge Catholic bloggers, not to get carried away with a heady sense of power and influence. As Tina acknowledges, the blogs who have inflicted the damage, the blogs with real influence tend to be those written by the Catholic clergy who have exercised charity and restraint, whilst expressing their disappointment which is perhaps why they have been so effective. Most of us receive hits from the Vatican and I would wager most of us get traffic from those who are ideologically opposed, or our ‘enemies’. I’ve recently discovered that my blog is read on a regular basis by BPAS amongst others. I’ve not always been as temperate as I should have been, particularly during episodes of terrifying cyber-bullying, but actually as part of the New Evangelisation, we need to exercise charity, remember that we are representatives of Christ’s Church here on earth and keep in mind whether or not our writing is doing anything to promote Gospel values. We cannot complain about Stonewall’s smearing, labelling and cheapening of discourse in an attempt to close down debate, if we are prepared to do that to each other and our clergy.

If we are going to criticise and expect to be taken seriously, we need to ensure that any criticism is appropriate, measured, evidenced, charitable and remember that even if we are criticising clergy or bishops, that these are still men of God and we should neither impugn their motives or holiness. Our role should be that of critical friend and where possible we should attempt to avoid public scandal. Otherwise there is a real risk that we come across as embittered individuals prone to public rantings and internecine feuds and cause damage to the body of Christ. One of the most powerful blogs on the block at the moment is Eccles and Bosco, which is not only extremely amusing to read, but manages to incisively get to the heart of Catholic politics and current affairs with devastating satire. The power of comedy should not be underestimated, it underscores the issues, but manages to add light and some much needed laughter.

I don’t feel any sense of satisfaction over Tina Beattie’s current predicament, more relief that she is increasingly seen as a maverick. Bloggers shouldn’t do anything to justify her sense of martyrdom or claim ‘moral victory’. We have to make sure that criticisms made are out of love and based in truth. Actually what has happened should not be seen in any way as punitive, but in the same way as excommunication, a medicinal measure designed to bring someone back into the folds of the church. If this withdrawal of mainstream Catholic support serves to make Professor Beattie do some serious re-thinking and embrace the magisterium in its fullness and then resume her work whilst recanting her previous views and promoting the beauty of Catholic sexual teaching, then I think Catholic bloggers could claim a victory for the Church. Professor Tina Beattie promoting and advancing traditional Catholic teaching. She’s a highly intelligent passionate woman with a wide-ranging media platform. That would be a truly powerful witness to the positive effects of the Catholic blogosphere.

Further thoughts

Something I was thinking about last night when pondering whether or not to pursue police action was that it’s a very telling indictment of society when a concerted online bullying campaign can tip a person over the edge into depression, so much so that she can contemplate aborting her baby and this would be perfectly legal.

Tom Chivers from the Daily Telegraph wrote a thoughtful piece on bullying yesterday and how words can really hurt – they trigger an intuitive evolutionary response and can do real damage.

Using social media to bully & harangue others is an increasing menace. I can well see how others could be driven to extremes and suicide. It’s a tightrope to be walked, but where someone has clearly transgressed the limits of acceptable discourse and actually tried to interfere in another’s real life (such as in my case) then we need to think again.

When a pregnant woman is driven into depression such that abortion is mooted as a solution, something needs to change. When social media is able to whip itself up into such a misguided frenzy of moral superiority, that a pregnant woman pleading with others to stop, for them to at least provide detailed charges and evidence of whatever it is she is supposed to have done as a matter of natural justice, is met with more bullying, derision and accused of using her unborn child as a human shield – something is seriously wrong.

When a well-known pro-abort blogger with a self-proclaimed mission of exposing liars in the media, sends a string of emails accusing you of making a malicious blog comment, evidenced by “it must be you it mentions your nana, don’t even try to deny it, does your good Catholic lawyer know what kind of a person you are”, it gets to you. When he says that he will publish something defamatory about you, but is just giving you the chance to respond, it gets to you. Why should I have to defend myself against something I haven’t done?

When fellow Catholics menacingly and repeatedly comment “tick, tick, tick your time is up” and admit they are working with this person to “expose” you, refer to you as a boil who needs to be lanced, as a person in need of public exorcism, that they are looking forward to seeing you suffer, they’ve bought popcorn, and then piously proclaim that it’s necessary, everyone must pray but I must be brought to my knees in order to repent and apologise, it’s sickening. Particularly when I haven’t done whatever it is I am vaguely accused of and there is nothing to suggest otherwise.

When people are willing to destroy my family through a misguided sense of “justice” something needs to change.

We talk about living in a progressive enlightened tolerant age. Quite how civilised is it to accuse, judge, condemn and punish a pregnant woman, to revel in taunting and abusing her, for the simple fact she has, in their opinion, got above herself and is trying to build a career?

I am a mother, a wife and a university student. My husband is a funeral director on minimum wage. Two years ago we had a lovely big rectory and garden, guaranteed income and lifetime stability and a wide circle of friends and a support network.

Today we are struggling, with reduced living space and no nearby friends or family. I have no idea what the future holds, where we will be living or what schools to think about for my children. Mothers and families crave security. I sometimes find it hard to get out of the house with 2 very small children. I don’t know many people nearby and am loath to invest in friendships locally in that I’ve no idea whether or not we will be living in the area for very much longer. It’s why I had become a bit dependent on the Internet as a support network as many of my real-life friends are there.

I actively encouraged and supported my husband in his decision to convert knowing precisely what this entailed. I knew the future would be rocky and uncertain. As a result of this unfounded hate campaign we could find ourselves homeless and without a job. A zealous Catholic has already described how my university’s Catholic Society has been contacted, to find out if they knew me. The fact that I was unknown (I attend a local parish instead) was held to be damning. There has been talk of contacting our diocese to exact an apology and prevent “scandal” which isn’t commensurate with the gloating over the alleged forthcoming “media sh*tstorm”. The charges are that I pretend to be bullied whilst using this as a cover to bully others.

It’s precisely to protect myself and my family that I am seriously considering what to do next. I didn’t start blogging to build a career, I did it because I enjoyed it and it tied in with some of the previous voluntary pro-life work. It’s a shame if it has to end, but I have to put my family first.

The bully has stated his intent that this “Mallory Towers Messalina”, this “Iggy Pop in drag” should be made to withdraw from the net. To do so is to let him win. Other people have kindly said that I write some of the best pro-life stuff around. I wish that were true.

Maybe the answer is just to solely concentrate on that. The last thing I want to do is cause scandal to the Church I love and the cause I am so passionate about. I’ve been accused of being a terrible wife and mother. I am told I am neglecting them as a result of blogging or tweeting in spare moments either at home or in the university library. It’s provided a great foil to Marxist gender theory. The Internet has been a source of comfort, spiritual inspiration and support.

There is nothing like Christian fellowship, with people who cry, rejoice and share in your sufferings and triumphs. At times of trouble they bear your burdens and lift you up in prayer. (Though it is fair to note that two people who have reached out and provided comfort have been skeptics and atheists.)

The wonders of Christian fellowship renders its failure even more painful. It is always hurtful when someone says horrible things about one, but when they are a brethren in Christ, the pain is magnified. Vulnerability is a key part of Christianity. We open our hearts to each other and to Christ in order to share in his suffering, this can be wonderful.

The word “vulnerable” derives from the Latin vulneris meaning “wounded.” If you’re vulnerable you’ve let down your guard, you are capable of being wounded, which means uncharitable words and deeds are not like water off a duck’s back but penetrate through and pierce your heart and soul.

Feminists are sissies?

Calah Alexander, a young American Catholic convert who writes the provocatively titled Barefoot and Pregnant blog seems to have caused something of a minor brouhaha with her most recent post. She is currently 4 months pregnant, found herself in need of a maternity bra, so went out shopping wearing a t-shirt bearing the ‘offensive’ slogan stating that Birth Control is for Sissies and then had the audacity to write about the reactions she rerceived.

Though not partial to slogan t-shirts on anyone over the age of 5, I have to admire her chutzpah and bravery, having some sympathy with the sentiment expressed. As Calah is well aware from her post, wearing any kind of ideological slogan on clothing does invite a response, particularly when it is as obviously counter-cultural as denouncing birth control; combined with the physical manifestation of her belief, i.e. her emerging bump, the image and statement was especially potent.

The post was quite lighthearted in tone,(though Calah pulls no punches in terms of choice of phrase, I wouldn’t like to get on the wrong side of her), she describes the relief and transformation in discovering the effects of a well-fitting bra, the trials and tribulations of shoe-shopping and buying ice-cream with the kids, but she also describes the reaction she received from others whilst out shopping wearing said shirt, which tended from the incredulous to the downright hostile,  and ending on a humorous note, when she bumped into another mother, who recognised her from Church.

All in all, a quirky and touching blogpost from a typical American Catholic mom, sharing some of her life with us. Nothing to get offended about surely?

WRONG. As @kathleengreenwood pointed out, it spawned an entire 7 page hate-fest on a forum full of self-professed snarky mothers. The blogpost spawned comments such as “what a f*cking b*tch”, “I want to slap her across the face”, “I hate people like her, I’ll take my pill…you f*cking b*tch”. Yeah, kudos to the sisterhood! They then congratulated themselves on how morally superior they were to this ignorant fundie, encouraged and incited others to leave comments pointing out the error of her ways, and then became downright obsessive, trawling through her blog to see what other thought crimes may have been committed to the blogosphere, venting their vitriolic spleen and bile.

It seems Calah has previous form. On one occasion her little boy got rushed to hospital with severe anaphylactic shock requiring them to pay $280 for an epi-pen. They didn’t have the money, so took it out of the children’s’ Christmas present fund, thinking that a life was more important than presents and that their kids would be well catered for by the extended family. She made the heinous statement that it seemed mightily unfair that under the vagaries of the US healthcare system she had to pay a substantial amount for something that was absolutely necessary in terms of saving her son’s life, the state would not assist, however they will provide contraception and birth control free of charge, something that she feels is unnecessary, as if you don’t wish to get pregnant there’s a simple answer. She has a point, one might not agree, but it does not necessitate the level of hatred. Every detail of her life was poured over in an attempt to prove what an awful person she really is and discredit her point of view. She is obviously a liar who puts herself before her children, as evidenced by the fact that she went to a relatively upmarket department store. Her finances and entire lifestyle were subject to scrutiny.

“Her house seems nice are they really running so short they can’t buy gifts and meds? Shouldn’t they have been budgeted out or don’t they have emergency funds for sh*t happens”.

“That confused me too. I feel like it was her way of getting pity. ‘Our poor children didn’t get Christmas gifts BUT at least they have their brother’ !!! I also find it odd that they couldn’t scrounge up a little extra cash to get one or two gifts for each child  yet she now is buying decent bras and dress shoes for the kids at the mall”.

The thread reads like it’s been taken over by the below-the-line comments on the Daily Mail. How very tolerant. How very inclusive. How very pro-choice! The ernest feminists seem to have utterly missed the point. It. was. a joke. I thought that the t-shirt was rather good. It didn’t even need to be a Catholic or ideological statement, it could just have been highly ironic or self-deprecating. Ah, I forgot, I’m dealing with Americans here. One commenter noted that she would have refused to serve a woman who was wearing such a t-shirt and, she pouted, she would have been backed up by her boss. Gotta love those all-American land of the free and home of the brave values on display there. The most ludicrous comment was that the t-shirt was deliberately ‘homophobic’ with its mention of the word sissy.

Needless to say it all rather resonated. This forum made clear that they were not prepared to tolerate this woman, they hated her and all they believed that she stood for. I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not she would have elicited that reaction had she not been a Catholic?

But the statement on the t-shirt and its reaction does bear a little analysis. Why is it so hateful? Taken on face value it is a statement that proclaims that pregnancy and motherhood is difficult, not for sissies, not for the feint-hearted, but the truly heroic. Which is precisely why it upset the feminists with their “we are the strong tough fearless Amazonian pioneering women” self-vision quite so much. It implies that anyone who deliberately avoids motherhood is somehow a weaker specimen. And therein lies the paradox and antagonism at the heart of modern feminism. On the one hand it strives to be the Xena warrior princess, fearless, brave and bold goddess, stronger, bigger, bolder and better than men, yet on the other, in order to survive it also has to tap into the vying narrative of victimhood. Hence lots of outraged comments along the lines of how people would have to take hormonal birth control, otherwise their uterus would fall out, and obviously Calah, with her outrageous ideas that women can actually refuse to have sex if they don’t want to get pregnant, is slut-shaming and blaming, wishing to impose Victorian morality and blame on women. Either as women we are strong and in control, or we are not? Or is it that we want to be, but are still oppressed by the patriarchy and so have no choice other than to have sex, so must protect ourselves any way we can?

I can’t help but hearken back to that statement by Mary Wollstonecraft who saw abortion as being a consequence of women becoming weaker than they would otherwise be, if they had not been subject to sexual objectification.

“Women becoming, consequently, weaker, in mind and body, than they ought to be, were one of the grand ends of their being taken into account, that of bearing and nursing children, have not sufficient strength to discharge the first duty of a mother; and sacrificing to lasciviousness the parental affection, that ennobles instinct, either destroy the embryo in the womb, or cast it off when born. Nature in everything demands respect, and those who violate her laws seldom do so with impunity”.

Pregnancy and childbirth are at the very core of femininity which is why feminists fight so hard for what they believe is control over their own bodies. The paradox being that this physical control admits, encourages and coerces female subordination. Female fertility is a problem, something that must be repressed and overcome, the body must be stopped from carrying out its natural functions of monthly ovulation and potential to bear children. A society that continues to view women’s fertility as a problem to be solved, is a society that does not value women and places unfair expectations upon them. Whilst society continues to view female fertility and childbirth as a problem, then women will never achieve true equality. Empowerment is an illusion in that a woman is only ever empowered if she can be 100% sure that her contraception will work and is entirely happy with the notion of aborting an unwanted unborn child in case it doesn’t. Are any feminists truly happy that most women chose to abort because they feel that they have no other economic or social choice? After all we are always being told that women don’t stroll into the abortion clinic as if it were Starbucks?

Bibi Lynch tragically and bitterly captured the essence of  how it can feel to be a childless woman in the Guardian last week.

“You won’t heal – because this is deep in you. What you’re supposed to do. What’s inside us to do. What we’re born to do. And you didn’t do it.”

Motherhood is without a doubt the most joyful and rewarding experiences there is. That does not mean that it is easy. Pregnancy is often a struggle, multiple young children at times demanding and stressful, even if one does stay at home. It may not be the same type of stress as the demands of a career, but it is nonetheless challenging at times. Responding to the catty comments of Hilary Rosen that she was somehow a lesser or inferior species due to not having worked, but instead been a stay-at-home mum or to use the now un-PC term, housewife, Romney said that just because they had not financially struggled, her life as mother of five children, has not been without its fair share of struggle, including fights against cancer.

Being prepared to endure pregnancy and childbirth, being prepared to die to self for the needs of others, is a sign of great strength, not weakness or oppression. Child-rearing entails a great deal of sacrifice, physically and emotionally.

Not using birth control is a sign of strength, it is a sign of responsibility and being prepared to accept and endure the consequences of having sex. It is not a fatalistic mentality, but a working with the feminine rhythms of your body, not attempting to counteract them. It is an exercise in self-control and potentially standing up to a partner keen to get amorous.

Why did Calah Alexander attract so much hate? Because she dared to go against and question a feminist mantra and by doing so demonstrated that she is stronger than others who (for perfectly legitimate reasons) have decided not to have more children. Anyone who cannot cope with a humorous slogan on a t-shirt that has a grain of truth and challenges a deeply cherished orthodoxy and is so moved to incite and spew tirades of loathing and spite, is not as tolerant and pro freedom of choice as they would claim. Anyone who feels so defensive as to chuck indiscriminate hatred and wish violence upon a total stranger because they disagree with a point of view is a bigot. Why have they reacted so strongly? Because they feel ‘judged’.

All of which proves that Calah was right all along. They really are sissies.

Moral Maze

Tonight, I made a very nerve-wracking appearance on the Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4. The script totally deviated from what I had been primed to talk about, namely abuse on the internet, the reasons behind it, the effect it has, what, if anything, can be done about it, in the light of the sentence handed down to Liam Stacey who was convicted of sending racist tweets following the collapse of the footballer Frederick Muamaba.

Internet Abuse

It’s well-documented what I have been subjected to. Death threats, rape threats, violent threats, a prolonged campaign of harassment and smearing, my family have been targeted and at least one person has set up a spoof blog ostensibly to tell others how ugly I am and list all of my various faults and frailties.

The reasons behind it?

Too numerous to mention – most obviously, the Catholicism, not being able to square the person who seems reasonable, articulate, friendly and intelligent, with their pre-existing prejudice of the rabid bigot, foaming at the mouth, wishing to hate and condemn everybody to the fires of hell. I am clearly not stupid, or brainwashed, so perhaps I must be mentally ill? One of the most common insults is that I am some hardline religious zealot, wrapping my hatred, bigotry and prejudice in the cloak and garb of reason.

Another factor is undoubtedly jealousy – difficult to strike the right tone here, but let’s just say I’m not bad-looking, I’m articulate, intelligent, well-spoken, have managed to conceive three beautiful children with no difficulty, a fourth is on the way, I have a happy marriage and manage to get the odd gig writing in the national media. Like everyone I’ve had my share of difficulties in life, at the moment life is challenging in many ways but I have the comfort of my faith and my loving supportive family.

Why do people turn into monsters on the internet?

Because they can. Though many people use the internet under the garb of anonymity for perfectly legitimate and understandable reasons, tweeting under an assumed name emboldens people and enables them to act in ways that they wouldn’t dream of if they thought they could be discovered. It takes little courage to be a keyboard warrior under an assumed name. The internet, twitter in particular, is a great leveller. We know that it’s real Members of Parliament, journalists, celebrities we are talking to, most people do not have a person managing their twitter, and this can give a misleading sense of power. People think it’s their right to be heard, which in some respects is true and under the garb of anonymity all the simmering tensions can come to the fore. The format of Tweets, which are limited to a mere 140 characters, does not allow for nuance or complex arguments, which is why so many of us blog. It gives us the space and opportunity to expand upon our arguments and explore them in greater depth. Tweets and Facebook updates demand brevity which means substance is often sacrificed to style. Everyone is searching for that perfect soundbite, to sum up a situation in 140 characters and grab the attention of those who may be listening. Twitter is a great medium for those who feel politically disenfranchised to feel powerful and listened to.

As there is no face-to-face contact, all social conventions fall out of the window. Normally when we are talking to people, we gauge how to pitch our conversation by unconscious body language cues such as gestures and facial expressions. We tend to respect each others personal space and unless we are in the throes of a full-blown row, avoid shouting and hostile gestures. All of these subtleties of human interaction and discourse are totally lost via social media. We literally become our words, which take on a whole new import. With no social conventions to govern us, it is all too easy to become self-indulgent, shout at other people, give unfettered opinions, use hostile and aggressive language, including profanities, which it would probably never occur to us to use in a real life situation.

Take the prolific tweeter and MP Louise Mensch. Though we might discuss her in private, if we wanted her to know our views, we wouldn’t suddenly run up to her in real life and shout personal abuse at her in order to get her attention. However this is precisely what happens on Twitter. People think it’s perfectly acceptable to randomly abuse or flame someone out of the blue and then get irate when they are blocked. The best way to engage with people in real life is via respectful discourse, and yet these rules are too frequently forgotten on the internet. If I wanted Louise Mensch, Nadine Dorries or even David Cameron to listen to me, I would try to engage with them in ways that showed me to be a reasonable and respectful person, not an utter sociopath. Let’s face it, if your first introduction to someone is them shouting abuse at you, or being extremely hostile out of the blue, it’s not going to incline you to be open to their views. The shutters will instantly come down.

The effects of the abuse

One of the things that I failed to get across, given the limited time, was the sheer scale and speed of the abuse. Though Kenan Malik was correct when he stated that racist abuse has always existed, people have always shouted abuse at each other, growing up in the ’60s and ’70s he experienced racist abuse being shouted at him on the street. The difference between then and now is that though the effect of abuse is no different, be it shouted on the street or typed on the internet, it still feels like a violent assault regardless of medium, what the internet and twitter in particular, enables people to do is to incite mob violence or hatred against a particular individual.

As has happened to me on more than one occasion, a person who takes against your views, is able to incite their thousands of followers in a storm of protest and outrage against you. The effect of this cannot be underestimated as it means every time you go on Twitter you are faced with a barrage of indignation and abuse all stemming from a comment taken out of context. Sticks and stones don’t break our bones, but it is more than a little disconcerting to be faced with a storm of misplaced outraged accusing one of bigotry or worse and ad-hom insults and abuse. I’ll be honest, it drove me almost to a nervous collapse, at a time when I was feeling particularly vulnerable. The answer might be to switch off the internet, but most of us have smartphones and the impact of a non-stop barrage of “you are a bigoted piece of sh*t” and similar sentiments, couched in profane language was akin to a physical assault. It is acknowledged in cases of domestic abuse, that emotional abuse can be every bit as harmful as the physical. Receiving constant hate-filled messages was like being at the receiving end of a verbal mugging. I was literally shaking, crying and too scared to switch on the computer. If I took a break I was accused of cowardice or not having the intellectual ability to defeat the arguments, if I expressed my hurt and anxiety and the effect this was having upon me, I received further abuse for “playing victim”. It was horrendous.

What augmented the situation, is that, as Neil Addison is happy to confirm, having advised me in a private capacity, is that I have been the subject of a pernicious hate and harassment campaign. Various people have been carpet-bombed with allegations pertaining to my mental health. At this point, I need to state that I have no history of mental health problems whatsoever, I do admittedly sometimes suffer a touch of ante-natal depression during pregnancy, but I have never needed or received any treatment for mental health problems. Various strangers were emailed with a series of very unpleasant allegations, a national publication was bombarded with abusive phone calls and emails about me and Neil Addison was sent a series of disturbing and increasingly rambling allegations regarding my mental health and also my family. Every time I had a disagreement with anyone on Twitter, they were sent a series of allegations about my mental health and behaviour, several of them quoted and named the offender behind the campaign. “Caroline Farrow is a nutter with a track record of mental health problems, I have been emailed about her” said one. “What about **** ******’s blog?” said another. Other Catholic bloggers were also contacted and “warned” about me, but had the grace and foresight to let me know what was going on, forwarding on the unsolicited messages they had received.

All of us have a right to our good name and reputation and yet the internet enables unprecedented campaigns of hate and smears which are very difficult to counter. No-one should be too frightened to speak out, in case some deranged individual attempts to destroy their life, on the basis of an ideological difference and a very personal hatred. I almost stopped blogging and came off the internet as a result. The only reason I had a volte-face was that various people – both other Catholics and even journalists in the mainstream media as well as the odd politician contacted me to express their disappointment, to state that they would miss my presence and that a voice should not be silenced or living in fear. To do that would mean that the bullies had won. Some people want me off the net, my presence makes them uncomfortable and they would rather that their views went unchallenged.

There have been times, however when despite the support of my family, the non-stop bullying, threats and haranguing have brought me to the edge. Even now, I am still receiving snarky comments as a result of resuming blogging and tweeting. My daughter’s godfather rang us the other day, he was concerned for me, having randomly met one of the perpetrators of the abuse, been faced with the vitriol and manic behaviour as well as intrusive and personal questions about my family, which seemed more than a little sinister. Fortunately he had the good sense not to let on his close relationship to us, but it shows the lengths to which some people will go and gave him an insight into how upsetting this must have been.

What can be done about it?

There is a problem that needs to be addressed. I know only too well how awful it is to be on the receiving end of such spite, so goodness knows how a really vulnerable person, such as someone with genuine mental health difficulties or a teenager would cope with such an onslaught. When one is in the midst of all this, one simply needs it to stop immediately. Hoping that the offender might get bored is not a short-term solution,because some people are very tenacious and bear grudges for long periods of time. I can well see how someone could be driven to suicide. We all have smartphones these days, so even if the computer is switched off, it’s very difficult to escape the constant notifications of yet another new message of abuse. It is only too easy to see how an adolescent gang can wage a relentless campaign against another who doesn’t fit into their clique. There once was a time that home was a safe space, a place where one could shut the door and escape, but the internet allows all its content, both good and bad to be permanently streamed into our homes 24/7. Perhaps this is another reason why the abuse feels so much worse, because it is very very hard to escape the tirade, which comes at a break-neck speed.

What the internet, Twitter in particular, desperately needs is a code of civility. We need to self-regulate and self-police infinitely better. Whilst I am all for freedom of speech, we have to remember that with freedom comes great responsibility. We need to be careful that our right to say whatever we want, is not a right to abuse other people at will. Free speech should be all about expressing ideas and ideologies, no matter how hateful or distasteful they may be to others. Whilst people should and must not be afraid to express opinions, there is a distinction between ideological arguments and ad-hominems and personal abuse and smear. Whilst some people might find my faith and the views stemming from it, hateful, that can never justify hateful personal abuse being thrown back by way of retort.

This is why I get so upset, because, as I have said repeatedly, abuse, insults, hectoring, haranguing is an attempt to close down debate and de-humanise a person. You are worth nothing, therefore you must not be listened to. Your views only show what a hateful, nasty person you are. That is prejudice and bigotry. Even if a view seems totally alien, it is always important to decipher what lies beneath it, rather than dismiss the person themselves. That is the way to change hearts and minds, and even if one is not successful in those ends, at least one gets an idea of what is motivating the other person and what in society needs to change, if anything, so that people are not driven to extremes of hatred.

Twitter is a notoriously unstable platform. It follows and un-follows people at will. Often you attempt to block people and yet they still turn up in your timeline. If I block someone, it is because I don’t want them to have the power to abuse or upset me. If I can’t see what they are saying, then I can get on with life oblivious. The problem is that despite blocking, those who want to harass and stalk, can still see your timeline. What Twitter really needs to do is implement a system whereby people whom you block are unable to see your tweets. I know that despite blocking the main offenders, they still continue to scan my timeline with alacrity and attempt to contact me. Or they then engage someone else in an attempt to incite them to have an attack. Like Facebook, Twitter needs to stop others from seeing your timeline.

The other thing Twitter needs to do, is be much stricter in its controls. I reported a sexual threat I received the other day to Twitter. To date they have done absolutely nothing about it, stating it falls under freedom of speech. Twitter, on the whole are very reluctant to take action against their users. There needs to be a code of civility which is enforced by both Twitter itself and its users, in order that persistent offenders can have their accounts removed.

A one-off offence should not merit action, however if someone has a track record of stalking, harassing or abusing others, and a number of separate complaints are received, then action should be taken, including reporting this to local authorities as applicable. None of us have a right not to be offended, but equally we do have a right to conduct our lives free of fear, threats and harassment.

Police Action

The general consensus is that the sentence against Liam Stacey was way too stringent. His whole life is going to be defined by one drunken episode, he now has a criminal record, he has been given a disproportionate prison sentence, more than some careless drivers who cause death receive, and is likely to be kicked out of University. All for one drunken, ill-thought out episode. Were a code of civility in place, signed up to and enforced by all users, as well as the owners of social media itself, perhaps this would not have happened.

Journalists accept that they have a responsibility and are generally quite good at self-regulating, hence the outcry about Johann Hari and latterly Robert Fisk. Journalists understand how powerful the written media is and how harmful an inaccurate story can be, or how they have the power to whip up various storms. Social media users need to understand that they can have similar power, if they have a lot of followers and also act in a similarly responsible fashion.

Where the police do get involved, sentances should not be custodial, but should constitute formal warnings that are recorded, breeches of warnings should show up on criminal records, and just as ASBOs are issued for anti-social behaviour in society, some sort of internet version needs to be issued. A persistent abuser (and I don’t mean the pointless troll) should have their internet access revoked for a set period of time, for everyone’s good.

The internet is public space, even if it is virtual, and just as it is not acceptable if someone wishes to conduct a real life hate campaign against you, neither should this be acceptable on the internet. It’s difficult to know exactly where to draw the line, we can all behave rashly in the heat of the moment, but persistent abusers must be stopped and must have a serious deterrent. If someone sent me a letter containing a death threat it would be taken seriously, therefore it is puzzling why this is thought to be less serious or frightening simply because the medium is different.

The Wild Wild West

I have often been told that I need to grow a thicker skin. It is only now that I am beginning to learn some excellent coping strategies. Though the internet should remain a largely unregulated space, it is at times beginning to resemble the Wild West, where only those with the loaded gun dare go out on the streets, the women, children, the elderly, the vulnerable stay at home.

This is not a situation we want to have on the internet. Though no-one has the right not to be offended and everyone should have the freedom of speech, it is a question of balance. One person’s freedom of speech should not be interpreted as a licence to bully. Swearing at people, using capital letters, using demeaning names, this is all bullying coarse behaviour which should have no place in a civilised enlightened society. Your freedom to call me a “dumb bitch” or a “piece of sh*t who doesn’t deserve to live” or worse still call for people to sexually assault me, may dehumanise me, but it may also make others too afraid to join in the general discourse and conversation for fear of what they might receive. That is a freedom of speech issue also. If people are too afraid to join in, either because of abuse, or because they fear their views are too counter-cultural, I know that my views are an anathema to the chattering liberal classes and because the government has regulated what may be seen as an acceptable view, then that affects us all.

What we need is some general common sense, more good manners, courtesy and civility. We need to remember that these are other human beings behind the computer screen. We need to highlight and shame bullies and abuses, not just accept it as an inevitable flip-side or consequence of the net. If only the emotionally strong should venture into the saloon bar of twitter, where public discourse on current affairs and politics is the order of the day, then an important voice is denied to the weak. That is not democratic and nor can we be said to be truly free.

Words of Consolation

I hope the person who sent this doesn’t mind me blogging it. It brought much consolation last night.

Despite deleting my Twitter account, my timeline was still showing on my phone and I could see the cattiness and sniping continued until about 6pm last night. I’ve now deleted the app so I’m not tempted to read any more damaging poison.

Dear Caroline,

You have been significantly embedded into my thoughts and prayers for the last 24 hours, which included the early hours of the night. I came home from C****** rather late and read what was to be your final tweet, seconds before you deleted your account, but not before I was able to read your blog and then look back at what had been said by your detractors.

I am dreadfully sorry for all the bile and vitriol that was hurled at you. I am still trying to get my head around the nastiness that was thrown so mercilessly against you and was so far removed from the truth of what and who you are.

I came to know you through twitter, and of course, was copied in to an email from ******* a number of weeks ago and have only ever considered you to be a kind, VERY intelligent, gentle, Faith and love driven individual. That anyone could take anything else from your writing is beyond me.

I have no idea how you have coped with all you have, because, in all honesty, it would have given me a complete breakdown if I were to have experienced just a fraction of such abuse. The school yard bullies have all progressed to the twitter arena, haven’t they.

You have NOT “failed” anyone. It is just not possible to reason with some people; they are way beyond normal sensitivities, empathy, understainding and argument. Their agenda is totally different to yours and the devil is using them very efficiently.

You must be feeling totally drained, physically and emotionally, and bitterly disappointed in so many ways, but please, remember why you write what you do; it’s not for personal gratification, it’s to further God’s Kingdom. I believe those lovely words of Jesus are very appropriate to you, “When you declare me before men, I will declare you before my Father in Heaven,” for this is what you have done, so faithfully. You have nothing to reproach yourself for.

I am really sorry that you have deleted your account because I enjoyed reading your tweets, but I am also glad that you have because you deserve some peace; distance from people who relish hurting whoever they can, especially at the moment whilst you are in the early stages of pregnancy. You have a beautiful family, they deserve you to be happy and you deserve to be happy, away from the pernicious bullies, of which there are so many and who are only happy when they spot someone whom they can really hurt. That someone is invariably the opposite to what they are = lovely people like you. Don’t allow them to spew their vitriol in your direction any more.

You have so much going for you; they don’t.

I will continue to pray for you and all the family.

Lots of love and God bless Caroline. I will be in touch.
xx

Thank you so very much everyone.

Brokenness

There is a situation that I really want to talk about but cannot for legal reasons. It has caused much pain and suffering over the past year and still continues to rumble on. All I can say is that I am confident that the truth will out and ask for everybody’s prayers and compassion, not only for myself, but the other individual involved.

There is however, something I wish to explain, which is deeply personal, but I think perhaps is necessary in order to shed light upon why I may often give the impression of being perhaps disproportionately hurt by some of the various online jostling and may also explain why I may appear overly defensive at times online.

Those who know me in real life, will testify that I am not an aggressive individual in the slightest. Typically English, I’m quite backwards at coming forwards and perhaps one of the reasons why I am struggling a lot in term of managing the practicalities of juggling quite so many balls, is that I’m absolutely useless as asking for help. I feel like I am imposing on others, that assistance in anything is an admission of failure. It’s like I need to be superwoman, run a perfect home, look after the children, manage university work and write the odd commission every now and again. All whilst maintaing a flawless appearance without a hair out of place. In short I suffer from the sin of pride and lack the humility and grace to ask for help and accept it when it is needed. I need to learn to receive and to let others learn to how to give.

Whilst I’m sure that psycho-analysts and social theorists could find all sorts of reasons for my innate perfectionism and need to be a high achiever, there is another factor that comes into play, one that I rarely talk about, that is still raw and that I attempt to block out on a day to day basis and one that I’m still scared to talk about now, just contemplating it is producing hot stinging tears which are splashing onto my shiny laptop. When I was eighteen, I was in a relationship with a 31 year old man. It was a mess. It was coercive and violent. It was my first proper relationship and it scarred me more deeply than perhaps I have realised until recently.

He was volatile and possessive, being acutely aware of the age gap. When we met he had showered me with affection and presents, it was my first adult relationship and I had no idea that this wasn’t normal behaviour. His moods would swing on a tuppence. He was controlling over what I wore, alarm bells should have rung on an early date, when he came to pick me up, we were supposed to be going to a bar to meet his friends and a thick brooding silence overhung in the car. Eventually he said to me “I can’t take you out tonight, you look like a whore, all my friends will be looking down your top at what is mine and they will think you are easy and I will be embarrassed”. Despite my innate sense of injustice, I asked him whether or not my top really was that low-cut as I didn’t think it was. He assured me that it was and that I had spoiled his evening and I should have not been so selfish and thoughtless when getting ready. I replied that I was trying to look “nice” I had no idea that I looked even vaguely tarty, which elicited a slap. I cried, he ranted and raved, I then apologised.

That was really the pattern. The problem was that everyone else, including my parents, had invested so much into this relationship, after all we had been intimate, we HAD to get married, that all of the violence, all of the dysfunction was overlooked. It was blamed upon my being too young, too immature and the general sympathy was with him. We started living together and every time I tried to return home, my mother would phone him up to come and collect me like an errant schoolgirl. All sorts of things would set him off, one problem was that his mother had been a housewife, who prior to the return of her husband would change her dress and freshen up her lipstick. He expected me to do that. He once came home to find me “looking like the swamp monster” which caused another episode. I was on a supposed year out before starting university. He did not want me to go, neither did my parents, they wanted me to get married. I didn’t qualify for a grant. I was trapped. He used to choose what underwear I was to wear before going out to my part-time job, anything fancy would make him suspicious. He used to insist on buying clothes that weren’t my taste at all. He once beat me for not having the courtesy to ask him before switching the fire on when I was cold. I lived on eggshells, anything could set him off and you could guarantee it would be my fault, and he would keep hitting until I said sorry. Like the time he called me ignorant because I was reading a book instead of raptly watching him land a 747 into Hong Kong on Microsoft Flight Simulator. One one occasion he threatened me with a bread knife. One another he threw my car keys down the loo saying “you either leave here in a body bag or not at all”, on another, he physically sat on my chest preventing me from moving. I used to dread the days that he would attempt his give up smoking ritual. Nicotine gum and bags of sweeties would be purchased and he would psyche himself into a foul mood. I had to wait on him hand on foot those days, so delicate was his constitution and his temper. Giving up smoking is a tricky business and he needed to be wrapped in cotton wool and have my full support. Any lapse back to smoking was always my fault for causing the stress.

Eventually I did get out and instantly understood what it meant to be free. But it left deep and lasting scars. My parents blamed my immaturity for the breakdown of the relationship, the violence was brushed under the carpet, downplayed and as an inevitable consequence of my shortcomings, which is what made it so difficult to leave, because I thought that it was my fault and that if I could just adapt a bit better, that things would all come good, that he would stop hitting me.

Why is this relevant? Today, I understood the word “trigger” for the first time. Whilst talking about a specific type of online abuse with another Tweeter, she said “I used to find it very triggering, it reminded me of my grandmother’s rages”. A lightbulb clicked. Over the past few months, Robin has said to me, “I think your past makes you react to the online stuff in a very specific way. You cower, you look frightened, like you used to  look in the early days of our relationship”. Which is true. When we were first dating,I was really conflict averse. I couldn’t cope with even minor rows and would cower and flinch, which would make matters worse as understandably Robin was devastated by the signals I was inadvertently giving out, i.e. “please don’t hurt me”.

When the some of the online ranting starts, that is how I feel. It’s particularly hard on Twitter, because the nature of it does not allow for nuance, the medium is very direct and often it seems like question after question after question. The speed of it is dizzying at times and it can be quite disorientating. This is the effect that online ranting and name-calling has. I feel my heart-rate accelerating, my breathing quickening, my hands shaking and I feel sick. Particularly if what is being said consists of invective, but even liberal use of caps for emphasis, comes across as shouting. It has the effect of making me want to hide under the sofa or retreat into my shell, but at the same time defend myself. I don’t cope too well with seeing calumny writ large in front of one. I have difficulty letting what I see as blatant injustices stand. But it might explain why I take things more personally than most. I realised that being subject to this kind of rant, was producing exactly the same kind of reaction that I had when I was in a dysfunctional relationship. Fear, terror and adrenalin. It self-perpetuates, because psychologically a certain name will be associated with a certain reaction, so I’ll find myself shaking before I’ve even seen what’s said.

Today was the first time that I realised that certain people act as triggers that provoke certain reactions, which is not a stress I need at the moment. I’m sure all that adrenalin can’t be good for the baby, so I think I am going to calm it down a little. But I cried like I haven’t cried in years, when the realisation of my reaction hit me and memories suppressed in a dusty little box in my brain came pouring out, scene after scene after scene flashing through my head.

I wouldn’t publish a comment this week, because it berated me for putting personal stuff out on the net and informed me that everybody hated me and that this must be for a reason. I have to stop putting my head above the parapet.

I’ve been considering that. And then reflecting on the psalm reading of last Sunday. I am undoubtedly broken, but then all of us are broken in our own way. Even if we are healed, the scars are still there, no matter how minute. Is it so bad to be broken, to be vulnerable? Look at Christ on the cross, his body contorted, bloodied and broken and yet still compellingly beautiful.

Oh that today you would listen to his voice, harden not your heart.”

As I said a few months ago, Catholic women need thick skins online. My father used to say to me when I was little that I wore my heart on my sleeve too much, I have to toughen up. I still haven’t managed that. But then neither did Christ who put himself out there, who repeatedly made himself vulnerable for His Father’s Kingdom. Christ did not harden his heart, he knew that there would be those who hated what he had to said, who could not bear it and who wanted rid of him. If we harden our hearts to others then we harden our hearts to Christ. If we retreat into a shell, then we render ourselves unable to receive Him in his fullness and to impart Him to others.

We have to accept ourselves in all our brokeness and vulnerability and through that unite ourselves to Calvary. I am broken and weary. I have seen the most evil and unkind falsehoods written down about me and about others. Lies have been perpetuated and elaborate and bizarre fabrications woven. I desperately want to fight them, to hold this ugliness up to the light, I cannot believe that anyone would behave quite so callously as to calmly lie in order to cause such a devastating impact and attempt to destroy lives. I get so upset because though I have very many flaws, lying is not one of them and neither is shouting or aggression. Which is why I find that kind of behaviour so difficult to understand. I am incredibly frustrated that I am advised that I must remain silent for now. I want to shout the injustice from the rooftops.

I am broken. But I have the support of many many people, the intercession of the saints and of Our Blessed Virgin and above all the comfort of Christ. The other person is broken. Their mind is in torment. They have none of these things. They know only anger, bitterness, rage, scorn, contempt and self-deception. Pray for us both. Miserere nobis.

Moratorium

I was speaking with my spiritual adviser earlier as a result of which I will be having a short blogging moratorium.

There are a few reasons for this, firstly I have three essays due in on the 10th January, secondly I am beginning to hit the exhaustion phase of early pregnancy whereby every muscle aches and yearns for rest and I’m downing the lucozade tablets for much needed energy and to keep going. Looking after 3 young children on my own in the week means I don’t have time to sleep, combine that with University work and I’m shattered.

One very unpleasant commentator suggested I am a dreadful mother who neglects her children, given the blog, but I tend to do my blogging when they are in bed, plus, I am an extraordinarily fast typist. Rest assured my children do not lack their mother’s attention.

I am also involved in another short-term personal project, that I cannot divulge, but which is proving spiritually draining, however it already seems to be bearing much fruit and a worthwhile use of my time.

I don’t therefore have the emotional energy to continue taking the constant attacks from others, both my husband and my advisor noted that I can’t be fighting on all fronts and I need to concentrate on my current short-term goals and suggested that the work I am currently doing needs to be prioritised.

I received a number of emails of support following my last two posts, from Catholic supporters with influence beyond the blogosphere, from past and present pro-life parliamentarians, newspaper columnists and heads of various organisations. All of them praised my “courage”, but to me there seemed nothing intrinsically brave about tapping out my opinion. My husband warned that I might have a hard time, but I was taken aback by some of the vociferous comments, a few of which were unnerving in nature. Having been exhorted to “take down your post and walk away, your friends aren’t helping”, then told “there will be repercussions”, I had rather an unsettled night. I subsequently woke up to a comment implying that I was peddling “a sack full of lies, half-truths, outright deceit and spin concerning Catholic teaching”.

All of this rather proves my point about a culture of fear. It seems to be acceptable for John Smeaton to blog his outrageous opinions and pronouncements upon others but not for others to respond. A few of my supporters asked me not to publically name them, a wish that I will respect, because as they said, they need to be above reproach and not enmesh their organisations in a personal feud. To get involved they said, would be in exactly the same error as John; it would conflate their views with that of their organisation, whereas I have more freedom, blogging purely as a private individual.

This is the joy of the blogosphere’s lack of regulation, it is a great equaliser and means people can be called to account. Let me be clear, if any Catholic blogger had decided to deride myself or my colleagues, I would have been equally hurt, I may have challenged in the comments box, but would probably have left it. The reason why I have taken issue is because John Smeaton’s blog is in his official capacity as SPUC Director, there is no comment facility and it is taken authoritatively. As some of my commenters have noted, he has sometimes not represented the full picture or has jumped to false conclusions on issues, alienating many in the process and sowing dissent amongst natural allies.

This is why i believe the hierarchy aren’t as keen on blogs as we bloggers. We are not all in full possession of the facts, I was not party to the discussions or expert advice presented to the Bishops in terms of the Liverpool Care Pathway and Connexions so I have to trust their judgement. Though there is room to ask whether or not certain things are wise, what is unfair is to allege that the Bishops’ Conference is intent on pro-life dissent. If any individual Bishop was in pro-life dissent, then they’d be out on their ear. As some of my commentators note, we cannot comment on the sensationalist stories we see reported, not being party to all the facts and nor can we present this as evidence of anything and then turn our fury upon others, without looking very foolish.

What is in danger of happening at the moment is the blogosphere is in danger of turning in on itself and becoming an ugly spectacle which I do not want to be a part of. It is doing nothing for the Kingdom or Catholicism as a whole. It is why so many are so wary about the Internet as a medium. There is a danger of treating blogs or things we read on the net as truth and being unnecessarily scandalised. As a private individual I can only ever speak for myself and not, unlike others, in an official capacity which would lend misleading authority.

My advisor reminded me to remember humility, you may know you are right, but you don’t have to jump up and down to prove it, think of the patient monk who waits 7-10 years silently carrying on, before he is shown to have been right all along.

My husband says “the problem is Caroline is that you write very reasonable, rational posts and expect everyone else to behave the same way. We know human nature is flawed and sinful and not everyone will respond as you would wish and be convinced, so you have to accept there’s a lot of unpleasantness out there.” As he says, the irony about all of this, is that I am an orthodox faithful practicing Catholic, one who is happy to sign up to the Catechism in its entirety, therefore the animosity is unfounded. One only needs to look at some of the abuse I’ve taken for blogging on the key issues, to realise that.

The bloggers hold onto the fact that they are able to hold others to account and swiftly disseminate information. This is all I have done. Democracy demands that we are able to freely and openly discuss concerns without fear of “repercussions”. Apparently SPUC is a Limited Company. I can understand that it may not be able to be a charity because it might not be able to adequately meet the Charities Commission test of “public benefit”. To see the accounts a Companies House search of SPUC Pro-life Limited needs to be made. Of course being a Limited Company, raises questions like who are the shareholders, are the profits reinvested and is a dividend paid? I haven’t the energy to investigate further, but I would like to know more before I donate money or encourage others to.

Whatever SPUC’s alleged successes in the EU or UN, there is still no significant UK progress. Their projects may well be worth Catholic support, but why do they claim to be more worthy of support than others, especially when their leader is preoccupied with attacking Catholic leaders and upsetting prolific and influential supporters(it goes without saying I do not include myself in that)? Why should a Catholic support an organisation whose leader seems to sow dissent and who inspires a response that has made me fearful? If SPUC feel that the Catholic hierarchy are ignoring their concerns and are not as pro-life as they should be, then they need to look at the bigger picture. Why is there a lack of a coherent pro-life movement in this country, unable to hold anyone in check? Why are SPUC marginalised? Who do they have to blame?

As I said, I am going to post one more entry and then have a short moratorium whilst I concentrate on essay work and other things, but I don’t regret opening this up for debate.

Amongst all the to and fro, Tyler, came up with the following comment as a wonderful New Year’s Day gift. This is what makes blogging worthwhile, in a beautiful twist of fate, in delicious irony, it is an interlocutor or “troll” who has motivated me to continue. The Lord does move in mysterious ways.

I’m not going to lie. I came here to troll all over your site, as I had held you in a fair bit of contempt, after being directed here through an angry friend’s link. However, I was unprepared for the unusual and surprising quality of your reasoning and logic, which was far from the usual, “the face in the sky commands us to do A, B, and C, while prohibiting E, F, and G” sort of religious blog. Therefore, I apologize, and after thinking carefully about it, I also apologize for the trolling I would have done, had your blog been less impressive, as what I was going to do was rather ridiculous anyway since,to put it mildly, and to insult you would have been rather immature, regardless of what I found here.

In addition to this, I feel I must point out that I obviously do not agree with all that is written here. As I am not a Strong Catholic, this is unsurprising, but I am not so naive as to fail to realize that not all Catholics are drones, mirroring and reflecting the same precise beliefs, and I realize that your reasoning is constructed in a way that is open to debate (if one has suitable facts and satisfactory mental facilities to engage in a reasonable disagreement in the comments section), which is a significant factor in the quality of your posts, as you have clear substance in what you write. Thus, while our principles are not necessarily on par with each other, I believe the respect in your blogging rises above that, and presents itself as valid and important opinion, despite what my own beliefs are.

So, I hope you keep writing. Perhaps I do not hope that people will take what you say as the absolute truth but, perhaps, I hope that people will consider and weigh in on what you write. Because, honestly, the best argument is constructed with knowledge on something you don’t like, and your blog, at the absolute least, is an exemplary argument for anyone, religious or not.

Into the maelstrom

The remarks of Archbishop Vincent Nichols regarding civil partnerships have stirred up a lot of controversy on the Catholic blogosphere this week, led by the respected columnist for the Catholic Herald, William Oddie. I won’t re-hash the debate, but Oddie’s pieces may be read here and here. Archbishop Nichol’s response to the criticism may be found here.

I don’t want to add too much to the debate, other than to wonder whether this is something of a storm in a teacup, I’m not going to deny that the Archbishop’s statement was ambiguous, but I think there is a tendency to be guilty of a lack of charity here. I am quite uncomfortable with the concept of automatically assuming that the leader of Catholics in England and Wales has some agenda which runs contrary to that of the Holy See which he is intent on pursuing. I know all sorts of commenters will now rush to tell me about a whole host of scandals in an attempt to demonstrate that there is a consistent trend and underlying proof that secretly the Bishops are seeking to do xyz, but I am also aware that there is always two sides to every story, and so far, I’m only aware of one side, namely that of the very orthodox Catholic blogosphere. I know that things don’t look great on paper, I am not disputing the veracity of various claims or calling into question the integrity of anyone who comments on these things, but in the case of, for example, the Cardinal Vaughan school, it’s quite difficult to comment from the sidelines, only having been party to one side.

Another thing I will note is that I can’t summon up the enthusiasm for ecclesiastical politics. I don’t know anyone from the Bishop’s Conference and if I’m honest, I don’t really want to know either. Networking, schmoozing, knowing who’s who, isn’t my thing, which is probably something of a failing for a former vicar’s wife. I like to write my blog, talk about Catholic social issues, discuss a bit of politics, what’s going on in the twittersphere and in the media, occasionally venture into a bit of theology, hoping that I don’t launch into heresy, but I’ll only call people to account when I feel able and qualified to do so. I genuinely don’t feel comfortable about publicly questioning Archbishop Nichols, for a multitude of reasons, none of them to do with sycophancy or self-advancement, but simply that I am yet to be convinced of certain things, such as whether the Liverpool Care Plan, is back-door euthanasia for example or whether or not it gives ammunition to the euthanasia lobby, so I’m not going to go down that route. Call me naive but I trust in the Holy Spirit whom I believe has a hand in episcopal matters.

In terms of civil partnerships, I think we have to remember, that were Archbishop Nichols grossly in the wrong here, we’d have heard about it already from the likes of Archbishop Cranmer, who wouldn’t have passed up an opportunity to criticise the Catholic Church if he thought that they were in any way supporting the issue of same-sex marriage. I admire the dead heretic enormously, but he isn’t exactly Rome’s greatest advocate.

The other thing that I think it is worth remembering, is that civil partnerships do solve some issues of natural justice, without necessarily undermining marriage. It is only right and just that people who are not in a marital relationship should be able to have similar access to various legal privileges, formerly only available to married couples, such as inheritance rights, or the right to nominate someone as your next of kin, or name them as a beneficiary on a pension. Though there are arguments to be made for keeping certain things as being exclusive privileges of a married couple, actually it is no bad thing for people to be able to legally formalise close relationships.

Where civil partnerships have failed and are utterly discriminatory is that they are only open to same-sex couples and necessitate an official public ceremony similar to a wedding ceremony. I have two elderly aunts, Auntie A and Auntie B. Unless my parents have finally got around to changing their will, they are still named as our official guardians in the event of my parents’ death. My Aunties were a part of our family when I was a child, they attended every family party or celebration, were part of Christmas, came to look after myself and my sister for a week when my grandmother died and were the first people my parents called to help when we were involved in a horrific car accident when I was ten, which incapacitated my mother for a year, at one stage all of the family were in different parts of the hospital being treated for our injuries with the aunties switching from theatre to theatre to check on our progress.

Auntie A and Auntie B were both teachers at my mother’s school which is how she came to know them. She immediately clicked with Auntie A and a lifelong friendship was born, I don’t ever remember them not being in my life. Auntie A moved in with Auntie B when she was a newly qualified teacher in the fifties and needed temporary lodgings. She never moved out. I honestly have no idea whether or not they were involved in a sexual relationship, but my instinct tells me that they were not. Schoolchildren being what they are, found out that Misses A and B lived together and constructed their own narrative, but I can honestly say, I never witnessed anything that would lead me to believe that. To a certain extent it doesn’t really matter, I’m not interested, it doesn’t affect my feelings towards them. Auntie A is probably one of the wisest and most perceptive women I’ve ever met. Over the past 60 years the aunties have done everything together, they have a lot of mutual interests, probably one of the reasons behind such a close enduring relationship, and are much loved in the local community, still attending Scottish Country dancing together in their 70s and 80s. They have travelled the world over and had an enormously full life. Auntie A once confided to me however were she to have her time again, she would have liked to have got married, that she would have liked to have had a husband and children, something that surprised me.

Now Auntie A is approaching her late 70s and Auntie B is ten years older, in her late 80s. Auntie B has increasingly been suffering health problems. Auntie A has become her full-time carer without complaint. Auntie B recently suffered a rectal prolapse which has necessitated very intimate and compassionate care. They are not in a civil partnership because neither of them want to put themselves through a ceremony that does not reflect the nature of their relationship. This means that when Auntie B dies, Auntie A will have no legal claim (not that she wants one) on Auntie B’s estate, despite having jointly contributed to the upkeep and maintenance of the house as well as the household shopping and so on for almost the past 60 years. She also has no social security rights, no tenancy rights and no right to be consulted in terms of treatment, as next-of-kin. I should imagine that being the canny ladies they are, that the correct arrangments have been made, but it seems nonsensical that Auntie A could well face a claim from Auntie B’s various nieces and nephews and could lose her house. It also seems unfair that Auntie A has no legal status. This could all be rectified with a civil partnership, but this option is not available to them as they don’t wish to formally recognise their relationship as being a same-sex one. Auntie A said that she wouldn’t put Auntie B through it and the pair of them would find it deeply humiliating and embarrassing. They don’t want it on permanent record that they were in a romantic relationship and besides Auntie A feels, it would be a lie or a sham.

This is where civil partnerships fail, because they do not give people like my aunties, or several other people, such as cousins, brothers and sisters, or platonic friends similar rights. Civil partnerships frame these relationships as only being romantic or sexual and are therefore discriminatory. But the principle of offering equal legal and employment rights to those in chaste loving relationships is a noble one, just as it is noble that whilst Catholics should not be seen to support same-sex sexual relationships, we cannot assume that all those who are in a civil partnership are necessarily indulging in sexual relationships. Though the Church of England allows its clergy to be in civil partnerships they are, technically speaking, supposed to be chaste and refrain from sex.

Civil partnerships are, excuse the pun, a b*gger’s muddle. The Church of England is in exactly the same position as the Catholic Church. Civil partnerships were seen as a compromise that served the legal needs of the gay community, but were not seen as undermining marriage as they were separate to them. The rules of democracy mean that views that are seen to be in the minority, and opposition to same-sex partnerships is a minority view, don’t hold sway. Most people were concerned that gay couples were not being treated on a par with married couples and held this to be grossly unfair. A much better solution would have been to create a legal process which meant that all couples could go to a registry office and register another person as their official next of kin. If gay couples had wanted all the extra bells and whistles there was still absolutely nothing to stop them from doing this, with a humanist minister or whatever they wanted, but civil partnerships discriminate nonetheless against those who are in a chaste relationship.

There are many arguments for keeping marriage special and according it unique status, civil partnerships should not, for example, include parental responsibility, which should remain as being the exclusive right of married couples, or put more precisely the right of children to be brought up by a biological mother and father, but done properly civil partnerships might not have undermined marriage.

The problem for both the Church of England and the Catholic Church is that neither wished to be seen to deny legal equalities and rights purely on the grounds of sexuality. The homophobe label still carries immense power, it’s Stonewall’s entire raison d’etre. Also at the time of the consultation on civil partnerships, the gay rights groups stated that they were not pushing for marriage, simply that they wanted equality.

This is one of the reasons why the CDF specifically spoke out against civil partnerships in 2003, they could see that civil partnerships were marriage by the back door – the slippery slope and that civil partnerships could very much be seen as an inferior option. Had all parties pushed harder for a wider definition of civil partnerships, then perhaps we would not be in the mess that we are in today.

In any case, it should be remembered that Archbishop Cormac Murphy O’Connor was in charge in 2003 when this was discussed. I am unable to offer comment as to what the church should or should not have done as I was not in communion with the Catholic Church at that time. I was dealing with an unplanned pregnancy and traumatic birth. Had the Church mounted a more concerted campaign, it is unsure whether or not this would have been successful, given how split the Anglican communion was over the whole issue, but the Bishops Conference was very clear in 2003, when it stated that “civil unions would not support the common good and we therefore strongly oppose them”.

Whatever else he might have said, Archbishop Nichols has stated that equality and commitment do not amount to marriage. Surely that is the main thing. Surely what matters now is sticking together to defend marriage, rather than this internecine squabbling, which does no-one any good. We are all part of one body in Christ. Wounds and divisions hurt us all.

*PS I know I will probably regret this and the internet will explode as a result. That’s the problem with trying to please everyone, you please no-one, but my loyalty lies in Christ and the Church that he founded. I am not convinced that hitching my wagon to the “church isn’t catholic enough” train is the way that I might best serve her. Don’t be too horrid in the comments.

It’s not just the men

Just want to be explicitly clear about something if I have not been already.

I receive all manner of threats and verbiage in the comms box, which is why, if you have the inclination, if you trawl back through the archives, you’ll see I was asking for advice on setting up the spam filter.

I do get what seems to be an inordinate amount of sexual abuse, which I thought was the norm. Is it because I’m a female, or is it because I very deliberately have a photograph of myself on this site, in order that people may put a face to the name. One of the reasons I am not anonymous and believe me I’ve dallied with the idea on quite a few occasions, is in order to take ownership and responsibility for my words. When I make mistakes (like referring to Evan Harris in less than complimentary terms, I publicly apologise and try to move on).

I spoke to Helen Hasteley Lewis because she was specifically looking for a right-wing blogger and and my name was suggested to her. I oscillate wildly between left and right, but I think it’s certainly fair to say that I am conservative with a small c. Helen wanted to show that it was not just people like Laurie Penny who were subject to online sexual threats. This was then followed up by Richard Roberts in today’s Observer.

As I said in my previous post, in some ways, perhaps because I’m hardened, I don’t know, but though I find the stuff vile, (I had no idea what some of these terms meant) for a multitude of reasons that Freud and every single pop psychologist could have a field day with, I find the sexual stuff easier to deal with. I had one hilarious comment from a chap who gave the impression that he was in his late 70s who suggested that I implement a “spanking contract” with my husband. Yes, apparently there is such a thing, there are whole reams of websites devoted to domestic spanking and being “taken in hand” and he suggested that this might be the best outlet rather than blog and would ensure “ruddy good sex”. It was a scream.

Why do I get this stuff? Let’s be honest, it’s because I’m an attractive sensual woman with a certain joie de vivre. Or at least that’s what I’d like to think anyway.

But when I periodically check the spam filters which are programmed with certain words to catch these sorts of comments, I am shocked by the sheer volume and at times, yes it does shock, frighten and intimidate me. I am bawdy, but not coarse. I don’t tend to swear unless really pushed and if you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I’m often a bit “naughty” but never ever sexually explicit. I hate expletives and rarely use them, so it’s quite nasty to see that level of stuff. It’s not even “comment”, it’s just people with their own issues.

I am not a feminist by any contemporary definition, but I am what I would consider to be a feminist. I believe that true emancipation lies in men accepting women’s fertility and not attempting to suppress or override it. I think women have been sold an absolute lie in terms of myths about contraception and abortion, but let’s leave that aside for now.

Some of the nastiest, most insidious, most hurtful comments have been from women. The two people who have caused me the most online grief over the past year have been women. Their motivations are complex, but the stuff from the woman has been more threatening (the death at the hands of the rusty scissors comment was a woman) and more personal. It is WOMEN who have been spiteful, it is WOMEN who have threatened to carry this forward into real life and  it is WOMEN who have thought it acceptable to drag my children into this debate. It is WOMEN who have said “your baby makes me want to be sick” and WOMEN who have gone off on crazy vendettas.

The men tend to tell me how much they would like a good f*ck and then move on.

When I have blogged about the women, I have been accused of being on a pity fest and writing long rambling “woe is me posts”. Now I’ve added my voice to the getting in the neck from the men brigade, those who  have accused me of being full of self pity are suddenly the epitome of  concern and those on the other side are either disbelieving of me or think that all of us women who complain about this should “grow up”.

My faith and my husband help me to cope with all of this.  Other people perhaps do not have the same support structures. I’m able to put the sex stuff into perspective partly due to my marriage, but my husband is a protective chap and it breaks his heart and deeply offends him when he sees the sort of stuff that falls below the line. How would men feel if that were their wives or partners being sexually threatened by complete strangers? No-one should have to put up with it.

I don’t think it’s because of what I say necessarily, although that’s the hook. I think it’s because of the following

  • I’m a woman blogger
  • I promote orthodox Catholic views
  • I’m outspoken, there’s a perception I can take it
  • I’m attractive
  • I’m a (former) vicar’s wife thus “interesting”
  • The internet is full of dodgy perverts

Sexual threats are uniquely awful and unacceptable. But so are other kinds of threats, such as death threats, threats to publicly libel your family and attempt to put your husband out of a job . They were all equally vile and horrible and caused so much hurt and distress.

In January, my father had a massive heart attack which very nearly killed him. My mother was struggling to cope with caring for my father and her 98 year old mother who had lost the use of her legs and required 24/7 nursing. My daughter was suffering from a neurological condition which we still haven’t got to the bottom of. We had moved to a completely different area and lost our main social point of focus and community. My husband was in a temporary job on minimum wage. I’d had to defer my degree because of pregnancy related illness. Our house was a mass of unpacked boxes. Meanwhile life had to go on, I had a then 6 year old and a 14 month old. We didn’t know what the future held. Looking back, I am not quite sure how I managed to hold it all together.

In the midst of all this disruption came streams of  threatening unsolicited email and libellous blog posts. The women concerned were well aware of my circumstances, I explicitly outlined this in an email to one, begging her to leave me alone. You would think that a feminist would exercise pity and compassion and leave a struggling heavily pregnant woman alone. She did no such thing and later alluded to the fact I’d had a hard time as being definitive proof of how very ill I allegedly am.

But that doesn’t fit the narrative so well does it? Women being nasty to women? Feminists determinedly going for the jugular of a heavily pregnant woman, because they think she hates gay people and because they don’t like her religion or her support of it.

For those who are cross with me for perpetuating what they believe is a myth, all I can do is relate my experience. I don’t want to go into the realms of misandry but yes, I do identify with Laurie Penny and anyone else who attracts vile sexist comments. It feels like a verbal assault.

I don’t want to legislate for sexism as being yet another specific hate crime –  our freedom of speech is under enough threat as it is. There is no such thing as a right not to be offended, and I also believe that current anti-stalking and harassment laws are sufficient.

I don’t want to make this out to be a purely man versus women issue either. As I’ve said repeatedly, women have been every bit as vicious, but it’s a narrative none have wanted to hear.

Toby Young had a brief twitter spat that he blogged about last week. During the course of it he was called every expletive under the sun and jokes were made about his appearance. In response to a tweet from John Prescott that corrected his grammar, he jokingly suggested that he would “kill himself”. Some tweeters expressed disappointment that he would not take them up at their word and said that they were likely to urinate and dance on his grave.

Because it’s Toby Young, who is a man and therefore perceived to have a thick skin, those sorts of comments were deemed just banter.

We’re all human. When pricked we all bleed. What have learned from all this? That Satre had a point. None of the abuse has been pleasant, wherever it has emanated from. Let’s not get into pity-wars. But let’s also be clear, that those responsible for causing additional stress to a heavily pregnant, low-rent, non professional blogger, those who were threatening to take things into real life, who couldn’t get things into perspective and who were endlessly spying on my twitter feed, were women.

Let’s all play nicely. You wouldn’t greet a real life person with “you’re an ugly cow who needs a sh*g”, or “you’re a moron who knows very little about anything”. So don’t do it on the internet either. Proprietors and editors of the national press have their part to play as well. As long as Johann Hari stays on board at the Indy, we know that they don’t take online abuse seriously.

Logs and beams. It’s very easy to announce that online abuse should not be tolerated, so make sure your own house is in order. Ensure sites are swiftly moderated in order that abuse may be promptly removed and don’t employ columnists who are happy to endorse bitching, trolling and sniping, just so long as it’s not done by men.