Chrissy Teigen, the model and food writer, has this week apologised for being an internet troll. In her apology there are no qualifications for her behaviour, it is not a Ken Livingstone-style apology – “Sorry if you were offended” – but instead, a full frontal, “I was wrong, I was a troll, I am not the victim”. Her apology does talk about her own personal and emotional growth, which is a little celeb American schmaltz for my own tastes, but I respect that she is putting her hands up and saying it’s a fair cop.
I am sick to death of the excuses for poor behaviour, and in Westminster this week I was treated to an absolute doozy of a qualification for bullying behaviour. MP Daniel Kawczynski, in his response to the accusation of bullying by the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, claimed he was under “real pressures” in his role as an MP. Evidence to the panel cited that “Brexit and serious flooding in his constituency both gave rise to serious difficulties for him as the local MP. The Respondent is 6ft 9in tall and thus very conspicuous in the street, in his local shops. He found himself under repeated attack by members of the public on both these grounds.” As if having to deal with angry comments, some of which will no doubt have been abusive and unfair, all while being tall, was somehow a mitigation for bullying parliamentary staff. It isn’t.
I am sure Mr Kawczynski has suffered some unpleasantness and trolling – this is a sad and unnecessary part of political life – but he wants to try being a woman MP for a few days. If what he has suffered turned him into a bully, I dread to think how he would cope if he had to tolerate thousands of messages about raping him. I wonder how many people have used his tallness to mock up deep-fake sexualised images of him. I wonder how many times his images have been used on porn sites.
I am not particularly tall (well above average for a woman, mind), but I do have an office which is conspicuously open to the public and it has been attacked, vandalised and my staff have had to lock themselves in while a man who had read some crap about me on the internet tried to kick the door in. None of this made me want to bully members of staff. In fact, I spent years of my life trying to set up a system to protect the staff of Westminster, the very same system that found Kawczynski to be a bully. Turns out some of us react differently to “pressures”.
Kawczynski was forced by the committee to issue an unreserved apology. Teigen seems to have come to that conclusion by herself without the need for a committee beyond that of Twitter and Instagram audiences. But is sorry enough for sniping at people to the point that they felt suicidal and terrorised by the abuse? I can only speak from my own experience and I wouldn’t dare to tell others how to feel, but for me, accepting a considered and meaningful apology is usually enough. The internet as a business model seems to encourage division and hate.
I undertook a restorative justice process with a man who attacked my office because he had read on the internet that I hated all men. He believed all sorts of dreadful internet lies about me that internet trolls love to spread. He believed I hated white people, believed I had helped grooming gangs (I spent most of my career fighting them), he believed I thought Brexit voters were thick, even though I stood on a stage in front of a million People’s Vote marches and said: “Never refer to anyone who thinks differently to you as stupid.”
The truth doesn’t matter on the internet and that can spill into real life and saw, in this case, my office under attack and a man criminalised needlessly. I have spent quite a lot of time with Michael, the man involved, and I like him. We don’t agree on a great many things, but I still like him. I accept his apology for his behaviour towards me, I accept that he read things that were not true and I accept that his reaction was not the best, but that we should move on. Internet trolls let him down very badly and have arguably harmed his life more than mine.
I do not feel so forgiving about all of those who have trolled or abused me. I do not feel it about the people who genuinely pay their bills through clicks on videos about me being thick and ugly, and unrapable or, in fact, rapable. There is an issue with intent for me – if your intention when you troll and abuse is to gain power and status or even money, then I am afraid your apology has to have consequences in the loss of power, status and money. If you cross a criminal threshold and threaten to kill or alarm then I am afraid you have to answer to those criminally. If you got carried away, believed something because of an internet wave, acted like an idiot to look big and clever, then just admit that, listen to how it made people feel and be better.
The internet has a long memory and I don’t for one second think that mistakes, meanness, ill-judged comments and trolling should ban a person from respect for life. Hell, if you actually tried to engage with me properly I would probably go out of my way to listen. Trolling isn’t a small thing – don’t ever think for one second that “trolling” is anything other than bullying that has a real effect on people and their families. It does and on me it has, but if I used that as an excuse to harm others then I would simply be a bully too.