Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Mea culpa, but it's dangerous to be always nice

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'I hope you get as much hate mail as Charlotte did...' , a comment Deborah Hill Cone found in her inbox after writing an article about Charlotte Dawson.
'I hope you get as much hate mail as Charlotte did...' , a comment Deborah Hill Cone found in her inbox after writing an article about Charlotte Dawson.

Oh help. I have been down the bottom of the garden eating worms.

Last week I wrote an article about the death of Charlotte Dawson and ageing and it offended a lot of people.

For some time I'd been grappling with the special horror of ageing for me and for other women, and then when Charlotte Dawson died I just sort of hitched my thoughts to her death; ill-advisedly, as it turned out. I asked if it was presumptuous of me to do this. Now I know the answer. It was.

But unless you have been an Orwellian jeer figure it is hard to explain quite what it is like to be the target of so much hate. I wish I could be like my other stoic columnists who say they don't get affected by online vitriol.

I know I have no right to complain - go and get a different job if you can't hack it - but I find it excruciating, can't sleep, scull Gaviscon straight from the bottle and struggle to hold myself together.

The only answer is to stick to real life. As the haiku goes "Barn's burnt down - now I can see the moon".

This week, I helped my daughter with her school play, visited my elderly father, got the brakes fixed on my car and went to yoga, where if I cried it didn't matter because everyone just assumed it was because Vincent made us do the splits 31 times. I did not read much of the worst stuff but here is a sample just from my Facebook inbox: You're a vile disgusting bitch, you are a f***ing goblin, go hang yourself and do the world a favour, I hope you get as much hate mail as Charlotte did so you go through what she did, you maggot. Also, fix your eyebrows.

But there were other people - oh lovely, lovely people! - who did not necessarily agree with what I wrote, but were prepared to give me the benefit of the doubt, who had some reserves of tolerance and goodwill that allowed them to consider that my motivation was sincere, even if my timing was off.

Some people had an intrinsic generosity of spirit; they didn't feel they needed to be self-righteous and judge me as some kind of evil cow, reading the worst into every word I wrote. It was heartening to know there are people who, when the choice is there, opt not to be sanctimonious or mean.

Because here's the thing. Sometimes if you are trying to write your truth, you won't always get things right. It sucks, and it hurts and I'm sorry, but there it is. And maybe if you think there are some hard conversations we need to have, then that's just something we have to put up with. A few kind-hearted commentators volunteered that we should all limit ourselves to saying nice things to each other. It sounded wonderful. Also, dangerous.

At one time or another we all try to silence painful emotions. But when we succeed in feeling nothing, we lose the only means we have of knowing what hurts us and why. And are we really prepared to pay that price? Because if all you say are nice things, you can't trust anyone. Which are the bits you are lying about? This bit? Or that bit? It is like always telling children "good job" for everything they do.

Instead of a shiny Truman Show bubble where everyone has a happy script, it might be helpful if we could acknowledge we are all absurd, feeble creatures. When we stuff up, we excuse ourselves, we find extenuating circumstances, but when other people stuff up they are just dickheads. When I run a red light it's because I'm rushing to take my sick daughter to A & E, but if I see someone else do it they are just a douche. (This is called the Fundamental Attribution Error.)

I can't ask that people don't criticise me: when people feel pain, they are entitled to show it. But when people comment online - on this article, even - maybe they could stop for a moment and ask themselves, would they be prepared to say it to my face? And when you say I'm a f**ing ugly whore, know that ostracising others hurts you too.

A new study shows that individuals who deliberately shun another person to inflict pain are equally distressed by the experience. So I might be eating worms, but some of you might be too.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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