Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Online world warping our sense of values

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Bringloe was praised by former magazine editor Tina Brown (pictured) in an article wisely suggesting her as an alternative role model to celebrities. Photo / AP
Bringloe was praised by former magazine editor Tina Brown (pictured) in an article wisely suggesting her as an alternative role model to celebrities. Photo / AP

I had lunch the other day with an old friend who's just moved back to Auckland. We ate oysters wrapped in smoked salmon. My friend deserves all the darn oysters she wants. She has battled vicious ovarian cancer, often not diagnosed till too late.

My friend was blonde before chemo. When she went bald, there was a photo of her in a magazine in her orange convertible with the hood down.

She said going bald is okay. It means that the chemo is doing what it's supposed to - it's killing off the fast-growing cells (hair and cancer). Hair grows back. And when it did grow back she dyed it bright purple. But she's looking for a job, so she's blonde again.

My friend is an exceptionally kind-hearted person - she spent half a day moving 48 caterpillars off a dying swan plant in her garden - and it was wonderful to see her looking so happy and healthy.

We drank wine and talked about being COWS (conscientious older women students). But something she said disturbed me. She said she admired me because I was brave to write a column, saying what I thought in public.

Que? Back up the truck. My friend, who has been through round after round of gruelling chemotherapy and stared death in the face, thinks I am brave? I feel like a dickhead even writing that down. But I'm going to do it, because I fear my overly complimentary friend did put her finger on something important.

For a start, we've got mighty confused about the notion of bravery. Here's a brave person: Julia Bringloe, decorated for valour in 2012, who rescued 14 wounded soldiers on a 60-hour medevac helicopter mission in the mountains of Afghanistan.

During one hoist, dangling from the helicopter as she rappelled back with the stretcher, she broke her leg when she interposed her body between a tree and a patient to protect him. Ignoring the pain, she flew back several more times to rescue others.

Bringloe was praised by former magazine editor Tina Brown in an article wisely suggesting her as an alternative role model to celebrities. Because being in the public eye does not make you brave. But I fear we have started to think it does. And the reason for that is the sad fact that it is treacherous in the ultra-connected world where we live much of our lives online. And that is not just for columnists, but everyone.

There is something terrifyingly Orwellian about how punitive we become when someone says things we don't like. Or just dumb things. In some sense we all lead double lives.

There is the life we are inclined to live but can't because a ton of s*** would fall on our heads, and then there is our audited and approved life.

The online world has made trying to be yourself, to be honest and ordinary and real, more risky and exposing than ever. Even while I have been writing this column, I put a status update on Facebook - some droll student put a leek in the English faculty toilet - and have gone back to see if anyone had liked it. I needed to know that someone liked my stupid toilet status update. Stop it, Deborah! This need for approval and feedback is a sickness.

It's like having a constant focus group cheering or jeering, your own election-year worm, your own Greek chorus. And the corollary of always being on show is having to be constantly "on".

Another friend of mine has just lost her father. I saw her at work the other day and with tears in her eyes she said she thought she would have to leave her job, which incidentally she got mentioned in Metro as being very good at, because she just couldn't put on a perky face while she was going through such a tough time in her personal life.

This is crazy. We are not avatars; we are human beings and we can't always be cheerful and sparkly and glamorous.

I'm sure none of what I am saying here is new. George Orwell said, "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle." But frankly, George, I think the struggle has got a lot harder.

- NZ Herald

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