“This song is about underground communities and how they tear themselves apart.” Fifteen minutes after Shogun of Royal Headache said this onstage, I began to experience an offstage version. Only there was no catharsis; no song.
In the gig washout, a message popped up on my phone. It was from the admin of a Facebook group I’ve been part of pretty much since inception. “We’ve had to remove you from [x group]. Please direct your queries about this to [Man A]”. There was more but that was the gist. I felt a cold shock of disbelief followed by a wave of heat. In that heat was shame, confusion and panic. The quick grip of isolation.
This women’s writers group has 3600+ members – many high-profile and influential. Hardly an underground community but still, Shogun’s words resonated. This community is important to me. I’ve worked as a writer from home, alone, for 10 years and it’s part of a kitbag of things keeping me tethered. I run a mile when there are pile-ons but for the most part, I read each post and give advice ranging from process to rates and lots in between. I play by the rules.
When I got the message at 11.30pm on Friday, I knew what it was about because I’d seen the posts before I left home. Others hadn’t, so the message caused even greater alarm. One women told me later it reminded her of other situations of social isolation. “It was like deep down, reptile brain ‘The tribe has tossed me out and now I’m going to starve in the woods’ upsetting.” She described her later anger as “incandescent”.
I saw the posts at about 8pm. I was busy wrapping up work, texting my mum about a family gathering, eating dinner and trying to get ready to catch the bus. Others might’ve been working, drinking or settling their kids. Few, surely, would have been glued to Facebook. Because the posts seemed heated, I glanced through. The name of Man A caught my eye. Here’s what I gleaned before I went out. Disclaimer: this is written from memory as I no longer have access to the group.
- The group’s admin said information in an earlier post about Man A had been leaked – to Man A. She was very unhappy about this breach of confidentiality. She named him. I scrolled until I found the earlier post. I knew I’d found the right one because Man A was named there too. He was – and remains – a Facebook friend of mine.
- The original poster (OP) and woman of colour wrote diplomatically about a situation she’d struggled to resolve. The issue centered around an abuse perpetrator (not Man A), an article, a fraught editing process and a dispute in which Man A said hurtful things. The OP did not name him; he was outed in the comments. People began to share their unfavourable opinion of him.
- I sympathised but found the OP’s post a little confusing. I am not implying she should’ve said more than she felt comfortable saying, or that a person who’s feeling upset, disempowered or victimised is obliged to fill someone else’s gaps in comprehension. It is up to that person, and only that person, to decide what they want to say. But I didn’t quite grasp the ins and outs.
- I scrolled back to the admin post. The admin asked the leaker to come forward. Then, things took a turn. She said if they didn’t, she’d find them anyway. She had Man A’s friends’ list and if the leaker didn’t confess, all of Man A’s friends may be removed. I was taken aback (that was me!) but thought it was probably a bluff. I kept faith in her methods.
- I considered posting A) I wasn’t the leaker, B) Man A was a Facebook friend (which, disconcertingly, they already knew) and C) I didn’t know him personally (which they did not). But it didn’t feel right. Why was I feeling pressured into stating both my innocence and the nature of one of my FB friendships to thousands of women? I dithered. Felt mildly stressed. Missed my bus. “I’ll check in later tonight,” I thought. I drove to the show and, while there, I was removed from the group.
[NOTE: If you are leaker, I’m sorry you did it but I’m also sorry you’ve had to go through this. If you want to come to me, privately, please do. I won’t betray your confidence and we can talk it through. I’m not seeking to pursue a story, this is a straight offer of support. firstname.lastname@example.org]
On the weekend, I sent some questions to admins. Their responses were delivered promptly and politely which I appreciate. They must have a lot on their plate. But their justifications deepened my concern over a course of action that saw (I think) 26 women culled. (It might have originally been more but some defriended Man A and were returned.)
I bear the admins and group no ill will. They said they did it to protect the safety of the OP. They stressed she was a woman of colour. I trust that was their intent and I hope she feels safe. The admins do a lot of unpaid work that a lot of women benefit from, including me. I thank them for that. In this case, however, their judgement was poor. This critique is not of people but of process.
Can we please slow down?
When I left home at 9pm, I understood that if I declared my innocence, I’d remain in the group. Yet things escalated. Others did state their innocence and were given an ultimatum: defriend Man A or be removed. Had I declared my innocence and gone to the gig, I’d have been removed anyway.
I’d have felt dreadful if that had happened to me. Like I’d stated my best case but it pulled up short. Again, that sense of shame you can’t source or squash. Should we not think deeply before making women feel this way? For many, it’s too familiar already. Our instinct is to believe we are to blame.
Suggestion: If severe actions are required in future could a timeline of three working days be offered? Perhaps an admin could ask others to pipe down so those involved can talk without feeling intimidated. That way, all members (day-workers, shift-workers, hospitality workers, etc) can be consulted and not feel summarily ejected before they even know what’s happened.
Right of reply
We were culled with no right of reply. Our comments in the group will remain with a grey checkmark against our names. This isn’t guilty until proven innocent: this is guilt by association with no recourse to prove innocence. The historical parallels are not pretty.
My career in Australia relies on my networks and on people’s faith in my integrity. I’ve worked hard, and alone, to build a freelance career in the male-dominated field of music criticism. In the space of a few hours when I was at a gig (yep, that’s work), 3600+ women writers – some very influential – were given cause to suspect I’m someone who can’t be trusted. Most won’t but I still feel undermined.
Suggestion: The decision to cull Man A’s friends was to mend the betrayal of group rules. Yet we were betrayed in that process. That’s fighting fire with fire. Can we agree that in a group ruled by feminist principles, the alleged wrongdoing of a man shouldn’t tarnish the reputation of his female associates?
Walls and wedges
After it happened, I contacted a friend “on the inside”. Please tell me if my name is mentioned, I asked. I didn’t ask for anything else as I felt that would compromise her. Writing this now sounds ridiculously Orwellian. But she was over the wall now and there was a wedge between us.
In some ways, though, I’m glad I’m out. Things get inflamed so fast. Nuance dies a quick death as does the confidence of anyone who wants to present it. The loudest prevail, while those triggered by conflict and anger quail. We see it in similar groups, all over the internet. Communities of good people, tearing each other apart.
Swift action, viewed this way, sutures the wound so everyone can recover and move on. I can only hope this is how the decision was presented. I would much rather be viewed as the collateral damage of a swift resolution process than someone whose crimes (which were what, exactly?) actually necessitated the punishment.
What qualifies as a confidential space?
Admins told those removed: “A woman’s confidentiality (and therefore the whole group’s) have been compromised, forcing this step.” I agree: leaking information is bad and it contravenes the rules. I would be upset if it happened to me and I sympathise with the OP.
However, can a group of 3600+ individuals claim to comprise a “confidential” space? Surely a group that size is more realistically defined as public? If my name were aired in the group without my knowledge, I’d feel publicly, not privately, slandered. 3600+ people is no discreet murmur around the water-cooler at work.
It was originally claimed the friends of Man A be culled because one had silently let the drawbridge down and compromised the whole castle. But was the castle not pocked with holes anyway, with that many jostling creative egos? Was our sense of security false? Our ejection was, in my mind, a theatrical way to maintain a farce: this group is confidential.
If you’re someone who gabs a lot, people notice. I’ve probably done it – and I’ve regretted it too. When people read it, they may assume – wrongly or rightly –you’re someone who may go public with private interactions.
It’s also scarily easy to defame another individual. Sydney firm Hall Payne Lawyers define it as such:
“Defamation is the publication of material that could lead an ordinary, reasonable person to think less of you. Defamatory material can be published by any means of communication – spoken or written words, signs, social media posts, pictures or gestures. Defamation can take place anywhere.
“Publication is the communication of the defamatory material to any other person, excluding the person whom it is alleged has been defamed. This may be private conversations, letters, radio, television, newspapers and anything online. This includes Facebook comments, article comments, Twitter and email.”
Suggestion: I respect admins for trying but enforcing confidentiality is an unwrangle-able burden. I agree it’s great to have a forum in which to speak freely. Perhaps the group could be used to nurture relationships that could then be capitalised on, privately?
Safety is paramount: for everyone
I didn’t leak the information. Even when I believed this declaration would stop me being removed (which it wouldn’t have), I didn’t state it publicly or privately to the admin. I felt pressured to do so and the “group think” vibe deterred me but, more importantly, I didn’t know who did leak it, why, in what context.
Crucially, I didn’t know how that person was coping. Were they refreshing the screen every few seconds, in a panic? Probably. They made a mistake but who hasn’t? Maybe they did it maliciously or maybe they saw Man A had been named, was under attack (possibly warranted; possibly not), knew him well and believed their loyalty lay with him. In theory, the rules matter. In practice, the rules will not vanquish a close personal relationship.
In any case, the horse had bolted. If I had faith it would be used as a ‘teaching moment’, perhaps I’d have acted differently but I was worried the leaker would be named. What would happen then? I didn’t know. I still don’t. I do know these situations can lead to outcomes no-one anticipates or wants. And I won’t be group-thinked into backing anyone into a corner. Ever.
I have a second safety concern. All women who were removed were told. “Please direct your queries about this to Man A”. I was told later: “If you would like to know the full scenario you can have Man A explain it to you.” Admins chose this method to shift the labour away from women to “the man at the centre”. I understand and support this principle. In practice, it contradicted the reason for the cull: the safety of women.
We were told Man A had been “hostile” and “demanding” to the OP after the leak occurred. Yet if Man A were a threat: why encourage a group of freshly-ostracised women to approach him? How is this perceived to be any safer for us? Or, just like that, is our safety no longer a priority? These questions shadowed me all weekend.
For the record, I didn’t feel unsafe. And I did ask Man A to explain. He wrote a long and diplomatic Facebook post. In it, he characterised his interaction with the OP after the leak as “a mature and healthy conversation that felt like it went some small way to repairing the damage”. The plot thickens. It always does.
Flaws in logic
Before I went out on Friday, a member asked: “How do we know the leaker was one of Man A’s Facebook friends?” Good question. We don’t. It could have been passed to Man A through email, phone, Twitter or in person by a group member who was not Facebook friends with him. Likewise, it could have been passed from person to person. In any case, it doesn’t matter. We were culled due to our ongoing friendship with him. Guilt by association, pure and simple.
It will be OK
I was lucky enough to confer with two women – and friends – who were removed from the group too. We talked until late on Friday night and intermittently over the weekend. I had a family gathering on Saturday which I’m grateful for because real life, you know? I talked privately to other women on Sunday too. These interactions were careful, considerate and oddly bonding. I’m glad for that.
A women who’d remained in the group expressed her solidarity. I’m glad for that too. I wish more had come forward but perhaps they will.
My reaction came in order. First, I felt pressured, then confused, unfairly implicated, angry and ostracised. Then – here’s the surprise – exhilarated. I went for a river walk at dusk on Sunday. By chance, I played ‘Perfect Crime’ by Machine Translations. Songs have always provided my breakthrough moments (I’d be lying if I said I didn’t crank this a few times earlier too.)
I can’t explain how ‘Perfect Crime’ helped me turn a corner but I will say Machine Translations has functioned in this therapeutic way before. The songwriter, Greg Walker, writes riddles, not lyrics, and their meaning has a wonderful way of flooding with light, right when I need them to.
“I got lost in human behaviour; I felt empty with a choice in every hand
And my face got older; I learnt my lines
And the lock speaks a language, though, the key can understand
Did you change my mind? It’s a perfect crime
And I sleep all night with a stranger in my head
And the ceiling gets low and the walls get closer
And the heart speaks a language, though, the mind can understand.”
Here’s what I believe. Women try hard to make things good and make things right. To make things fair and safe. Even before online communities, this was hard. I remember wanting to bash my brains out, at University, as part of activist groups committed to consensual decision-making models. It’s even harder online because nuance is lost and voices are drowned out. They did their best. But I wanted to present the other side of the story for myself and for all the women who suffered this weekend for no fault of their own.
Shake-ups are often good things; good can come from bad. And always, insight. It turns out there was an unexplored yet shared discomfort all along that we’ve been able to discuss without feeling shamed or censored. The heart speaks a language, though, the mind can understand.
I won’t write any more about this publicly. So if anyone wants to chat, privately, you know where to find me. Thanks for reading.