LOUISE O'NEILL: When did trolling become so readily acceptable? And why do we continue to allow it to happen?

I imagine that these trolls are waiting for me to make a mistake, to say or do something stupid that they can use to humiliate me with.

MY PHONE rings. It is my sister. I smile as I say hello but then I hear her voice, shuddering with tears. 

For a moment my breath catches as I think of a similar phonecall all those years ago and I wonder who it is this time. I wonder who has been taken from us too soon, too young. 

My fear turns to a burnt-out relief when she explains to me what has happened. She tells me that she has seen a thread about me online, vicious, angry, hateful.

“Why would they say that stuff about you?” she asks me before we hang up, and I can hear how hurt she is, “They don’t even know you.”

It is easy to shrug it off in the moment. I am on book tour in the UK, staying in an incredible hotel, meeting hundreds of readers who tell me my book has helped them through some of the worst days of their lives. 

I think of my 21-year-old self, curled up in a hospital bed, her bones rising to the surface like driftwood, and I wish I could tell her that everything would be OK. I know how lucky I am.

But later that night when I return to the hotel, and I am tired, and I am weary, I cannot stop myself from thinking about it. 

I wonder what it is about me that these people hate so much, why the sight of me sickens them to such a degree that they feel the need to tear apart my image in a newspaper and send me photos of my mangled face. 

I wonder what it is that I have done that warrants pages and pages of online debate over my shortcomings.

I’m a good person, I tell myself, I’m kind and I try to be generous and help people and I try to be decent. I know I’m not perfect but I try my best.

I start to feel apprehensive. I imagine that these trolls are waiting for me to make a mistake, to say or do something stupid that they can use to humiliate me with, to prove that I’m not a ‘picture perfect feminist’, even though I never claimed to be one.

I think about my sister and my parents. They didn’t do anything to deserve this. They lead quiet lives. They didn’t ask for any of this and I am sick with guilt that I have brought this caustic energy into our home. 

Do these trolls think of me as human? Do they think of the fact that I have a sister and a mother and a father who read those comments tearing me apart, limb from limb? Do they even care?

“Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me,” my mother used to tell me as a child, and I believed her. 

(But I think words do hurt. I think words have power. I think words can break us.) 

“Ignore the bullies,” my father would say, “they’re just looking for a reaction. Ignore them and they’ll get bored and leave you alone.” 

(But what if they don’t? What if they keep going and keep going and keep going until I am too scared and I am too tired and I am silenced forever?) 

The next morning, with the rationality that the sun brings, its light showing up my fears for the shadow nothingness that they are, I am able to laugh at my night-time dramatics. I know that it doesn’t matter. 

I have a family that loves me more than any one person deserves to be loved, and friends who would go to war on my behalf. I don’t need the approval of random strangers on the internet.

But I do find it interesting that it is me that they have chosen to pour their loathing upon. I’ve written two books and I have a weekly column in a national newspaper. I’m not exactly Satan. (Surprise!) 

Yet, due to the fact that I’m using my voice to attempt to challenge the status quo and our perceived notions of gender norms, apparently I’m worthy of their vitriol.

I’M A woman with strong opinions and as a result, I should expect to be subjected to abusive language and behaviour. That I should simply accept that trolling is the price I have to pay for the otherwise extremely fortunate position that I’m in.

I’ve always passionately believed in the issues that I’ve talked about, in both my novels and this column, but I’ve also always been aware that other people were likely to disagree with me. 

We all see the world through the prism of our own experiences, our own upbringing, our own personal biases; it would be impossible for the entire world to hold the same opinions. 

I wrote Only Ever Yours and Asking For It to start a conversation about the way in which our culture views and treats women. 

A conversation is a two way communication and I am interested in having that conversation with everyone, even people who vehemently oppose my beliefs. I am not interested in being screamed at.

There are some who would argue that I should just get off the internet, ignoring the fact that doing so permanently is almost impossible nowadays. 

We live our lives online and it’s important that this space be just as safe for us to exist in as the real world. 

While, for the most part, I’m capable of ignoring the trolls, I worry that there might be young people watching what’s happening to me, young people who are talented and bright and have something important to contribute to the world, and that they might become too intimidated to speak their truth as a result. 

Who knows what voices are being silenced right now, voices that we might desperately need to hear? 

I ask you, when did cruelty become so readily acceptable? And why do we continue to allow it to happen?


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