At last, I can get to my principal purpose for shackling myself to the keyboard, something which, believe it or not, I don’t always enjoy.
I spent my working life learning about human nature, through the observation of real human behaviours. To an extent, I pursued that interest in my leisure time as well. My techniques were scarcely scientific and my learning was never peer-assessed, but more often than not, I’ve been able to correctly identify an arsehole when I found one.
The AfA phenomenon has intrigued me, more because of the personality types it has revealed, than any learning about the functioning and dynamics of the group itself.
I believe that there are usually several distinct but complementary characters at play in any group of people whose members would choose to involve themselves in an adversarial and destructive group.
As a lay person, I’ll make some scientifically unsupported statements about the characteristics of the mythical members of some equally mythical groups of social commentators. The characters I create are specifically intended to bear no resemblance to any real person.
None of the following is true. The story has been created for consideration as an example only.
FACT: There are two disused tunnels on the old Glenreagh-Dorrigo railway line. They are virtually inaccessible to anyone who does not have a 4wd vehicle. Some thoughtful and community-minded individuals have recently improved walking access to the tunnels, by clearing lantana and other, non-native vegetation. The tunnels may fall within the boundaries of Clarence Valley Council.
FICTION: In my scenario, an entirely separate group of people, having visited the tunnels, wants to promote further weed clearing, and the provision of improved access. They form a group which they call “Friends of the Tunnels”, (FOT) and begin to advocate council action to support the further improvement of access to the historic tunnels, with a view to inviting tourist visits. They publicise their actions via a Facebook page.
Another group is formed, this time comprised of people who are scandalised by the thought that the historic nature of the tunnels, and the nature of the physical environment, may both be adversely impacted by what they consider to be development for a commercial purpose. They formalise a group by establishing a Facebook page entitled “Save the Tunnels” (STT).
Clearly there is the propensity for conflict here.
From this point on, I’ll be creating a small number of entirely fictitious characters, adversaries in what will become known as “The Battle for the Tunnels”. Although there will be 800 or so imaginary participants in the drama, I’ll focus only upon a very small number of key players:
Jane is “pro-development” with respect to the tunnels, and establishes the FOT Facebook page, with herself as administrator and her friends, Alan and Joe, as moderators. The page is public and eventually has a membership of about 750.
Jane is a retired nurse who has a great love of the outdoors and has camped in wild places with her family for almost all of her life. She sees the tunnels as an historic monument which should be accessible to all people, including those with disabilities, who have an interest in the area and its history.
Alan is a senior employee of the council. He is the informal and unofficial liaison between FOT and the council. He has publicly disclosed his council position and has stated that all opinions which he expresses on the FOT pages are personal and do not necessarily reflect council policies or opinions.
Joe is a 45-year-old forestry worker with an abiding passion for the disused rail line, which he refers to as the “Dorrigo-Glenreagh line”.
The STT leader is Doug, a self-employed environmental consultant. His at times extreme views have seen him dismissed, some years ago, from a job with a local council in his home state of Queensland.
Steven is a personal friend of Doug, with whom he shares some views regarding environmental issues, and the co-administration of the Facebook page. His interest is also in the preservation of major artefacts such as bridges, in historic areas.
Annie is a retired company executive, who finds herself bored by retirement and in need of somewhere to exercise her intellect, which she perceives as quite superior to the norm. She saw an article in a local newspaper about the burgeoning dispute between FOT and STT, and although she has no particular opinion either way, she thought that jumping aboard the STT train, might provide her with an outlet.
Membership of STT reaches about 125.
Let the battle begin.
- In an FOT post, Jane outlines the case for developing the tunnels. She partially acknowledges the existence of the opposition and comments on their points of view. Her tone is a little adversarial, but not derogatory in any sense.
- In response, Doug almost goes berserk. His extreme comments take most STT members by surprise, with the notable exception of his friend Steve, and a number of STT members start to wonder what they may have let themselves in for. Doug makes personal comments about Jane, but says nothing about the issues which he professes to consider important.
- Annie senses blood, and jumps in with some comments which support Doug’s personal attack upon Jane.
- Steve adds his voice to the discussion, suggesting that FOT, and Jane in particular, are “environmental vandals”.
- In a measured tone, Alan comments that the personal abuse directed towards Jane, is completely unwarranted and unacceptable in any civilised society.
The conflict rages, with FOT admin needing to calm down some of their more ebullient members, and STT admin appearing to deliberately escalate the abuse. In order to understand the motivation of the extremely aggressive STT members, we need to understand the impact which their life experiences have had upon them.
There’s much more that needs to be understood about Doug. When his personal history is known, it becomes apparent that Doug is a prime example of a “failed person”. Ferociously bullied as a child due to his short stature and general physical appearance, Doug developed feelings of anger, frustration and resentment, which coloured his entire word view.
As an adult, Doug became obsessed with environmental issues, and vowed to dedicate his life to fighting what he saw as rampant environmental destruction in the pursuit of commercial development.
Although still lacking in self-confidence, Doug found that social media provided a safe venue through which to attack those who disagreed with his personal policies. He became adept at using insults and abuse as weapons with which to silence opposition, and he wasn’t averse to making threats of violence towards those whom he felt might be weaker than himself.
Steve is a different type of person entirely. A raging narcissist, he has a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Sciences, but despite trying for several years, never completed a Master’s qualification. In Steve’s mind the reason for his failure to advance to a Doctorate lies in the fact, of which Steve is certain, that his lecturers were jealous of his intellect and talent.
Having been deserted by his wife, Steve has developed misogynistic views, which impact upon his treatment of women. Unlike Doug, however, Steve is not given to the use of direct confrontation. He considers himself an intellectual, and such behaviour is beneath his dignity.
Steve’s mode of attack is to use subtle suggestion, in questioning the character of his opponents. Certain of the rectitude of his views, Steve has no real interest in discussing issues, but revels in the excuse that they provide for him to use innuendo, snide remarks and insulting, slanted references, whilst attacking others, especially women, to satisfy his need to compensate for his unacknowledged feelings of personal inadequacy.
Annie is basically a snob. The product of a privileged upbringing, she resides in a substantial home in what she and her friends regard as a prestigious suburb. A patron of The Arts, in spite of knowing nothing about them, she regularly attends winey and whiney gatherings of the truly cultured, at which she is able to agree or disagree with self-styled experts who, in fact, no nothing more than she does, but who possess a gift for pontificating bullshit, in suitably protective group situations.
Jane is “normal’ almost to the point of being “ordinary”. A happy wife, mother and grandmother, she rarely gets overly excited, but is entranced by her vision for the tunnels.
Alan is a person who is comfortable in his own skin. He’s a confident individual, successful in the workplace, and is part of a sound family. He doesn’t need to get involved in “causes” but he has a genuine interest in the proposals of FOT. His most important personal asset lies in the fact that has balance.
Joe is “just another bloke”. Born and bred in Dorrigo, he lives there with his wife and kids. Since he was a child, Joe has had two passions, apart from his family and friends. He loves the bush, and he is fascinated by the now disused railway.
So, let’s reflect upon the situation.
- What could, and should, have been a civilised and productive debate, which might lead to a positive outcome for most parties involved, has been hijacked.
- FOT comprises about 750 like-minded members, many of whom comment usefully and respectfully about the proposal to improve the tunnels site. Some, however, are really put off by the aggression displayed by those few STT members who seem to regard the debate as a personal battleground.
- STT’s more sensible and thoughtful members are alarmed at the way in which Doug, Steve and Annie, have turned the Facebook page into a place in which they can express, not opinions about the issues, but personal frustrations which are created by their personal inadequacies. A number of members remove themselves from the page, whilst others simply become inactive. The dominance of the page by the ratbags is complete.
Are we able to draw any parallels from our own experiences, with the situation described in the “tunnels hypothetical”?
Even if your observations of the CCS saga have only been made during recent months, you may have been able to form impressions of the few members of AfA who have dominated the comments on their leaked Facebook pages.
Ask yourself what judgements you can make about the behavioural characteristics demonstrated in the more strident AfA members.
* * *
Here’s my final view of the whole saga.
- Many Coffs community members disagreed with the CCS proposal, for a number of legitimate reasons.
- Many of those people expressed their views via social media, in totally appropriate ways, and in productive debate.
- A much smaller number of people supported the CCS proposal, some for genuine and personally positive reasons, others due to vested interests.
- For a while, some of those people engaged in reasonable debate with opponents of the scheme, arguing issues in a respectful manner, in the hope of convincing others that the CCS proposal was a good thing. Eventually they gave up, as they were overwhelmed by the combative group.
- A very small number, a handful, of very loud individuals entered the discussion, on the pretext of promoting the cause of the CCS project. It was really an avenue through which they could express their personal frustrations, by spewing their personal bile. Their aim was to attack, abuse, insult and threaten people, not discuss issues. The issues were never important. It was the chance to fight – anybody, at any time, about anything – that mattered.
- With the approach of council elections, these unfortunate individuals found that they could focus their attention upon one particular target, as well as keeping up their attacks on minor players. The behaviours, bad to begin with, deteriorated further, to the point at which future legal action by some of those abused, is a real possibility.
I have been involved in this vile mess almost from day one. I needed to ask myself what I have learned from the experience. I have learned these things:
- Most of the people in our community are like me. The same probably applies to the world scene. We just want to live our lives in peace and harmony, but we’ll only put up with a certain amount of negative energy being directed at us.
- In comparison to fire and flood and earthquake, what we have dealt with may have been a relatively small crisis, but it still galvanised people to fight for something which they considered important.
- In any society there will always be people who are destructive, and we need to stand up to them. Societal corruption thrives through the inaction of decent people.
- Although I have, in the past, been characterised as an agitator, I thought that I had matured sufficiently as to put those behaviours behind me. I was wrong. I still find inspiration in the efforts of people like me, ordinary people, to resist dictatorship, and I must confess that I still get personal satisfaction from engaging in the battle.