Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 17, 2017

Ellen Van Neerven, and the basic rules of decency

There are reports today that in an extraordinary abuse of social media, Year 12 students from NSW have attacked Indigenous author and Yugambeh woman Ellen Van Neerven on Facebook,  because her poem ‘Mango’ was used in the HSC English exam. They apparently also edited her Wikipedia page with derogatory remarks.

I will not dignify the abuse by repeating it.  What I will assert on behalf of the literary community is that no author, Indigenous or otherwise, should be targeted in this way.  I have seen an article in which students indignantly claim that there was no intent to racially vilify the poet because they didn’t know she was Indigenous.  The students making this claim apparently still think it’s all right to vilify a writer, and to heap abuse on her and her work.   They would like us to feel sorry for them now that they are being called to account.

Ellen Van Neerven is a fine writer who has deservedly won multiple awards including the David Unaipon Award and the NSW Premier’s literary award.  I have reviewed both her short story collection Heat and Light and the collection she edited, Joiner Bay and can recommend these books to readers.  But that is not the point.  Nobody should be using social media to vilify and abuse anybody, in any context.  And when it happens to writers, we in the literary community should be ready to call it out.

To the parents and teachers of these young people, I say that you have failed them.  They are old enough to take responsibility for their contemptible behaviour, but you have failed to teach them basic rules of decency.

Update: This is the best article I’ve read about this tawdry episode.





  1. Thanks for your comments Lisa. I was shocked to hear about the attack on Ellen. What is going to happen next? Will authors say no to use of their work in the future. What a loss that shall be.

    • I’ve seen some discussion about whether authors should be advised beforehand, which doesn’t currently happen because of all the security around HSC exams. But I think there really has to be a crackdown on this sort of behaviour – what kind of adults are those horrid young people going to be??

  2. Totally agree Lisa, the trolling is now extending to those who have put their support behind Ellen Van Neerven, with abuse extending to Evelyn Araluen & Omar Sakr, I have seen abusive, derogatory tweets to both of them (most have been subsequently deleted), generally by accounts that have been set up with that express purpose.

    It is sad times where cyber bullying can continue unchecked & unmoderated simply for writing, or supporting a writer.

    The one positive for me is that people are talking about Australian poetry!!! Who would have thought the Platos attack on poets as “rhetoricians who pass off imaginative projections as truth and risk corrupting citizens…especially the impressionable youth” would be played out in 2017?

    • Indeed! I just hope that a lesson is learned from this entire unedifying episode…

  3. I am out of the loop Lisa and don’t use Twitter so have not heard this story but I’m glad you have used your voice to condemn the appalling behaviour. Cyberbullying and trolling certainly the downside of social media and age is no excuse because the medium has been with us for a while now and it will be a rare household that doesn’t understand its power. Don’t they teach online etiquette in schools? My HSC year when I studied what was then English Expression and also English Literature was a wonderful year exploring reading, writing and the power of words and language, but also learning to critique responsibly and rationally, albeit only in class discussions and with pen and ink! How sad these kids chose to be cruel and narrow-minded in such a public forum – and it seems quite ignorant.

    • From the screenshots I’ve seen in articles at ABC Online, The Guardian, SBS Online and something called ?NT News which I clicked through to from SBS – the comments do seem to be ignorant, though it’s a bit hard to tell when they use SMS spelling to keep inside the tweet limit of 140 characters. They were asked to analyse how the poem expresses delight and my guess is that there are always going to be students who don’t like or understand poetry and find such a task difficult. (This was the compulsory English exam, the one that they all have to do whether they are fond of literature or not). I have no problem with them disliking the poem, or finding the task a struggle: all of us have stood outside an exam room bemoaning a question that we found difficult. What is not ok is using social media to attack the poet, and – sheesh, if I remember anything of my compulsory exam, I remember that it was about clear thinking! – and these kids have demonstrated that they can’t think clearly enough to separate the poet from the poem and have hurled their ignorant opinions into the public space of social media.

      • And by that age, wouldn’t you expect they should have a clear understanding of how to critique a piece of literature effectively, regardless of the likeability of the piece? This makes me very sad indeed.

        • I read something this morning that suggests this has happened in previous years too, it’s just that the students haven’t been called out on it in the media.

  4. Well said, Lisa.

  5. Totally agree, stupid childish behaviour from badly behaved selfish young people. I’ve shared this on face book.

  6. I think basic human decency went out the window a long time ago, and the anonymity of the internet doesn’t help. So many people are vile….

    • You may be right, but that doesn’t mean we should give up. After all, look around at the blogs in our literary network… all kinds of people writing them and commenting on them – and sometimes not liking a book at all – and yet we never see this kind of unpleasantness or anyone attacking the writer. And why is that? How have we collectively created this vibrant, respectful community? We moderate comments, either refusing to publish the offensive ones or editing out offensive attacks on the person. If we can do it so can the major social media platforms, they just need to spend some of their profits making it easier for people to report and block – and in particular to block abusers from creating new accounts from the same ISP address…

  7. For a generation that advocates tolerance in so many areas, it is incomprehensible that they can’t seem to be tolerant themselves and feel it’s ok to be abusive

    • Oh yes, this is the generation that hounds speakers off campus because they demand the right not to be offended, and yet some of them behave in this way. But to be fair, this behaviour was confined to a small minority of students, and some actually tried to stop it. So we should be wary of tarring them all with the same brush.

      • Fair point – hope the common sense of the others will prevail in the longer term but the damage has been done

  8. Very well said Lisa. Disgraceful behaviour. I hope that these young adults have been suspended or expelled. This behaviour is just not acceptable.

    • Hello Tyyni, thanks for your support:)

  9. I haven’t seen the Twitter stuff, and if it was racist or in any other way personally abusive and vilifying, which I’m assuming it was, those students need to be taught decency, I agree. I hope van Neerven is ok because such abuse directed at you from people who don’t know you is distressing in the extreme.

    The Wikipedia edits, though, are more just funny… Some even clever. Wrong behaviour of course, and targeting the wrong person. She didn’t choose her poem to be studied.

    • I think my position on WP has changed. It has morphed from something inherently unreliable to a source that many people do rely on, and I think that interfering with it is more unethical now than it might have been in the beginning when it was fair game. I mean, it’s still a case of buyer-beware as far as users are concerned, but distorting its articles in the manner of fake news is morally wrong.

      • I’m glad … Wikipedia is reasonably reliable. Articles are supposed to be cited with authoritative sources and users can check those. Of course there are errors, and problems, but for intelligent users it’s an excellent resource I believe – particularly for quick basic information, and to start further research. (It can give some good clues about where to go next – both through the cited references and use through the info in provides.)

        And sorry, but I don’t think attacking Wikipedia was ever fair game. It was, from the start, a serious, genuine attempt to produce something for the world, to make information accessible and free of charge to anyone, anywhere, who could access a computer. It was from the start about democratic access to information. It was new, it took time to get established and to work out how to make it as good as it can be – and it is still working on that. And it does that pretty transparently as far as I can tell.

        Of course, I agree that it’s unethical to tamper with it, but in the scheme of things this little bit of subversive venting is pretty easily fixed. They have bots which they can use to identify pages being “attacked” and they reverse the attack almost immediately. The edits were things like [LH: examples edited from this comment]. If there was anything more abusive, it wan’t there for long. So, while I don’t condone it, I do see it as a little protest, a bit of venting, by some students who were thrown by the test!

        • But venting in whatever form, and no matter how quickly it’s fixed, is not something to do in public. I think it’s just as inexcusable as the other. And I hope you don’t mind, but I’m editing out the quotations you’ve provided, I don’t want them to have any ‘air’ here.
          Though it does show you that Wikipedia can react quickly while Twitter and Facebook don’t…

          • That’s fine … and of course I agree it isn’t something you should do in public, but it happens. I didn’t mean to defend it per se, but to suggest that we should recognise it for what it is and respond appropriately to the situation. So,with Wikipedia, the edits were nearly all silly rather than personally abusive, and were addressed promptly.

            Facebook and Twitter, as you say, are different.

            Hopefully most of the students have learnt something.

            • I had an email from the ASA today about all this, and they are suggesting that people who want to show their support to Ellen could buy her book, make a donation to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation or sign a letter of support, which is all well and good and I think Ellen probably knows that the literary community is behind her. But I want to see something from the NSW Board of Education that isn’t ineffectual waffle, and you know, I’d like to see the NSW Minister for Education have something to say about it too…

              • Agree. It’s got to be done in a way though that doesn’t tar the majority of students who didn’t engage in this abuse. So often we generalise our criticisms and make the decent people feel defensive and unfairly treated.

                The thing that bothers me, is how many of these students come from homes that don’t teach respect. I feel for schools and teachers because they do their darnedest – I’ve seen it – to teach tolerance and respect, but that role-modelling at home is really hard to overcome. I’ve seen that too. I remember talking to a high school psychologist about some bullying my son was receiving, asking whether we should approach the parents. He said not to because “what you see in the son is worse in the father”. I have never forgotten that and the strength of the psychologist’s frustration and helplessness. So yes, the Education Dept should make some clear statements but they can’t promise what they can’t control can they?

                BTW have you read the poem? It’s gorgeous.

                • I think that most modern schools have to deal with the problem of values not being shared by everyone in the school community, and they deal with it by making aspirational statements, which outline expectations for behaviour and specify consequences. This kind of behaviour is no different really from any other kind of unacceptable behaviour and schools can and do put procedures in place to deal with it.
                  Yes, it’s a lovely poem, though I have to say that when my friend and I dissected it over lunch today, we both thought it had more to say about disadvantage than delight!

                • True, they do, I agree. These students, though, have technically left school haven’t they – I mean they are doing exams but they won’t be back in class.

                  I can certainly see why you say that – Mr Gums and I discussed it this afternoon -particularly in the first part. I think it sets you up for something and then goes in a direction we probably weren’t expecting. Perhaps that’s one of the ways it conveys delight? (As Tony says, it’s got people talking about poetry!)

  10. I agree that these student’s behaviour (and lack of common decency) is totally unacceptable and I do hope that they are confronted and appropriate action is taken.
    Let’s not forget the enormous stress caused by a competitive education system which unfortunately seems tailored to train our children to be able to cope in a similarly competitive and ruthless capitalistic society.

    • Hello Sean, I’m sorry I took so long to publish your comment, I’ve had a busy day and have only just got to it now.
      We are on the same page about the need for action, but not quite on the same page regarding the system. I’m in Victoria, so things may be a bit different, but I feel that if students feel it’s ok to lash out because they’re stressed, then their families and schools need to do something about their resilience because that sort of attitude leads to domestic violence and street violence. (There’s been a case of this type in Melbourne today but I can’t comment on it until it’s been through the courts).

  11. Lisa, I think it is wrong to blame teachers for this sort of behaviour. These young people have problems that are well beyond the scope of teachers. Bad attitudes are developed at home and result from inadequate guidance growing up.

    • Hello David, thank you for your comment, but I don’t agree. I worked in disadvantaged schools with difficult children and often equally difficult parents for my whole career. I developed our school’s Wellbeing Policy and Program (code: wellbeing=discipline) and it was held up by the department as a model program because it incorporated expectations of parents, teachers and children, with consequences for breaches of the code of conduct established by the school community. It’s true that problems can and do arise from poor parenting but schools cannot wash their hands of their responsibility here – and even the Courts said so some years ago when they ruled that schools were responsible for bullying that went on after school hours and not on school grounds. .

  12. I’ve been thinking about this poem. You know if I hadn’t heard the question about delight I would have read it more darkly. Mangoes can be luscious, voluptuous and sexual or a harbinger of summer. The question forces you to read it one way but it feels more ambiguous doesn’t it?

    • I read something yesterday that suggested it was about rape. I couldn’t see it myself but hey, poetry is like that. I am starting to think that it was a much more difficult poem than it looks at first glance… *wry smile* I wouldn’t want to be an examiner marking this question!

      • Me neither… But poetry has tripped me up many times! If it were about rape then the examiners didn’t know because they surely wouldn’t have asked that question, would they?

        • Well, *wry smile* you’d think not…

          • More than that, you’d hope not, but stranger things have happened!

  13. You might be interested in this article that I read tonight.

    • *snap* Brona! We must be following the same Twitterfeed or something, I found it myself about an hour ago and added it as an update to my post.
      It’s excellent, isn’t it, because it talks about the nub of the problem, which is the culture that is operating within the FB group…

Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: