Want sympathy? You'd better be perfect then

There's a strange and awful trend, in Australia at least, when we see people going through a hard time in the media: what seems an insatiable desire to rip them to shreds for any perceived lack of purity in their victimhood.

This week, Australian actress Melissa George went public with her account of how she suffered domestic abuse at the hands of her former partner. Now, Ms George has a somewhat spotty relationship with the Australian media, with ill-advised comments she made a few years back complaining Australians were fixated on her turn two decades ago as a teenage soap star, making it too stressful to come home when she could live a much more exciting life in New York or Paris. There was a predictable backlash at the time - I wrote myself about how petty her claims of distress seemed - but this is different. There's nothing, certainly not being a bit of a snob, that causes a person to deserve abuse; surely we would overlook Ms George's comments of the past and extend our sympathy for what she has been through. 

But apparently not; disparaging Australia a bit means Ms George deserved physical abuse then, vile verbal abuse now. Consider some of the comments following her TV interview on Sunday night:

“People say Men should treat women better ... I say a Lady should be more careful who she spends her time with ...”. “maybe he just had enough of your rot too ... he's human. we all have a snapping point..” "If you bag out Australia then you are not entitled to any empathy ever again in your entire life.” “Oh now she is sorry, how convenient.” “She was too good for Australia when all was going well with her … just deal with this yourself sweetheart. The rest of us are not interested” “Silly girl ...”

This vitriol speaks to a mentality that domestic violence is not serious, is the victim's fault. But it also shows a societal nasty streak that, instead of extending compassion when we see someone going through a hard time, wants to scrutinise, lose all sense of proportion, and rip them to shreds.

We can see this base instinct following the recent tragedy in Moama, NSW, where a woman has been charged with drowning one of her young sons and attempting to drown the other. It was an unspeakable crime, amid a turbulent family background of alleged drug use, custody battles and welfare concerns. And in all this, the estranged father of the boys came forward. He apparently hadn't seen the older of the two boys for many years, and had never met his younger son. Now though, he wanted to travel from his home in Queensland to Victoria to visit his older son in hospital and attend the younger one's funeral, and, claiming he needed to raise funds to do so, he or a family member launched an online fundraiser.

The comments caught fire; he was called a grub, despicable, not a father, told he should stay away from the funeral and hospital, an opportunist trying to make money off his dead kids. People went through his Facebook, arguing everything from that he was only in it for the money, if he wanted to get there he'd hitchhike, he shouldn't be crying poor when he's spent money on custom number plates. They cared not of any circumstances they knew nothing of; they were utterly convinced of their righteousness and unrestrained in their vitriol.

We see people with no sense of proportion, people unable to distinguish between disagreeing with someone's life choices and sensibly keeping it to themselves; and joining an online lynch mob attacking someone who's just lost a child.

Maybe we can chalk this up to some good in people, that they are so upset by what has happened they have a desperate need to focus their grief somewhere, and this man is a convenient target. I'm not so sure, though. Perhaps, after cases such as Belle Gibson, who after an outpouring of sympathy were found to be frauds, people fancy themselves too clever to be caught out again.

But it seems like something nastier than that. And it happens all the time: Dylan Voller deserved hideous abuse in juvenile detention because of the crimes he committed that landed him there; asylum seekers facing hideous conditions, prolonged detention, illness, and violence are queue jumpers; anyone a victim of Centrelink, from fake debts through to being injured on unsafe and unhelpful work for the dole projects should just have gotten a job in the first place.

Australia is notorious for the tall poppy syndrome, the national past time of tearing down those who are successful. But we also have a national tendency to kick those who are already down, to play amateur detective finding anything about them we deem less than blameless and then use it as an excuse to pile on. It's ugly and demeaning to everyone, those who gleefully join in the abuse most of all.