Relationship

I secretly discovered hate-speech in my husband’s group chat | Dear Mariella


The dilemma I recently read my husband’s WhatsApp conversation with a group of 10 of his friends – which I realise was a complete breach of trust – and was horrified about what I read. They made nasty, homophobic comments about one of my siblings and my husband didn’t intervene. He has told me before that he knows his friends’ “banter” is extreme, and that I shouldn’t look at it if I don’t want to be offended. But it isn’t banter – it’s hate-speech about a member of our family. I haven’t told my husband I’ve seen the comments because I know I was wrong to look. I can’t tell anyone what I’ve read for fear of them disliking him. The theme of making horrible comments about my sibling has been ongoing and there have been other disturbing things happen in the group (eg sharing naked photos of women they are dating, without their consent). It’s making me question whether I really know him. We have been married for three years and he is kind, generous, protective and makes me feel loved. Our day-to-day life is happy, but this is a big issue for me.

Mariella replies Oh dear. I wanted to pick something non-controversial this week, then your letter arrived. How could I possibly choose another when what you offer me is a perfect account of a universal dilemma? It’s the sort of letter that’s kept me here, fingers to the laptop, week in week out, for 20 years despite the perils of cautioning others from the quagmire of my own experience.

We’re experiencing a global pandemic of censure – usually with the judgment coming from a position of anonymity. Indeed, writing this column nowadays requires that I gird myself for a Twitter pummelling. It’s hard to know when I’ll take a misstep in the minefield of popular approval and attract an explosion of ire. And my heinous crime for which satisfaction is demanded? Straying from the apparently well-labelled parameters of what is deemed acceptable.

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After delivering a bruising barrage of increasingly offensive comments (the one place their “sensitivity” is rarely in evidence) these people’s interest will be distracted by someone opining elsewhere and I’ll be abandoned for a month or two.

The problem is I really do have a bad attitude, not in terms of the victim-blaming pitilessness of which I’m occasionally accused, but because I honestly believe that we are back to the dark ages when it comes to the freedom to express personal opinions and engage in enlightening debate. But if experience is a qualifier, I am well credentialled to converse on issues of an emotional and familial bent, including abusive relationships. Happily, those days are behind me and I’ve been able not only to learn from my experience but share it with those who want to listen. Which leads nicely back to you.

You can’t be unaware of the contradiction at the heart of your problem, and when it comes to judgment we all need to put our own houses in order before we start virtue signalling to others. You are worried about how to tackle ill-gotten but impossible-to-ignore knowledge about your husband’s “vices”, while wanting to retain your own “moral” high ground. It’s a common problem.

You’re absolutely right to be troubled that the man you’ve married tolerates homophobic comments about your family and has friends who circulate pornographic shots of their girlfriends. But if you won’t confront your own questionable actions in gaining such knowledge, how on earth can you expect him to do so with his?

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There is often more to such exchanges than meets the eye: social camaraderie, cowardice around speaking out, ignorance and so on. Committing to someone and trying to maintain a future together is hard work. When it turns out that they’re not who you thought they were, it is rarely a nice surprise.

The best way to sort out this sorry mess is to admit how you’ve unearthed your information, proving you too are capable of making mistakes, and then challenge him on what you discovered. Alternatively, accept that two wrongs don’t make a right and instead have a debate without reference to what you discovered about his peer group. Only you know what you’re prepared to compromise on. If your husband is a homophobe that would be pretty much the end of the line for many, but for others they may only see it as a weakness.

Even if yours is a minor transgression (others may see it as a fundamental sin), putting it on the table along with your grievances is the only way forward.

Social media has created monsters by putting power in the hands of the petty who hide behind the anonymity of their pen names. That goes for those who write thoughtless comments as much as those who chastise through trolling unfettered moral indignation. My advice is to refuse to join the ignorant or righteously indignant and instead stand firm and allow room for a fecund exchange of flaws, and with it the possibility to continue to learn from each other’s mistakes.

If you have a dilemma, send a brief email to mariella.frostrup@observer.co.uk. Follow her on Twitter @mariellaf1

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