The problem with Catherine Deveny

5 May

I cannot claim to be a fan of Catherine Deveny. I cringe whenever she has a tv appearance, performed with all the sophistication of a 14 year old MLC student standing at Glenferrie Station and screaming out “CUUUUUUUUUNT!” just to shake up the suits. I’m not a fan of her writing or humour and find most of her arguments to be simplistic, illogical and badly executed.

But she’s an attention seeking pest that delivers to brief. She is hired for her ability to polarise opinion and, no matter how sloppily it is done, consistently shocks a reactionary audience that begs for indignation, perceiving apoplexy as a cardio workout. She delivers what is asked of her and has spent innumerable time developing herself as personal brand, the celebrity of spite.

One of the areas Deveny hones this is on Twitter. Her bite-sized chunks of bile target everyone and anyone. Over Anzac Day,  she stirred controversy with her incendiary attack on what she perceives as a misogynistic, battle-hungry culture of rapebots braying for carnage.

And then she picked on Bindi Irwin and Saint Belinda Emmett at the Logies via Twitter.

Great bastion of intellectual discourse and near-Scandinavian logic, Neil Mitchell savaged her “bitter, pointless humour” on Twitter. Apart from proving he has never read Twitter in any depth, Mitchell may be surprised to learn that “bitter, pointless humour” is responsible for 60% of tweets on Twitter, the remaining 40% spent deconstructing the dreaminess of Justin Beiber’s bangs.

Deveny was not hired by the Age to tweet. She was not using an account registered as representing the Age’s view. The twitter account was for her own use to promote her work as a stand-up comedian and writer, as well as a platform for her particular style of commentary. A style that the Age paid for, a style that the Age often profited from.

As of yesterday, Catherine Deveny was sacked from the Age with Editor-In-Chief, Paul Ramadge, opining that “We are appreciative of the columns Catherine has written for The Age over several years but the views she has expressed recently on Twitter are not in keeping with the standards we set at The Age.”

What is exceptionally curious is that Deveny had not deviated from her usual schtick-rationalised-as-atheist-feminist-discourse. She was sacked for being her consistent self on Twitter, not for work submitted for publication to the Age. She in no way defamed or slandered either the Age, it’s staff or any of the celebrities attending the Logies. She did not attack the race or gender from either group. Even curiouser, Deveny’s tweets didn’t accuse performers of having sexually-transmitted diseases, unlike Wil Anderson’s posts from the same event.

This raises a few interesting “standards”.

Your employer apparently owns your online identity: if you put your voice online under your real name, expect to be monitored and penalised if you transgress any written or unwritten rules. The hark back to pseudonyms for anyone wanting to engage with online opinion is not too far away.

I love the smell of outrage in the morning: From the same Age article, it was claimed 200 responses were received by 6:30pm yesterday. To put this in perspective, measure the 200 responses against the population of Victoria, the ratings from the Logies and then match that against Catherine Deveny’s followers on Twitter. Basically, a lot of people who didn’t watch the Logies and don’t follow Catherine Deveny felt outraged enough to protest a woman’s observations they don’t read on a tv show they don’t watch. Nothing churns the bile in our bellies or fires the blood in our veins like outrage. Ironically for Deveny, her ability to do that well lead to her dismissal. Which leads us to…

Pitchforks will always be wifi: to borrow from Charlie Brooker’s analysis of the Jonathon Ross/Russell Brand/Andrew Sachs affair, the public has been drilled into interactive-response expectation through years of talent shows, online polls and talkback  – when something displeases them, they believe they have the power to remove people from  their jobs. If we can choose an Idol or potential Supermodel, we can control who else we want in media and entertainment.

The Andrew Bolt paradox: Andrew Bolt’s controversial views on immigrants, academics, politicians, social classes and other individuals who flare his nostrils with indignation are regularly broadcast online, radio, tv and in print. Additionally, he is given the sheen of a hardened journalist which promotes an air of credibility and authority. Going through archives of his work in those formats, Andrew Bolt has published material which, though doesn’t idiotically ponder on the sex life of a ubiquitous 11 year old, does impugn his targets with increasing ferocity and decreasing factual basis. And yet he still has a job.

So what’s Catherine Deveny’s problem? She was a brand formed by the print media’s need to combat online media’s popularity, only to fall to earth singed from using online media to deliver 140-character jokes. I am no fan of Deveny but the problem isn’t with her, it is with the broadcasters and the audience for seeking to control what they should not.

50 Responses to “The problem with Catherine Deveny”

  1. faithh May 5, 2010 at 3:41 am #

    Nice wrap up! These are the real issues, its not about whether CD is funny or in bad taste.

    And for god’s sake don’t get me started on all those people who keep citing “twitter doesn’t have a context”……..

  2. OtherAndrew May 5, 2010 at 3:44 am #

    A nicely-written piece with which I almost entirely disagree. I think you could summarise The Age’s positions as:

    We don’t mind her poking fun at people and being vulgar, but we don’t want to be seen to support someone who thinks it’s appropriate to make sexual remarks about an 11-year-old girl.

    ‘Oh, but it’s free speech…’ I hear you cry. I’m inclined to err on the side of protecting children – we don’t stand to lose anything as a society by standing up and saying ‘You can’t talk about children like that.’

    Can you imagine how much worse it would be if a MAN had said what she said? Clearly, we love freedom of speech and press but we also know where the limits are. Case closed.

  3. indefensible May 5, 2010 at 3:50 am #

    This is a reasoned argument and I sympathise with a lot of your points. I think that when people suggest that she was sacked for her personal comments they imagine themselves in their shoes. Well, unless you’re a member of the commentariat who is paid to have opinions then this is not a case that is similar.
    Deveny was part of the Age’s left-ish feminist voice. She ‘joked’ that she hoped an 11 year old would be the victim of statutory rape.

    Maybe she was sacked for being the worst public feminist in recent memory.

  4. Outraged May 5, 2010 at 3:54 am #

    Dev is clearly so appallingly awful and disgusting The Age is doing everything in its power to cleanse her from their sight.

    With three mentions of her on the front page of their site.

  5. Mitchell may be surprised to learn that “bitter, pointless humour” is responsible for 60% of tweets on Twitter, the remaining 40% spent deconstructing the dreaminess of Justin Beiber’s bangs.

    Ha! Too true. I think much of what’s behind the kind of tweets people find offensive (whether by a professional comedian/columnist, or someone less famous) is the cachet that comes on Twitter for being first and funniest off the mark. Sometimes the results are very funny, other times … they’re just bile.

    I’m also inclined to agree with Dan, who commented on the Meanjin post, that this probably isn’t about the tweets. I suspect the Age has been gunning for Deveny for a while now, whether it’s because of the content of her commentary (Indefensible makes a good point about her slipping outside of the role she was hired to play), or because they’re simply on the hunt for a fresher, cheaper voice.

  6. Klos May 5, 2010 at 4:02 am #

    I know plenty of newspaper staff (journos, subs and editors) who are constantly pulled-up (by management) on things they write on their personal twitter accounts.

  7. Colin Campbell May 5, 2010 at 4:04 am #

    Who is Catherine Deveney?

    • monkeytypist May 5, 2010 at 6:34 am #

      Colin,

      Can I marry you?

    • Tarale May 5, 2010 at 10:10 am #

      Someone we’re lucky not to hear from much in Adelaide, mate. 😉

  8. CM May 5, 2010 at 4:21 am #

    Deveny had a target on her back as soon as she went after Australia’s real religion – ANZAC.

    Indefensible – I’d suggest there was another way to read the Bindi Irwin tweets, and that is as a comment on the fact that our culture has no problem with our (female) children dressing like (female) adults. But you’ve consciously chosen not to read between the lines for a reason, I guess.

  9. ana australiana May 5, 2010 at 4:23 am #

    This is right on. On the arguable flipside the only reason Andrew Bolt has a job is due to folks seeking to control what they should not, and broadcasters actively courting the politics that are correspondingly produced.

  10. Rose May 5, 2010 at 4:31 am #

    A very consice rap up to the whole twittergate affair. I like you am no fan of Deveny but it gets my goolies when the uninformed pitchfork public becomes outraged.

    The joke about Bindi Irwin was poor taste. The fact that someone could be sacked for making a bad joke is a truely terrifying thought for all of us.

  11. Rosa Lux May 5, 2010 at 4:41 am #

    A well written piece that succintly sums up what the problem is with Dev’s sacking: the double standards at play.
    One other deeply offensive public figure I would add to the Bolt paradox is Sam Newman. He is an offensive, vile neanderthal whose deeply repugnant remarks receive nothing but a slap on the wrist from his employer. And Newman’s remarks reach a much broader audience than those of Dev.

    BTW Other Andrew, you say:
    “I’m inclined to err on the side of protecting children – we don’t stand to lose anything as a society by standing up and saying ‘You can’t talk about children like that.”
    I agree, it was a comment made in poor taste, but I wonder if you also feel so passionately about protecting children from the omnipresent raunch culture that Deveny speaks of. Would you rile against Bratz dolls too? Or is it just you don’t like the way a potty-mouthed female leftist writer expressed her view?

  12. OtherAndrew May 5, 2010 at 4:48 am #

    @Rosa,

    Thank you. And yes, I feel equally passionate about us putting a stop to the sexualisation of children in other forms, whether that’s toys, movies, music videos, etc. While I’m not actively out there campaigning against such things, when the opportunity arises to add my comment on those matters (as it did in this case), I’d certainly do so.

    Oh, and can I also point out that her ‘justification’ was nothing but spin to cover a terrible comment that had no further depth of purpose than getting people to laugh at its vulgarity. Much the same as many other things she says, incidentally.

  13. nickoplace May 5, 2010 at 5:05 am #

    Cracking piece. Nailed the whole issue.

    Nicko

  14. Outraged May 5, 2010 at 5:14 am #

    I read the tweet when CD tweeted it. And to me it read as mocking towards the sexualisation of celebrities kiddies being so commonplace nowadays. Those who claim she was endorsing child molestation really need to rethink why your minds went there.

  15. OtherAndrew May 5, 2010 at 6:08 am #

    @Outraged,

    Oh, I get it now – anyone who doesn’t interpret all Deveny’s comments as an enlightened, ultra-leftwing social commentary is a pedophile, right?

    What about the comment that she hopes Roves new wife ‘doesn’t die too’? Utterly disgraceful and completely lacking in that basic human trait known as empathy. Where’s the social commentary in that?

    Put yourself in the position of Bindii’s mother, or Rove, in either of those two situations and ask yourself how you’d respond – if you don’t think you’d change your opinion, then you’ve just proved that you’re equally lacking in empathy.

  16. Micheal Axelsen May 5, 2010 at 7:03 am #

    Fascinating piece with which I mostly disagree. The only logical point that can be addressed is the ‘ownership of online identity’. The other points (outrage, wifi pitchforks, and Andrew Bolt) are complete red herrings in that discussion.

    It’s a long-standing element of employment law (noting that she’ll be a contractor) that, where you are identifiable with your employer, your public actions are in fact your employer’s business. You’re held to a higher standard than the copy-boy.

    If you tarnish the employer’s image (e.g. pick a fight in a bar while wearing your Telstra uniform) out of hours, then you too will feel the wrath of termination. You can also be sacked if you do something out of hours that makes it difficult to carry out your job (classic example: teacher stripping for Playboy).

    Twitter is a public space. Social conventions and laws still apply, just as they do anywhere. She has every right to say what she wants to say, when and where she wants to say it. But while speech is free, you cannot escape consequences.

    The Age however doesn’t have to have her and her other statements associated with its company image either. Otherwise you’re saying you can do what you like, when you like, so long as it’s out of work hours (which, for a writer, would be?) and The Age has no choice in the matter. Which is clearly, clearly, bollocks.

    Sorry – am sick of people pontificating about ‘free speech’ when they clearly have no understanding or idea WTF they are talking about.

    Thanks for playing: Micheal Axelsen

    • CM May 5, 2010 at 7:38 am #

      I would argue that most people outraged by her tweets wouldn’t have associated CD with The Age until they read that they were boning her.

      Do you believe many people would be thinking ‘By Golly, she’s really crossed the line. I shall be cancelling my Age subscription ASAP’ ?

      Few people would have connected the two negatively until The Age did it for them.

      • Micheal Axelsen May 5, 2010 at 9:55 am #

        I never read The Age, never heard of CD before today frankly, but presumably it’s a column with her photo and name on it.

        Doesn’t matter what I believe people were thinking, it’s a question of whether the Age thinks they’re better off ditching her because that persona no longer works for them. Maybe the Age just found journalistic standards.

        Oh sorry, nearly choked on the irony of that statement :).

    • Gibbot May 5, 2010 at 8:56 am #

      Micheal – I think you have kind of sensationally missed the point of this post.

      The Age didn’t sack Deveny because she crossed the line. They initially ran a story aimed at cashing in on the controversy. If they were concerned with their image being associated with her brainless tweets they would have sacked her (at the very latest) after her appalling ANZAC day tweets. Instead they merely caved to pressure from the hordes of outraged flying monkeys that descended on the Age site after being drummed into a frenzy by the unrepentant mouthpiece of a rival publication – who says worse daily and is paid very well for it.

      This has nothing to do with freedom of speech. It has to do with editorial integrity – or the lack thereof – and the punishment meted out to Deveny for doing nothing more than staying true to the brand that her employer has gone to some lengths to nurture.

      PS: While the content of Deveny’s tweets aren’t really the issue, the fact that people seem united in their condemnation of her over the Bindi Irwin comment – while saying nothing about the mother who prostitutes the kid in the first place, strikes me as distasteful and ignorant.
      How about saving some of that outrage for those that deserve it, rather than out of touch and un-funny members of the commentariat?

      • Micheal Axelsen May 5, 2010 at 10:04 am #

        Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t realise I had ‘sensationally missed’ the point. Thank you so much for correcting me.

        We agree on one thing. I think. I cannot believe that idiots like Andrew Bolt get to keep their job when they have the research skills of a drunken gnat and an ability to construct a logical argument that is akin to building an outhouse from crazy glue and glitter.

      • Gibbot May 5, 2010 at 10:40 am #

        Settle down, precious. You’ll sprain a wrist if you keep flapping your hands about in indignation.

        Telling a blog author “Thanks for playing” is condescending and insulting – especially when you lead the argument off on a tangent that was unrelated. Continuing to be condescending to those that deign to reply to you is poor form, and ill-advised. You missed the point. Full stop.

        Do you see any comments actually defending what Deveny said? No. You don’t. The issue is not ‘free speech’.

        What you will see in the initial post is an argument regarding the gutless sacking of Deveny when other clowns (like Bolt) are allowed to prosper, and the question of how media roles should be defined – given the advent of new tools.

        We probably agree on far more issues than otherwise. Be polite. It’s free.

      • Micheal Axelsen May 5, 2010 at 12:15 pm #

        Please accept my apologies if my sign-0ff caused offence. I consider that I am usually polite and in this instance I missed that standard.

        Given that I have indeed missed the point of the post, I’ll merely limit my comments to say that anyone’s employer can indeed own your online identity in certain contexts under the law, and that was the point I sought to make. Illegitimately, it woudl seem.

        Thanks: Micheal “ow my wrist” Axelsen

      • Gibbot May 5, 2010 at 12:47 pm #

        Good value, Micheal. The laugh was appreciated, and your point is cheerfully conceded. As I said, I think essentially we’re on the same page.

        Best wishes. I’m sure it’s the mildest of sprains at worst.

        🙂

  17. Matt Holden May 5, 2010 at 7:56 am #

    I’m with OtherAndrew, above. If a man had made the Bindi Irwin or the K.D. Lang jokes, he’d be lynched, online and off. Kids are off-limits in sexual jokes, especially celebrity kids who have little control over their representation and exposure. Free speech doesn’t come into it.
    Also agree that it is near-impossible for someone such as Catherine Deveny to separate her online presence from her role as a newspaper columnist. She owes her notoriety at least partly to The Age.

  18. Matt Holden May 5, 2010 at 8:04 am #

    Also, people have been hammering The Age over this. The Age’s biggest mistake in this was to hire her in the first place and give a very funny comedy writer a prominent column on the opinion and analysis page, where what she wrote had to be taken more seriously. That was Andrew Jaspan’s doing. Current editor Paul Ramadge inherited her, and has probably been looking for a way out for a long time. Lots of her social commentary had been only marginally insightful, and probably didn’t deserve the prominence its position in the newspaper gave it.

  19. emily May 5, 2010 at 8:12 am #

    Amy, Hazzar for summing this up so well.

  20. galumay May 5, 2010 at 8:24 am #

    So well argued and written, it leaves nothing to be said really.

    Perhaps Fairfax should pick you up as a journo!

  21. Smee May 5, 2010 at 10:06 am #

    You make some clear and pertinent points, but as with most articles I’ve read so far on this issue, there really is no need to pad things out by dropping in commentary on the frothing righteous (Andrew Bolt, Neil Mitchell, Sam Newman et al) and highlighting Catherine Deveny’s good points just to support your argument.

    Avoid the rhetoric and strip it down to the bare truth.

    Firstly, what she said was tasteless, pointless and is probably deserving of a retraction or apology (God forbid!).

    Secondly, the Age cannot possibly justify sacking her on this issue.

  22. Indefensible May 5, 2010 at 10:51 am #

    Hi again.

    I haven’t chosen to not read between the lines. Deveny said that she stood by what she said. She can’t have it each way. Either she meant what she said, or she didn’t. Again, Deveny is a limited intellect hoist on her own petard.

    What I do agree with is that she was probably sacked for a range of things dating back to her vainglorious “one woman strike” over a year ago. This is just a convenient excuse.

    • Jason May 5, 2010 at 11:55 am #

      It doesn’t matter what you think.

  23. Helen May 5, 2010 at 8:20 pm #

    If a man had made the Bindi Irwin or the K.D. Lang jokes, he’d be lynched, online and off.

    Firstly, white men in Australia are not lynched, according to the evidence I see. If a man had actually been chased down by a mob and killed horribly I”m sure I would have seen a news report. Sorry, but this whiny use of “lynched” to denote criticism is just a symptom of privileged whininess.
    Now to my point – if a man had made the same tweets I would most likely be waking up to comments such as: Humourless feminists, get a life, get a sense of humour, oversensitive, looking to be outraged, harden the f*** up… (Gets out bingo card…)

  24. Helen May 5, 2010 at 8:22 pm #

    I should have said, if a man had made the same tweets *and got the same reaction*…, just to clarify.
    As it is, ZOO magazine can make a “joke” about glassing your girlfriend in the face, but as I said, us pathetic lefties should all harden the f** up. Right!?

  25. Matt Holden May 5, 2010 at 9:57 pm #

    Lynched literally was a poor choice of words … I take you point. But the jokes in question I find beyond the pale, whoever makes them. Including the jokes in Zoo about glassing your girlfriend.
    I don’t think anyone needs to “harden the fuck up”. And you’ll probably be sorry to hear I count myself among the “pathetic left” …

  26. ianw May 6, 2010 at 12:08 am #

    I’m with CM – “Deveny had a target on her back as soon as she went after Australia’s real religion – ANZAC” & “another way to read the Bindi Irwin tweets […] is as a comment on the fact that our culture has no problem with our (female) children dressing like (female) adults”. It was not a man making the comment, though it is known to happen, that a man could make a tasteless joke to illustrate such a point. Aussie humour being what it is, men and women are (surely it goes without saying) going to be quoting Deveny on the matter for quite some time, online and off, and it will be funny because it’s tasteless but warranted.

  27. Matt Holden May 6, 2010 at 1:26 am #

    Outraged … “Those who claim she was endorsing child molestation really need to rethink why your minds went there.” You think so? The tweet conjured up a pretty clear mental picture. It didn’t require any imagination to go there at all.
    If CD wanted to make a point about the sexualisation of children, and a joke, there are other ways she could have done it, without presenting us a picture of an 11-year-old girl having sex. She could have salvaged something by admitting it was maybe too much, impulse ruling head, which happens to us all (though that’s probably not her style).
    What was the point she was trying to make with the K. D. Lang tweet? I don’t get it … I’m happy to have it explained to me.
    I guess anything goes if you’re chasing a laugh — and can dress it up as political or social commentary …
    As for The Age sacking her, as others have said here, it’s a commercial organisation, not a public institution (we sometimes forget), she was a contractor, and they make their decisions about who writes for the paper based on what they perceive as being in their commercial interests … and I’m not saying they’re always right.

  28. Dman May 6, 2010 at 3:02 am #

    Why do you sarcastically call the late Belinda Emmett a saint? Was her slow, painful death handled with too much dignity and grace?

    Or are you just trying to make a “joke” about someones dead wife?

  29. Curtankerous May 6, 2010 at 12:28 pm #

    Amoir, if Deveney had half your wit, poise and talent she would still have a job, regardless of her comments (Remember that time you were working for the Jewish Times and they ran your pro-bacon piece? Pure, classic Amoir genius!)

    I reckon CD was just shooting from the lip and this time she missed. It happens when you’re trying to be funny.

    Her justifications after the fact seemed in themselves to be a backdown and a bit of a desperate scramble to apply some reason where there originally was none. Like a comedic backronym.

    Bindi’s outfit and carriage on the night didn’t warrant those comments in the context of raunch culture. I agree that Bindi has been metaphorically pimped to the entertainment industry before and after her father’s death, but I don’t agree that this has ever translated into a sexualisation of her physical image.

    Nice idea, but wrong target.

    Similarly, when CD justified her comments about Rove/Tasma by saying something like “We are friends, I really do hope she doesn’t die” it just sounded pathetic.

    If you’re friends, then no comment is needed, they will know you don’t want her dead. And you’ll have an understanding about making jokes of tragic life events; they are either off-limits or not.

    If you truly believe the comment was funny (if in bad taste) then stick by it or laugh off the criticism. Better yet, come up with a response to the criticism that is even more outrageous and/or funny (eg Bill Hicks to Christians “Forgive me”).

    I don’t think Deveny was ever paid to be controversial. I think she was paid to be entertaining to The Age’s perceived target audience, within their particular comfort zone. Ultimately, it was a pretty cynical exercise, and the fact that she was unable to judge what was acceptable and what wasn’t seems to support that.

  30. Curtankerous May 6, 2010 at 12:45 pm #

    Some months after the Chaser’s admonishment for their Make a Reasonable Request sketch, Julian Morrow gave an impressive speech on the issue to a media forum. His main point was: “To those who were genuinely, personally offended we apologise sincerely. To those who were outraged we do not apologise.”

  31. Curtankerous May 6, 2010 at 1:00 pm #

    Bolt is paid to be entertaining and affirming to the HS audience. He’s just more skilled at ensuring that he doesn’t contravene their explicit and unspoken values.

  32. Jbru May 11, 2010 at 2:12 am #

    I agree with your analysis, but i think the Twitter ‘scandal’ was a convenient red herring. Here’s my theory. Deveny’s columns deliberately provoke outrage, as you say. This gets lots of people commenting on The Age’s website and generates page views (and hence advertising $$). But lately people seem to have been finding her more irritating and less funny, meaning she’s about to outlive her usefulness. And if you’re a newspaper struggling with the digital age, why wouldn’t you leap at the chance to create a lucrative controversy by publicly sacking a columnist people love to hate? It makes perfect business sense.

  33. Matt Holden May 12, 2010 at 9:49 am #

    The Age just wanted to sack Catherine Deveny and found a convenient excuse. Not because she is a woman, or because she is outspoken, or because she said something crude: witness Miranda Devine and the “rogering gerbils” tweet … I take it all back. There are plenty of more offensive things in the world than CD’s tweets …

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