Let’s talk about…Online discourse around Depp vs Heard trial

We need to be able to talk about abuse responsibly – even if celebrities are involved

It should go without saying that the topic of abuse is something that needs to be discussed responsibly, and with sincere empathy for those involved. It is not something to make light of or joke about; it is an incredibly serious issue and should be treated as such.

Presumably, the above is a very uncontroversial opinion. However, it feels relevant to mention it on foot of how discourse has been unfolding recently around the ongoing defamation trial between celebrities Amber Heard and Johnny Depp.

Considering the fact that the trial involves such incredibly high profile figures, the huge amount of coverage the case is getting is understandable, especially given that the proceedings are being livestreamed. Does it still feel odd to have such a sensitive matter being part of the public forum? Yes. But on some level, it makes sense. Something which I find a lot harder to grapple with however, is just how these online discussions are playing out.

It seems that despite the serious nature of the things coming to light at this trial, and despite the fact that, regardless of your opinion of them or who you’re choosing to believe, these are real people describing real acts of abuse, online discourse is failing to treat this situation responsibly. Online commentators, split into those on ‘Team Amber’ and ‘Team Heard’, are sticking to their respective celebrity with blind loyalty, and given the internet’s tendency to approach things without nuance and divide discussions into diametrically opposed sides, this is unsurprising. But people are talking about this like it’s the latest Netflix drama and not an (alleged) domestic abuse defamation trial.

Like I said, I understand why people are so interested in this trial. I don’t even think it’s a bad thing to be interested in how it’s all playing out. In fact, there’s a lot of important discussions that this trial could spark, including the topics of abusers in power, physical and non-physical abuse, how society regards male abuse victims, and more.

However, the type of trial content likely to show up on your FYP or homepage isn’t there to spark deeper discussions. Over the past couple of weeks, so many people have been posting about the issues with the most brazen insensitivity. From heavily edited ‘fancams’ of testimonials to memes in extremely poor taste, from TikToks showing opposing ‘Team Johnny’ and ‘Team Amber’ tip jars at a Starbucks counter, to video compilations of ‘Johnny’s most savage trial moments’ on YouTube – the nuanced, empathetic take on the defamation trial seems relatively hard to track down.

There are livestreams of the trial with people cheering on their ‘side’ in the chat as if they’re watching their team compete in an All-Ireland final, not piecing together information about the darkest instances of an allegedly abusive relationship. The extremists on ‘Team Amber’ will tell you men are incapable of being abused by a woman, and the extremists on ‘Team Johnny’ will tell you Heard is proof that women who come forward about their abuse are liars, looking out for their own self-interest.

The celebrity involvement in this trial seems to have completely desensitised people to the reality of this situation. But we need to be able to be critical of our biases when discussing serious topics, even when our favourite, or least favourite, celebrities are involved. We need to be able to talk about male abuse survivors without being misogynistic or misandristic. We need to be able to discuss complex instances of abuse without resorting to black and white thinking. We need to be able to talk about abuse responsibly, because when we don’t, it’s abuse survivors who will suffer in the end.

A post by Sexual Violence Centre Cork this week comes to mind: “Amber Heard won’t see you mocking her, or joking about the abuse she’s describing, but your friends who have been subjected to sexual and domestic violence will”. Unfortunately, abuse is not uncommon. Statistically, it is happening, or has happened, to at least one person you know. We need to be mindful of the impact that’s had when issues like abuse are not discussed responsibly. We need to do better.