The perils of suspicion

Image of a man stabbing another in the backLast weekend I witnessed an ugly incident on Facebook, which led to a relationship breaking up and the two erstwhile partners both retiring from the site (and Twitter) over accusations that seemed flimsy at the time and now appear to be baseless. What makes it all the uglier is that both women are disabled, one much more than the other and in the middle of a relapse in her condition, possibly near the point where online relationships are the only type open to her.

Both women have ME. There is a severity scale — actually there are several, but the most commonly used in the UK is issued by AYME (Association of Young People with ME), and a higher score is better: 100% is perfectly well, 0% is rock bottom, meaning bedridden, possibly unable to speak or swallow, in very severe pain and experiencing other bewildering neurological symptoms. Her score until recently was over 50%; the last I heard it was 30%, which is where severe ME starts. Relapses can often be triggered by over-exertion or stress, and this can include emotional stress, stimulation beyond what the body can tolerate (this can include admission to hospital or a car journey) or the onset or worsening of another illness. She was admitted to hospital for surgery for an unrelated condition which seemed to be making the ME worse; she required a second trip to hospital when the surgery led to an infection. Her partner posted a picture to her Facebook profile saying that this is what she had been through, not that this was her (there was no face, just the body showing the result of the surgery). When her friends discovered that she had lifted the picture from a website and that it wasn’t her, several of them rounded on both women, accusing them both of being fake and of pretending to be two people when they were really one. Nothing like this seems to have occurred to any of them up to that point, and certainly not to me; the stronger partner seemed very frightened when I talked to her, asking me for reassurances I could not possibly give (such as whether she would get worse or better soon).

On Sunday morning, my Facebook timeline was full of women demanding that the two of them explain themselves, yet I was ignored when I answered their questions (I knew the answers from talking to one of the partners online), and innocent explanations were disregarded. Since they now did not believe that the story of the relapse was true, the ethics of pestering an ME sufferer in the middle of a relapse with accusations and demands for explanations no longer seemed to matter to anyone. (Readers not familiar with ME and its history may not know that there is a history of sufferers not being believed, or accused of feigning or hamming up their illness, even when they are obviously very ill and distressed, and this has led to people suffering terrible abuse and major, sometimes permanent, deteriorations.) It seems that someone contacted the hospital and asked if she was there, and was told she was not; I did also, and got the same answer. There was also a discussion about what phones they had and whether they could take pictures or not. The first, some might say, is pretty firm evidence that she was never in the hospital - if you assume that her Facebook name is her real name. Well, it is not. This possibility should have occurred to anyone who knew Lynn Gilderdale, who used a pseudonym online (and at least two of this mob knew her). And as for her phone, some people use the term “iPhone” to mean any internet-capable phone even though it’s an Apple brand name.

The upshot was that the couple split up and the severely ill woman went back to her mother, who is presumably her sole carer rather than sharing the task with her former partner; they both have dropped off Facebook and attempts to reach them have failed. At this point I want to make it clear that the rights and wrongs of their former relationship are irrelevant to this; the issue is that they were driven apart by wrongful suspicion, not by any moral concern. People should not be driven apart by suspicion and harassment, especially when they are ill.

A few months ago, I posted an article about how valuable online friendships can be. The stereotype of such relationships being the preserve of geeks with poor hygiene and social skills is outdated if it was ever accurate; there are plenty of disabled and/or severely ill people, with or without social skills, who cannot meet friends any other way as they cannot get away from home or even their beds a lot of the time or at all, and some of these may speak on the phone or write to each other by post. Perhaps the fact that online friends cannot see each other face to face makes the element of trust all the more important and may explain the anger directed at these two for supposedly breaking it. But in this case, the evidence just did not bear out the suspicion.

When I posted a note about this on Facebook, a friend mentioned the ayat (Qur’anic verse) 49:6, “O ye who believe! If an evil person brings you tidings, verify it, lest ye smite some folk in ignorance and afterward repent of what ye did”. But I don’t believe these were evil people, anyway; it’s possible for good or ordinary people to get caught up in mass hysteria and entertain suspicion against someone without good cause, on the basis of what someone tells them or something that looks like an inconsistency in something they said, or something that may point to a wrong action — but, on closer examination, may not. Most Muslims have heard the story of “the allegation”, how the wife of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) named Aisha was accused of adultery, purely on the basis that she arrived in Madinah in the company of another man. What had actually happened was that she had got left behind by a caravan by mistake and the other man found her and gave her a lift, but some anti-Muslim elements in Madinah saw an opportunity to stoke some trouble and some of those in the circle of the Prophet got caught up in it.

I’m not sure how many people realise what it’s like when people you would expect to believe you don’t, or prefer the reported word of a total stranger they have never met over their own flesh and blood in the complete absence of any evidence. I do; it’s exasperating and painful. One of the things I love about Islam is that it tells us to think well of each other, not to spread or listen to gossip or to speak ill of people, and to make excuses for people’s shortcomings. This incident is a good illustration of how important that is and what can happen when we rush to conclusions, particularly bad ones.

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