THINK of the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. 

Now imagine the entire internet laughing about it. Strangers on the other side of the world turning it into memes on Twitter, to be shared by other strangers on Facebook to then be shared by yet more strangers in WhatsApp chats. 

Actors Amber Heard and Johnny Depp are currently embroiled in a high-profile legal battle, with Depp having brought a defamation case for $50m against his ex-wife after she described herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse” in the Washington Post. Depp maintains that he is in fact the victim of abuse.

It’s perfectly natural to be intrigued by the proceedings.

Depp has been an A-list celebrity for more than 30 years, while preserving a persona that’s appeared more edgy and mysterious than that of your average clean-cut film star.

When we’re allowed a glimpse into the parts of his life that aren’t airbrushed by Dior or scripted by Tim Burton, you can’t blame people for doing their nosey. 

Glasgow Times:

For some, that’s as far as their interest in the case goes. For many others, however, the manner in which they engage with the story is disturbing. 

When celebrities face legal scrutiny, the public are often likened to rubberneckers, craning their necks to watch as flames envelop the wreckage. In this case, some people are walking over to the vehicle and calling the passenger a lying wh**e.

It’s something of a cliche on social media to say ‘celebrity X won’t read your disrespectful tweet, but someone else who has experienced this will’. It’s true, though.

According to the Office for National Statistics, an estimated 1.6 million women in England and Wales between the ages of 16 and 74 experienced domestic abuse in the year ending March 2020. 

Heard probably won’t see you calling her a conniving money-grabber, but when thousands of people retweet a message mocking her descriptions of domestic abuse there will be countless victims who do.

Those people have their trauma repeatedly reinforced as a woman is very publicly disbelieved, mocked and vilified. 

A woman, incidentally, who in November 2020 was vindicated by Justice Andrew Nicol at the High Court of Justice.

The judge said that a story in The Sun which referred to Depp as a “wife-beater” was “substantially true”, adding: “I accept that Mr Depp put her (Heard) in fear of her life”.

Last week, #AmberHeardIsAPsychopath was trending. Before that, there was #AmberTurd. 

A lot of people will happily tweet #IStandWithHer or #BelieveWomen when they don’t have skin in the game, but fall short when standing with or believing them means contemplating the possibility that their hero may have harmed one. 

When #AmberHeardDeservesPrison trended earlier this month, academic and barrister Dr Charlotte Proudman tweeted: “This wasn’t trending when Harvey Weinstein was on trial, not when Louis CK was accused of sexual harassment and not when Depp was found (by the High Court) to be a perpetrator of domestic abuse. The world hates women. It’s as simple as that”. 

Glasgow Times:

It’s hard to disagree. The world certainly seems to hate Amber Heard. You can see why some people find Depp more persuasive. Her expressions are stern and defiant. Depp, on the other hand, is Johnny Depp. Charming, playful, loose, charismatic and Jack Sparrow.

Of course he’s going to be more appealing. None of that, though, is relevant in deciding whether he has subjected a woman to abuse. 

‘Charming’ was an epithet regularly applied to Sean Connery, and his popularity remained undimmed despite telling Playboy in 1965 that when it comes to hitting woman “an open-handed slap is justified if all other alternatives fail”, a viewpoint that he doubled down on in an interview with Barbara Walters in 1987.

Two things can be true at once. Depp can be a romantic charmer and an abuser.

On top of the insults directed at Heard, there have been memes, TikTok videos and even a Saturday Night Live sketch. The overwhelming sense is of a complete lack of empathy from people who see this as merely a soap opera for us all to consume, rather than a case in which at least one and possibly two people are victims of domestic abuse.

These are real people and this is an extremely serious subject. It’s not entertainment.

If the worst thing that had ever happened to you was in the spotlight, how would you feel about a member of boyband NSYNC using the subject for levity, as Lance Bass did in a video that saw him lip-syncing to Heard’s testimony? How desperate for attention and utterly devoid of empathy do you have to be for a woman discussing abuse to be seen as ripe for parody?

No-one’s asking you to like Amber Heard, no-one’s forcing you to believe her and no-one’s telling you not to have an opinion. What we can all do, though, is refrain from treating domestic abuse as a punchline, and consider the impact of hateful tweets directed at Heard on victims of abuse who see them pop up on their Twitter feed.

Have some decency, basically.