Here’s my May column for AVENUE magazine. Photography this month is by Val Kendal.
Cyberbullying is a topic of increasing urgency, chiefly because it’s killing people. The suicide of Tyler Clementi in September 2010, itself only one of a sequence of gay teens who had taken their lives in reaction to bullying, resulted in new legislation in the states: The Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act, which requires all schools that want federal funding to have in place anti-bullying policies and procedures. This is something we need to take seriously. Cyberbullying is coming out as more serious in its consequences than conventional bullying.
Why might this be? Research – as might be expected for such a new social phenomena – is still relatively thin, but the emerging picture really isn’t rocket science. Something posted online reaches a potentially much larger audience plus electronic media is more pervasive and less easily escapable. If you’re bullied in the ‘conventional’ manner at work or at school, there’s always home to escape to for some peace, but if home pleasures include such pursuits as Facebook, Twitter or – as we’ll come to later – Second Life®, there can be little peace found if the bullying takes place there also. I think there’s an additional element of importance also – that of attack on identity – but we’ll come to that later.
What makes cyberbullying so difficult to get a grasp of is that it’s not an easy thing at all to identify whilst it’s taking place. In retrospect – after someone takes their life, for example – it can appear obvious that this has been going on to people inspecting the situation from the outside, but to the people involved at the time – including the cyberbully/bullies themselves – bullying behaviours often get seen as something else entirely. Five minutes after Tyler Clementi had posted to Facebook that he was going to jump off the George Washington Bridge, Dharun Ravi, Tyler’s roommate who had exposed online his homosexuality through video and tweets, sent Tyler messages apologising for his behaviour and expressing guilt for what had happened. Ravi subsequently claimed he had done so without seeing Tyler’s Facebook post, but whether he did or he didn’t is unimportant in one respect: Ravi realised he had gone too far and that his behaviour had had an effect far worse than he himself had realised it would. Perhaps this was the moment he realised he had been bullying. Few people, after all, actually want to think of themselves as a bully.
Because, in the vast majority of cases, cyberbullying – all bullying, in fact – is not primarily about making the victim feel bad at all; bullying is about achieving status within a community. ‘Status’ here can mean anything from simple acceptance to friendship to a dominant position, all depending on the particular needs and desires of the bully. So one of the key components of bullying – not all bullying, but most bullying – is that it takes place in front of an audience. Sometimes that audience is one person – a remark about someone snickered into the ear of a friend – sometimes it’s a group of people; sometimes – as was the case with Dharun Ravi’s tweets – it’s over a hundred. With cyberbullying, the numbers can, of course, go a great deal higher than that.
But wait. A snickered remark in a friend’s ear is hardly what most people would regard as bullying, right? Where’s the harm in a private joke that the victim is never actually intended to hear? I certainly wouldn’t hold myself up as an example of a person who has never made a private remark to someone about someone we both know (or have head of), and it seems ridiculous to assert than no-one should ever be allowed to say anything about anybody. Humour, after all, is one of the things that makes life great. The important thing to understand here, therefore, is that bullying is not a qualitatively different thing from these sorts of remarks; rather, it is a greatly exaggerated version of them. We make our jokes privately rather than openly precisely because we don’t want to hurt the subject’s feelings; but we still, nonetheless, make them because they earn us some social credit. Occasionally, our remarks get repeated and there comes that sickening feeling when we realise they’ve made it back to the subject (in SL, there is also that terrible moment when we realise we’ve accidentally crossposted a remark about someone into public chat or – worse still – the subject’s own IM window – a phenomenon I refer to as ‘fatal crosspost’). That sickening feeling – feeling dreadful that you’ve upset someone with a glibly made remark they weren’t supposed to hear – is our guide. The moment we lose sight of the importance of another person’s wellbeing and consider that of secondary value to the credit gained by targeting them is when we start taking our first steps into bullying.
It’s also important to note that bullying is different from one-time harassment, which isn’t to say that harassment isn’t a bad thing. One-time harassment – which can range from single remarks to physical violence – tends to be based on prejudice rather than personal knowledge of a victim. A supporter of football team X out with his friends might shout at or attack a supporter of football team Y (a very honest football fan I know once told me he attacked fans supporting different teams because it made his friends like him more). A white male out with his friends might shout at or attack a black male. And so on. Horrific and traumatising though these events can potentially be, they’re a different thing from being targeted over time for things that are personal to you. This is where cyberbullying I think, becomes really damaging. For many of us, our online identities – be it through social networking sites like Facebook or online worlds like Second Life – represent our ideal selves. I was bullied at school for wearing glasses; it bothered me a lot, but it never made me depressed because being a person who wears glasses has never been for me a particularly important aspect of who I am. My online identity, however, is all about myself as a writer, which is a reallyimportant personal aspect of who I am; were a person or group of people to mount a sustained attack over time on my abilities as a writer, I can imagine that being a tremendously difficult thing to deal with. I might decide to abandon writing, which would feel like killing off a huge part of what I consider myself to be. It’s not that I’m saying attacks over less important personal attributes aren’t terrible things, but – as I said earlier – cyberbullying appears to be felt as more damaging than ‘conventional’ bullying, and there has to be a reason for that.
Bullying in SL, therefore, is all about exposing and ridiculing people publically, often for the things that are personally important to them. This can be done in chat at events, but can also spread out onto the wider web, for example by pasting chats or private IMs into blog posts. The latter is against SL terms of service and the former isn’t; regardless, if the function is to post conversations with the intention of ridiculing the people involved, this is an act of bullying.
But what of legitimate protest? What of demonstrations against oppressive regimes or organisations? I, after all, enjoy jokes about the current UK government and its policies as much as the next left-leaning citizen with an appreciation of finely-crafted sarcasm. Would legitimate revolutions and uprisings ever occur if people weren’t able to share their thoughts on their oppressors? What you have to ask yourself in such matters is how damaging actuallyare the actions of your target and how helpful actually a sustained attack on them to your cause is. In my experience of this in SL, these attacks take place over nothing more than a difference of opinion, and all they end up doing is polarising debate – encouraging people to take sides – rather than actually opening up discussion in a meaningful way. The means end up defeating the purpose. And pay careful attention to the methods of the key perpetrators: if their actions are more about getting attention for themselves than they are about meaningfully advancing a debate, then their campaign is more about bullying than it is about any cause.
What research has shown is that it’s the bystanders who give bullies their ultimate power: the people who stand by and say nothing and the people who support the bully (whether or not they actually participate in bullying behaviour themselves). People who are not victims of a bully don’t want to become victims and the safest place to be, therefore, is on the list of people approved of in some way by them. We justify this to ourselves, of course, by convincing ourselves that the bully isn’t a bully at all, but a protester, a lone voice of reason, or just a funny person that other people don’t get. Rationalisation (in psychological terms, the reduction of ‘dissonance’) is an extremely powerful thing and the key reason why people don’t realise that bullying has been taking place until it’s too late.
Are you a cyberbully in SL? Are you a supportive bystander? Think about this carefully the next time you get involved in something that targets an individual. It will be an uncomfortable process, for sure (though less so than if you ever have to go through it after terrible consequences have come to pass), but if more people just stopped and asked themselves that question then bullying, perhaps, might just simply go away.
Let me see.
What would be a good thing to say?
Which weak spot shall I aim for?
How many times will I hit him?
And how will I dress it up, my dears, so that
only he will know
that my bullet has his name on it?
What metaphor shall I use? What
cultural references shall I throw in?
Something classic? It will
lend me more authority. After all,
I’m not one of these kids, you know;
it’s not like I’m posting teenage hate
If you like,
I am the sniper, sitting on a rooftop half a mile away.
When my bullet hits, that boy will drop, and no-one
will know what hit him. Unless I tell them.
And I’m not interested in putting one
through his heart or through his eyes. My target
is his soul.
I need a setting.
I need a clever context.
A person in history, perhaps, with
all the right associations (people can look
it up on Wikipedia after and see just how learned
and observant I am).
Maybe an animal? Maybe a sky?
Maybe a colour you add
Dare I play on words? I might just, you know;
I might just.
I can smile at those who see it and grin,
a little cheekily,
and I can show those who frown my middle fucking finger.
I’m from the street, you see. I write haiku with
my knuckles. Of course,
I’m not just one of those kids, you know.
Then there is the issue of audience
and timing, who I want to be there as witness and who
I want as hapless, oblivious bystander. My moment,
if it is right, will win me my longevity. And I
will help the doubters through their dissonance
by reminding them of what an utter fuckwit he was and
by whispering in their ear just how much I love them.
It is all
It is all