Have we lost our minds? Because that is what it’s beginning to feel like. And no, I haven’t been living under a rock this last decade. I’ve definitely found myself entangled with a healthy number of “trolls” over the years, but since the beginning of this year, it feels like the venom, vitriol and hatred is cranked to full volume. Part of me, the calm, empathetic, hopeful, caring side wants to see past it. To dig down, unearth the humanity, see past the hateful words, brush aside the personal projections and send over a virtual hug. These are just people in pain who don’t know how to express themselves. Right? I mean, online bullies are harmless, right?
This may sound completely off topic, but it’s related, I promise. My little British Columbian town is going through a bit of a racial reckoning, shall we say. Hot off the heels of the Black Lives Matter movement, and all of the awareness said movement has brought to towns and cities across North America, a resident of my town used her social media platform to shine a light on a problematic piece of our own history. The dust and fuss that was kicked up by this post had all the makings of a good old fashioned ‘Western.’ I’m not going to delve into what it was all about (if you’re curious, you can read about it in our illustrious local paper). But I will say that it was a racial issue, was absolutely worth discussing, and in the end, some legitimate progress was made to slow the perpetuation of the issue. And for the first time, it gave a voice to those who shared the sentiments of the resident who first brought the issue to light. And as a Bi-Ethnic woman, I agreed with her. I was on the side of retiring a piece of history that was problematic. Still am.
But it wasn’t actually the racially charged issue that I found so egregious. It was the violent, immature and hateful discourse that ensued on a public platform.
You’re probably thinking by now..yeah…so?! People behave like high school bullies online all the time, what’s so shocking about that?
Well, it’s one thing to have to fend off trolls, fake accounts or keyboard warriors. Cowards who get off hurling insults at strangers over the internet and hiding behind their relative anonymity. It’s an entirely different game when you’ve exchanged pleasantries at the grocery store with these individuals. Or supported their business by purchasing goods from them. Or spent some time with them at the playground while your children played together. What do you do when you find out a group of women you thought you knew, were a bunch of bullies? And worse, a bunch of prejudiced bullies?
In a particular Facebook group that I belong(ed) to, I watched grown women gang up on each other like a pack of wolves. No, worse, wolves have tact. I watched one woman tell another woman to “shut the fu** up, and to go back to where she came from.” I watched grown women hurl threats, profanities, and racial prejudices like it was nothing. I watched women I had gone to for advice and pearls of wisdom dissolve into belligerent school yard bullies. Women who were supposed advocates for causes I believe in. Women’s whose past advocacy work can only be seen as performative now, and nowhere near authentic. Finding out someone you respect and hold in esteem is just another online bully is disheartening. Especially when you’re someone who always tries to see the good in others.
I found myself to be the target of a few of these online bullies when I made the mistake of calling for cool heads and rational discussion on a particular thread. My my private messages were invaded with notes of hate. “This isn’t your town, you’re not even local.” Or, “I feel sorry for your son, having a mom with no backbone.” And my favourite, “Stay out of this, leave the big talk up to the adults, and shove your rainbows and sunshine up your ignorant a**.”
If you’re wondering how I responded to these ridiculous messages, I didn’t. I blocked them, unfriended them, and refuse to support their businesses. I didn’t tell them I was doing it, I didn’t feel it was necessary. I would be lying if I said my feelings weren’t hurt. I am human. But it was also a tremendous weight lifted off my shoulders. I know who they are now. What they’re capable of. And they don’t get to be influencers in my life for another minute.
I know I sound like I’m picking on women, and that is not my intention. I’m just speaking to my experiences within this group, that happens to be women only. When the particular controversy I was alluding to went down, the local online discussion boards and Facebook groups were abuzz with offensive comments from men and women. I just wasn’t receiving hate in my inbox from men.
So here’s how I feel about online hate and the online bully. If you behave like a decent human in the flesh, and online you think nothing to hurl profanities and insults from your self righteous soapbox, you are not a decent person. You are inauthentic, a coward and a bully. And you have issues that need to be addressed. When you comment on a thread, in response to something some has said, and you don’t agree with it and your only recourse is to attack, belittle, intimidate, threaten, or hurt that individual, you are a bully. Your accomplishments in life are not impressive when deep down, you stepped on and over whomever you could to get there in the flesh and online. You are a bully.
You have a choice.
When you engage online YOU HAVE A CHOICE not to be an online bully. You have a CHOICE not to hurt an individual. If all you care about is being right, you might as well go argue with a tree. Before you furiously strike at your keyboard with the meanest zinger you can come up with, STOP! Take a step back,close the laptop, put the phone down, take a deep breath and ask yourself “why is it so important that I respond, or worse, why is it so important that I am cruel?” If you wouldn’t stand up at your job, and speak to another individual the way you practice online discourse in a public forum, than how do you justify being an online bully?
It is perfectly possible to have robust, passionate, and animated disagreements online without resorting to ad hominem attacks. You just don’t see it very often. I don’t believe that everyone has to agree with everything, how boring would life be if that were the case? However, you lose all credibility in a discussion when you resort to venom and vitriol.
And remember: The internet is forever. FOREVER. Someone can screenshot an off-the-cuff remark you make about something, take out of context and re-post it somewhere else. Next thing you know, your employer finds out, and you lose your job. Your partner finds out and you could lose your relationship. Your friends find out and they lose respect for you. Or worse, your children find out, and you’ve humiliated them or put them in danger.
Words are powerful. Don’t use them to be inhuman.
If you are an online bully. You are an offline bully. If you don’t feel like you control this aggressive behaviour, you need to seek out help immediately.
If you find yourself the victim of cyberbullying or offline bullying, or are in need of help to stop your own bullying behaviour, here are some excellent resources to help you: