I’ve been watching an internet bitch-fight in which one middle-aged male author and his commenters try to goad another middle-aged male author into some kind of internet version of a fight behind the bike sheds, using increasingly hysterical and irrational posts about his personal and professional failings, and increasingly unpleasant trolling comments on the target’s blog as their weapons. It’s been a strange and fascinating train wreck. And it has me thinking about the nature of bullying.
Wretched adolescents everywhere know the drill. The targetting, the assumption of power, the insults, large and small, the group ridicule, the twisting of everything you say and do into a sign of weakness and subordination to the bully, often the escalation to violence, and most of all, the denial of your humanity, your agency, your right to assign your own meaning to yourself and your world. I was never bullied by my peers, but I know only too well the silencing and shame and self-distrust that occur when you’re subject to consistent negative regard.
People who are bullied are often told to ignore it. Bad advice it seems to me because it cedes the field to the bully, leaving them space to escalate and escalate in an effort to get some kind of response. People are also told to alter their behaviour, as if being a target is their fault and responsibility. In the online realm, this means engaging with the bully to explain who you really are, to correct their misapprehensions, to force them to accept that you’re not what they say you are. But all this does is grant that the bully has the power and the right to define you. And since the bully isn’t concerned with conversation or understanding, you’re just giving them more ammunition.
So the guy being targetted did something clever. He stepped away from the bully and victim framing to acknowledge that the bullying was occurring and will quite likely continue to occur no matter what he does, and to say that he was going to get something positive from it. He’s started a fundraising drive for various charities supporting women, African-American, and immigration causes. (The bully, is of course one of those right-wing nuts that the US does so well, so he’s anti-women, anti-gay, anti-immigration, doesn’t believe in evolution, thinks that climate change is a liberal plot, and believes that the government was probably behind the recent shooting at the school in Sandy Hook.)
For every mention of the target on the right-wing nut’s blog, he’s going to donate a few dollars to charity. Lots of his commenters said, “hey, we’d like to donate too.” And as of this evening, he’d raised about $50,000 in pledges.
He won’t read the offending blog himself (which is wise because it’s a thoroughly dispiriting undertaking even when you’re not being directly targetted), but a couple of hardy souls have volunteered to monitor it and count mentions, and at the end of the year, they’ll tally them up, and everyone will fulfil their pledges. And with that, the bullying has been turned into a game. Into a sober, grown up version of the drinking games my flatmates used to play when they watched cricket. Instead of “everyone drink,” it’s “everyone donate.” Brilliant.
Once your vitriol has been acknowledged and then redirected like that, it’s all over. The bully has lost control of the narrative.
Of course, spiking the bully’s guns like this is much easier to do when you’re online and the bullying is only words on a screen, however hateful and slanderous they may be.
But I wonder how the target’s efforts could be applied in the real world. How do you wrest yourself out of the victim role? What do people do?