A few weeks back, Natalie from Definatalie made it known via twitter that she was being bullied on Facebook. Someone had taken a photograph of her from another site and posted it to a hateful Facebook group in order to shame and ridicule her. Natalie took it in her stride beautifully (read her graceful response to the Facebook group and the experience here), I’m happy to say. But me? It made me a little afraid.
I think we accept now that bullying is not confined to school grounds, and also that the bullying that goes on in childhood can be far more serious than the old narratives about character building would suggest. I believe that the ugliest aspects of humanity dwell in bullying behaviour: bullies dehumanise and objectify, they use the power of many against one or a few, and they take pleasure in the destruction they wreak. This would be hyperbole if people were not being bullied to death, but they are.
I’m not a school student, and I don’t really have a workplace, so one would think my vulnerability to bullying, in the sense that we think of it traditionally, would be limited. Perhaps it is. I’ve been bullied online more than once though, and the reality is that I will be again, because I write things that some people don’t like to hear, because I post photos of myself sometimes, because I participate in online communities where there are, like everywhere else, power-plays and popularity contests.
And, as I’ve just said, bullying scares the hell out of me. Bullying is triggering for me.
Bullying had me rehearsing suicide notes at nine years of age. Bullying gave me bruises, scars, knocked me to the ground and winded me. Bullying made me vulnerable to other forms of victimisation, about which I don’t wish to speak. Bullying made me try so hard to be liked that I was, for a time, virtually unlikeable. Bullying made me strong and it made me an advocate, yes, but at what cost?
I once left a job because I was bullied there. The bullying wasn’t so terrible, the bullies had only transitory and limited power, and I had support. But the extent to which I felt disempowered for even a few moments horrified me and sent me spiralling into anxiety, insomnia and depression. I was humiliated by my inability to ‘take it in my stride’ as much as I was angry at the original treatment. With hindsight, I can see that what appeared to be an extreme reaction was perfectly natural from someone who’d just been so strongly triggered: after the core incident, I was shaking, pale, in shock, having flashbacks. I could not work. What my colleagues saw was someone who’d had a very bad day and was unable to overcome that without help. What they were really seeing was someone who had been bullied so viciously in the past that her wellbeing was at risk from comparatively minor incidents.
Bullying is the most rapidly expanding workplace health problem, especially in schools – that is, it affects teachers as well as students in devastating ways. It’s also rife online. The tragedy of the latter situation is that online spaces are commonly used by groups of people – perhaps victims of trauma or those commonly subjected to prejudice – who wish to carve out a ‘safe space’ for themselves. And in many ways, online interactions can supply an enormous amount of social support to those, and all, people. We alternatively scoff and ruminate about the amount of time young people spend online but the fact is, there is a lot to love about the access they now have to vital information and crisis resources. Loneliness and isolation can be more easily combatted when there are more ways to let others in.
But our computers and our iPhones let the bullies in, too.
This doesn’t have to be only bad news, because with this growing awareness that bullying is more than a few taunts in the playground, comes growing responsibility. Bystanders have enormous power, and little excuse not to exercise it. When children are bullied in schools, the majority of us have no chance to act because we are simply not there. But we are online. We are on Facebook, and we can (and do) lobby for offensive groups to be closed down and call bullying when we see it. In comment threads and other online spaces, we can intervene (even with a degree of anonymity) to show bullies that we’re onto them. We can be blatantly intolerant of those who seek to attack and victimise others, or who use undermining and silencing tactics. And in our everyday interactions we can show integrity, courtesy and openness: we can refrain from committing the violence of harsh words or social exclusion.
Maybe these are small things, but they are something, and nothing is not an option.