On Internet Bullying

So today the newspapers report that Charlotte Dawson is in hospital following some very aggressive attacks on twitter toward her. I assume this means that she made some kind of suicide attempt or self-harm. I don’t have any particular knowledge of Dawson or feelings toward her one way or the other, beyond sympathy that she reached such a bad place. Nor have I read the tweets in question, beyond a few quoted in newspapers.

I am not surprised, though, to hear of something like this happening, and I have felt for some time that it is only a matter of time before we see more and more people driven to despair by the treatment they are dealt online. I don’t think that the online social sphere is any worse than real life, necessarily, except insofar as the fact that such large numbers make it easy for a flashmob to appear, drawn by the debate, and for things to spiral beyond anyone’s control within a short period of time.

I have never been at the mercy of an internet flashmob, and I’m grateful. It’s hard enough when you upset somebody in real life. Maybe at some time in your life you have been ostracised or verbally attacked by a former friend. Maybe even a group. No matter how much we might believe ourselves strong or independent, most of us are at heart social animals, still. It *hurts* to be disliked by people. Most of our worst reactions, our anger, our aggression, come from fearing that other people are judging us, that they dislike us. I don’t think anybody doesn’t know what it feels like to be an outsider, on occasions.

I can only imagine the visceral, physical hurt that can come from having hundreds of people you’ve never met suddenly turn on you, judging you, insulting you, hating you because of something you’ve said. It’s awful to think about that kind of hurt, and it’s easy to see how somebody could be overwhelmed by it, could feel like everything is ruined, like there is no way back.

The more smug internet commentators use this point in the conversation to suggest that this is why you must be careful with what you say online, to not upset people that way. I say that’s a fucking compassionless attitude, and what’s more, not a realistic one. It ignores the fact that nobody says something they believe is fucked. People say things because they believe them to be right.

Having said all that, I sympathise with Dawson, I feel truly sorry for her. But I don’t like the way it’s being portrayed as something a select group of people have done; a certain group of trolls who we must catch and punish and whose identities we must make public as an example, because bullying is something the other, the “they”, people who are not like us, do to us. It’s not something that the “we”, the “us”, those we empathise with as fellow protagonists, could ever be guilty of.

No, we don’t bully. We “call out” people on their mistakes. Because sometimes people deserve that. People act badly, and that needs to be pointed out to them. And if we are aggressive in doing that, it is because their behaviour caused that reaction in us, because our anger and judginess is justified by their faults, right? And if a lot of our friends also agree with what we are saying, and also point out to the other person the error of their ways, that is just because their belief or statement was so out of step with common decency that “we” could hardly be expected to act otherwise.

And we don’t need to feel compassion or sympathy toward the person that all of us are educating. Because they are the “they”, and we are the “we”, they are the antagonist and we are the protagonist, our actions are entirely relatable and even our mistakes are understandable and forgivable, and their actions are always ill-motivated and must be judged and punished. And why should we have to think about how they feel? They are the ones that offended us. Their intent doesn’t matter. They should apologise, they should admit their mistakes and learn from them. We are the wronged, we are the ones who are badly done by. Why should we have to think at all about their feelings?

And if that person, that other who we called out and shunned and attacked; if that person kills themself or self-harms, well you know, that’s sad, but hey, they did bring it on themselves. That’s a totally different thing to this situation, where one of us was hurt and shunned and made to feel like crap by a bunch of them. If you can’t see how that’s different, well, then…

The thing that really gets me is this: There are so many people who believe it could never happen to them. Because I am so goddamn righteous that there is no way that public opinion could ever turn against me, that I could ever be judged and found wanting, turned upon, shut out.

I see right wing trolls being arseholes and I shake my head and I think “idiots” and it doesn’t really get to me. But what really gets me, what really upsets me and breaks my heart is watching left wing people who share my beliefs, my ideals, treating other people like crap. I know it’s naive to be shocked by that but it still gets me every time. Because we were supposed to be the good guys.

But I guess the moral of this is that there are no good guys, or rather, we are all good guys, who have learned to treat one another like crap.

I was watching Go Back Where You Came From on SBS tonight, and thinking wow, the beauty of the show is not only that it manages to humanise refugees to us (and presumably most of the show’s core audience is open to that already), but that at the same time it manages to humanise right wing bigots, which is perhaps an even greater feat. I was watching people like Peter Reith or Michael Smith and seeing the human side to them, the doubts, the confusions, the undertones to their surface. I still don’t agree with them, but I can understand them a little better.

And I thought, fuck, that is what it should be about. And then I went online and read some of the comments from people who share my political beliefs, who were attacking them, not just their beliefs, but as human beings, and I felt ashamed. And I know that’s just a small percentage of people, not everybody.

But the point is this; maybe there is no good guys or bad guys. Maybe there is just here and now; this action, this moment. And in this moment you can choose to work toward understanding and kindness, or you can choose to work against them. And I don’t care if your cause is righteous, I don’t care if somebody deserves your anger, I don’t care if they are the most unequivocally wrong person in the history of Wrongtown. Either you are working toward kindness and understanding, or you are working against them.

I don’t know, I feel like I need to think more about these things. But I’m tired of it all… I don’t believe that the internet is some kind of dark beast that needs to be muzzled or it will destroy us all. The internet is just the venue. It is as capable of good, of communication, of love, of understanding, as it is of cruelty. But we need to use it well, we need to treat it with respect and thought. Because we are fucking it up.

And so much of it at the moment just looks like some place I don’t want to go….

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