The Words Bounce Back

If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?

Portrait of William ShakespeareWilliam Shakespeare’s famous lines from The Merchant of Venice are a reminder that our emotional response to trauma is a natural part of being human. Our nervous systems use feelings of regret and despair as learning signals, helping the prefrontal cortex of our brains frame the best solutions to problems from multiple options.

We like to think in terms of everyone following a moral compass: the inherent understanding that the world around us operates according to a general sense of fairness and doing what is right. As a result, we delicately balance our levels of trust according to the social situation before us. A conversation we have with a longtime friend will have a different weighting than one with our employer, for example, and we expect a certain degree of reciprocity in return.

Rollo MayThe problem is that compasses break. In his book Man’s Search for Himself, Rollo May wrote that “the person who feels weak becomes a bully, the inferior person the braggart; a flexing of muscles [and] cockiness are the symptoms of covert anxiety.” We can take this a step further by stating that bullying is a compensatory exercise, often committed in isolation from the accepted standards of right and wrong in which we believe to reside.

Cyberbullies operate in a sort of anonymous netherworld, whereby they feel unaccountable for the consequence of their actions. Perpetrators of online harassment see themselves from a distance, almost as benign observers psychologically shrouding themselves from personal repercussion: I’m just someone on a computer. Usually, the only way to bring any sense of fairness to the cyberbullying equation is to expose instigators on a public or legal platform.

The good news is that victims of cyberbullying are taking strong steps to reclaim their lost dignity in the digital ecosystem. Consider the case of Cassey Ho, a physical trainer who this week released a video in which she edits her body according to nasty recommendations she received online about her physique:

Or this revealing segment produced by the Canadian Safe Schools Network, showing students reading messages criticizing their weight, appearance, ethnic background and more:

The Canadian example above is indicative of the creative ways in which schools are removing the veneer around cyberbullying. In North Sydney, Australia, a group of touring high school students performed a musical called Connected, which has already been staged at ten schools across New South Wales. Lana Nesnas, a vocal coach and director of the program, reinforced Rollo May’s assertion that insecurity is the root cause of all forms of harassment:

“A cyberbully will pick on everything you don’t like about yourself. They are cowards who think they are anonymous and won’t be held accountable, and while you stay afraid in your room and don’t tell anyone, the bully has the power. You can tell the students that have been dealing with it by the way they react to the show.”

Lana Nesnas, one of the team behind Connected, a high school musical based on the topic of cyberbullying. Picture: Elenor Tedenborg of the Daily Telegraph
Lana Nesnas, one of the team behind Connected, a high school musical based on the topic of cyberbullying. Picture: Elenor Tedenborg of the Daily Telegraph.

Of course, there are more traditional methods of dealing with cyberbullies: lock them up. This week, Robert Campbell received a six-year prison sentence for creating fake social media profiles of people he believed had slighted him in the past. Campbell also sent emails of a crude sexual nature to his victims, sometimes twisting personal details of their lives to portray them as racist. “He studied his victims to find their vulnerabilities,” said Judge Ann Alder during sentencing. “He made it very personal and very real.”

Lest we applaud the use of revenge to get back at cyberbullies, we should remind ourselves that personal vengeance is often the inspiration that drive this behavior from the start. “Revenge porn” cyberbully Kevin Bollaert was sentenced to 18 years in prison for running a website featuring explicit photographs of his victims, which he removed only after extorting money from their accounts. Bollaert’s primary targets were ex-lovers who had rejected him; the website was his way of getting back at them. As with all matters related to the heart, there is a deliciously Shakespearean theme to be unearthed:

But love is blind, and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit.

He That Loseth His Life

Anyone who has studied American Southern literature will have read “Good Country People,” a short story written in 1955 by Flannery O’Connor. The piece describes how two convergent views of reality collide at an uncomfortable point of contact: one seemingly innocent romantic encounter that erupts into something horrific, cruel and bizarre.

Flannery O'Connor in her driveway in 1962
Flannery O’Connor in her driveway, in 1962. Photo by Joe McTyre for the Atlanta Constitution. Image reproduced from the New York Times.

The main point of the story is that we reside in a dual existence between two planes of understanding. One is seemingly docile and innocent, a patchwork of hopeful clichés operating as accepted truth. The other is more nihilistic and refutes any deep metaphysical parallels with the surface world, insisting that there is nothing behind or beyond that which we can interpret with our senses.

Last week, three media pieces appeared concerning the topic of cyberbullying. One is an article on TechDirt by Shawn DuBravac, Ph.D., chief economist at the Consumer Electronics Association and author of the upcoming book, Digital Destiny: How the New Age of Data Will Transform the Way We Work, Live, and Communicate.

In his TechDirt piece, DuBravac discusses how social media participants cultivate parallel identities, and these profiles dictate wholly separate belief structures regarding acceptable engagement. He mentions a recent Supreme Court case of a man convicted of threatening to kill his wife on her Facebook page. The defense claimed that what he wrote online what never intended to be taken literally; the prosecution argued that what he meant when he wrote the post is irrelevant to the act itself.

This case could create an interesting precedent, given a remark by Justice Sonia Sotomayor that “[the courts] have been loathe to create more exceptions to the First Amendment,” which DuBravac suggests could increase the amount of legal latitude afforded to perpetrators of online abuse. However, he also senses that the separation between the digital and offline realms are slowly converging:

“Since its foundation, the Internet has revealed its unique place in society – a place where people are free to be whoever they want. This freedom has found its purest expression in social network sites. Yet the nature of the Internet is changing. We hardly even talk about ‘being online’ anymore, because we’re always online through our smartphones and mobile devices.”

The first step towards resolving any problem is to define it. Last week, the Novia Scotia Supreme Court included “element(s) of malice” as part of their official definition of cyberbullying. The new tort describes the procedure by which a complainant can seek protection orders against any individual or group whose electronic communications are intended to cause “fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other damage or harm to another person’s health, emotional well-being, self-esteem or reputation.”

Such language would be a good start for many colleges and universities in the United States, many of whom have policies about sexual assault, hazing and discrimination but hardly any mention of abuse that occurs online. This lack of clarity could possibly reflect a difference in attitude, demonstrating that cyberbullying behavior among adolescents evolves as the effect age groups become older.

According to a study conducted by researchers in Seattle and Wisconsin, for example, name-calling attacks that might evoke suicidal thoughts among a preteen audience are statistically less likely to have the same effect on college students. In addition, there is little definition or agreement among authorities as to what actions constitute cyberbullying at the university level.

cyberbullying illustrationOn the one hand, we have people who actively minimize their responsibility when posting content online. It’s the digital equivalent of “I was angry and not thinking straight.” On the other hand, it’s clear that we need some sort of metric to properly qualify the spectrum of online aggression. It’s nearly impossible to determine the appropriate consequence when, for example, a simple Facebook comment goes too far. We can unfriend or unfollow those who transgress against us, but all that does is cut one stream from a single source.

It seems to be a rather grim business, this digital netherworld of anonymous nihilism slowly rising to greet us when we are most vulnerable. It brings to mind a revealing quote from Good Country People. It takes place at a pivotal moment in the story when the main character, a seemingly benign yet covertly despicable human, is compelled to defend his lack of personal accountability:

“I’ve gotten a lot of interesting things. And you needn’t think you’ll catch me because Pointer ain’t really my name. I use a different name at every house and don’t stay nowhere long. And I’ll tell you another thing, Hulga, you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born.”