In July of 2016, Suzanne Zuppello, writing for that bastion of conservative advocacy, Rolling Stone Magazine, related a story of a woman being bullied online. Having just finished an H.R. course on harassment and bullying last week, I ran across her piece while doing some additional research. The thing that struck me about the article is that it was written over four years ago, and yet the same basic storyline has played-out so many times since then that we’ve all become numb to it.
The piece began, “The Internet is turning us all into sociopaths. The facelessness it provides also wipes clean any trace of empathy, leaving us to hurl hate at strangers with zero consideration for consequences.”
The subject of the article had written something a little offensive, but funny, and was taken to task for her offense, largely on a partisan basis. The average comments against her were demeaning. The more confrontational were vicious and threatening. The bullying went on for months, but she refused to back-down. She cited free speech arguments, loosened criteria for humor and general “oh, come on” defenses, but the attacks were unrelenting.
No one from Twitter came to her aid. No one online stood-up for her. No one wanted to get involved. No one wanted to face the wrath of the mob themselves. So, she tearfully signed-off from her account for good – defeated.
Zuppello went on to make the point that, “There are no statistics on the number of public figures who fall victim of cyberbullying each year, probably because it’s an assumed risk of fame and taken for granted… It’s an accepted reality that most female celebrities are frequently on the receiving end of ridicule and threats on social media.”
Even though the relative number of people involved in these attacks are small, there is a commanding reluctance for either institutions or individuals to get involved – to be protective – to stand against the bullying. The most obvious reason is simply fear of becoming the next victim. Someone who is willing to put words on a screen so hateful, so misinformed and so evil is to put it mildly, unpredictable. If someone is willing to write things like that down and pump it out to the public, how much further is it to show up on someone’s doorstep to take action? No matter how remote the threat might be, when you’re on the receiving end, you tend to spend a lot of time looking out your windows.
I tell myself that the only thing new about any of this is the internet and the size of the potential audience it brings with it. Catty, small town gossips have been hurting people and destroying lives for centuries. The fifties book and movie Peyton Place became a national sensation for telling an all too familiar tale of human nature. I guess that’s really the truth of all of this. It’s human nature to tear-down someone, anyone who appears to be better off than you, or in this era of hyper-partisanship, disagree with you. You might not even be better off, or you might not actually disagree. It might just be appearances or a fleeting perception, but that doesn’t stop someone from making a snap judgment about something they see on a three-by-five-inch screen for ten seconds. They may be misinformed. They may even have gotten it completely wrong. It doesn’t matter. They may drive their next poor victim into depression or suicide, but what the heck, they got to feel superior for a few seconds.
Today, we talk about microaggressions and demand we reorder society to make it easier for certain classes of people. It makes good sense. Basic kindness can never be oversold, but maybe we should spend a little more time on macroaggressions. You know, the big things that are wrong with our society, like writing whatever we damn well please even though it might hurt someone or even destroy them. Even complete schmucks deserve to be treated as we would have them treat us. I think I’ve heard that somewhere before.