The danger of public humiliation (can we call it cyber-bullying?)

I’ve been thinking about high school lately.  Specifically, some of the bullying I participated in freshman year in high school.  There are two specific instances I can remember where I joined a crowd in making fun of people who were different, who didn’t fit in.  I pointed and laughed along with several other people.  The victims just walked away with red faces, hiding their shame.

Of course, like everybody reading this, I was also a victim of public humiliation when I was growing up.  My mom was a public junior high teacher, and I went to the same school.  She was a strict disciplinarian with the students.  You can only imagine the nearly daily harassment I endured for that.  So, by freshman year in high school, I had moved to a school where my mom was not the teacher, and now it was payback time.  I got to make fun of other people instead of being the victim myself.

I am happy to report that by sophomore year in high school I came to see the error in my ways.  I actually apologized to one of the people I had made fun of, and we became friends.  I don’t remember what happened to the other, but I never made fun of him again.

Remembering these events is important because there is a very thin line between “real world” interactions and our on-line interactions.  At the end of the day, many of us turn to blogs and to social media to share ideas and find kindred souls.   They are a public forum where people, as they always do, seek the approval of their peers.

So, public humiliation on blogs hurts just as much as bullying does when we are children.

If you scroll down M*, you will see two posts.  One says (ironically and provocatively) that Republicans hate Mormons.  The other says (ironically and provocatively) that Democrats hate Mormons.  The truth is that the writers of both posts, if you read the posts, know that it is a small number of Republicans and Democrats actually hate Mormons, and for different reasons.  The titles were simply meant to draw readers, and they did.

Now, it is worth pointing out that both posts made general criticisms of different political groups, but not specific criticisms of individuals.  Among the people criticized were “Republicans,” “evangelicals,” “Democrats” and “left-wingers.”  But no specific people in our peer group (the Mormon blogging community) was singled out for criticism.  Instead, the criticism was very general and aimed at large groups of people or public figures.

But the reactions to the posts, with exactly the same titles but aimed at different groups, were very different.  The first one, criticizing Republicans, drew no controversy.  The second one, criticizing Democrats, caused a flood of personal attacks and general frustration and anger.

Why is that?  This post is not really intended to answer that question, but instead to analyze what happened next.

One of the people frustrated about the post on Democrats put up a public post on Facebook calling on “Mormon bloggers” to criticize me, your not-so-humble host.  I am not friends on Facebook with this person, so I don’t think he expected me to read it, or perhaps he did.  In any case, the public attacks on me were pretty much unrelenting, personal, involving personal information about my life and many other complaints that just about anybody would find embarrassing and humiliating.

I ended up reading this post and making a passing comment.  What I expected was for several people to be embarrassed that they had been found out criticizing me, but instead what I got instead were more attacks.

I am not wallowing in self-pity here, but instead trying to make what I consider to be an important point about the whole process of “mob rule” and the role that public humiliation plays in it.  I am not convinced that the person who put up this post on Facebook intended public humiliation and bullying to result, but it clearly did.  But I think the main point was that he got caught up in emotional issues (he let his frustration take control) and he stopped having empathy for me as another human being.  To him, I was just a symbol, a name, a “Geoff B” person who may or may not even be a real human being.  In fact, at one point he accused me of not being real, even after several person on the thread said they had met me or knew me.

This is what bullying is about.  We stop seeing the other person as somebody like us.  They are different.  Their politics or religion or other beliefs or what they wear are simply unacceptable.  They are sub-human.   And on-line interactions accentuate this because we cannot see the other person in front of us.  We cannot see the disappoint and hurt on their faces.  We cannot see that they actually care about what is written about them, and they want others to care about them and empathize with them.  When we attack these people specifically, it is no different than coming up to somebody in person and saying the things we are writing.   But because it is done on a computer keyboard, we let ourselves forget this.

Very few of us, especially in the Mormon blog world, would come up to another human being and call that person a “coward,” a “poor Mormon” or tell them directly to their faces that we don’t like them.  But when we are writing it on a keyboard somehow it becomes OK.

In my personal case, the most tragic thing for me was that there were many people who looked at this thread and nobody came forward to say, “look, guys, this is just not right.  You can’t put up a post just to attack a single person by name.”  When I asked the question of whether I was suffering from cyber-bullying, I was derided even more.

There is some good news in all of this.  The first and most important is that I brought some of this on myself by being rude to some of the people leaving comments on M*.  It is clear that my rudeness was freshly in their minds when they left the nasty comments about me.  So, I was not a hapless victim like the people I bullied freshman year:  I am at least partially responsible for getting a bit of nastiness back. I have apologized to all of the people to whom I was rude, and I feel better about that.  So, lesson number one:  if you don’t want to be cyber-bullied (and I don’t), then don’t be rude to others.  Lesson learned.  Will I never be rude to other people again?  Probably not, but I will try.

Second, please, please, please remember that the people you are writing about, especially if you use their names, have real lives and real feelings.  I have yet to meet another human being who cannot be hurt.  Don’t do it, don’t attack people directly like this.  It is simply not right, especially for people who call themselves Saints.

Third, if you see other people being attacked and bullied, stand up for them.  Tell the bullies to back down, especially in an on-line forum where you will not have to protect yourself physically.

And fourth, remember that the Savior and the prophets have all been victims of bullies.  Think of all the times mobs of bullies tried relentless waves of public humiliation to get Joseph Smith to give up his testimony.  Think of the mobs surrounding the Savior attacking him physically and by word.  The Savior says that when we treat people well it is as if we are treating Him well.  Well, if we treat people badly, are we not treating the Savior badly too?  Note:  I am not comparing myself to the Savior or Joseph Smith, but instead simply pointing out that there are bigger problems when mobs get out of control.

I have been in touch with the people who attacked me personally, and as far as I am concerned, the issue is over.   Note that I did not name any names here.  The person who put up the post on Facebook took it down. I am writing this post to remind myself  these lessons and to share my experiences with others.  In short, I am calling on myself and others to simply BE NICE and remember that all of the people who interact on blogs are real human beings with real feelings.

Note:  I will be moderating all comments on this post to make sure no names of anybody involved are released.  As I say, I don’t want to make this personal but instead just want to discuss the issue of bullying and specifically cyber-bullying.




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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

24 thoughts on “The danger of public humiliation (can we call it cyber-bullying?)

  1. Some really good points to remember. I find that over the years I have shyed away from many LDS blogs because of the bullying…ironic isn’t it? I think sometimes on the internet we just say whatever is on our minds instead of stopping to ask, “Would I say this to their face?” That’s the question I have to ask myself so I don’t hurt feelings and friendships.

  2. Thanks for posting, and I’m sorry you had to go through this. It’s true that on the internet it’s all too easy to descend back into High School behavior. The cultural discretion and boundaries we use to communicate as mature adults often disappear when we are on the internet. Blogging does provide greater freedom of expression, and this can be liberating and promote greater depth of discussion. But it’s easy to forget that there are sensitive humans behind each posting, and what we post can have profound emotional impact on the real lives of others.

  3. Confession of a Cyber Bully:

    Excellent post. I agree with the general premise.

    I would like to point out that there is a substantial difference between getting physically assaulted, and being verbally abused. I would also like to iterate that there is a similar difference between being told off to your face by someone in your real community and being ridiculed in cyberspace.

    I grew up in the 1960’s in a violent small town. I had a mild case of polio and wore a brace. My dad was a semi-professional boxer and taught me that the best way to deal with either verbal or physical threats was with a swift punch in the nose. I read those verses in the scriptures about “turning the other cheek” but somehow they didn’t seem to apply to me.

    You can image the result. I was in physical fights virtually every day and I usually lost. I learned that mere verbal taunts were meaningless and were best skipped in favor of actual surprise blows. I also learned that school children are not capable of actually killing another child with their bare hands. Since there was no glory winning against a “handicap,” my tormentors didn’t gain much. As long as guns or knives were not involved I had little to lose. Fighting became a well-honed skill. I almost got sent home from my mission for beating the hell out of a big bully in my LTM group who was foolish enough to throw a punch in my direction. That was one of many low points of my life related to this “skill.”

    We had a saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but talking never hurt me.” You are not able to ignore serious physical damage to your body. But you can choose to ignore verbal insults. Along with the message of reducing verbal bullying, I think we need to fortify our youth against it by pointing out that it only hurts as much as you let it hurt.

    My daughter is named after a flower. When she was in the 7th grade, a trio of 8th graders started teasing her about it along with a chubby Jewish girl on the bus. My wife tried the usual appropriate measures and they didn’t work. One day I renamed the trio: Katie became Catalpa, Stephanie became Sassafrass, and Melanie became Magnolia. I told the two 7th graders to ignore their teasing and act like these names were actually their beloved knick names from just a few years before. It only took a few days before the snotty 9th graders on the bus were using the new names. The 8th and 7th graders joined forces against them. Then they all realized it was pointless and moved onto something else.

    Sunstone magazine had an interesting article recently about the culture of violence in Joseph Smith’s time. He got into fist fights frequently, and not just with his brothers. One of my dreams is to get knocked down by Brother Joseph in a friendly little fight in the next life.

    As far as cyberspace, it is really, really easy to leave a site and never interact with those cyber-folks again. Sometimes, I admit, I just like to sprinkle a little pepper under somebody’s tail because it is so harmless in comparison to mouthing off in Sunday school or on the basketball court and especially in comparison with the physical violence typical in schools half a century ago. I have been kicked off websites and I don’t take it personal. You shouldn’t take anything you read on the computer too seriously either.

  4. They’ve actually done studies to show that the part of the brain that regulates good social behavior requires instant interaction with a face. So online, we have a natural tendency towards being nasty and not even realizing it. And, since both parties are affected in that way, it tends to escalate as the oneupsmanship begins.

    Also, I’m always amazed how much politics brings out the worst in us. Politics is truly a ‘meaning-meme.’ To have one’s politics challenged is often an attack on the person’s meaning in life. I think that is why it gets so heated at times.

  5. A certain LDS blog likes to highlight the “worst comment of the week.” I consider that bullying.

    Despite the stereotype of bullies lacking self esteem and trying to tear others down because they want to feel good (which is false), Bullies consider themselves better than those they attack. Geoff nails it – Bullies see their victims as less than human (or at least, less than them).

  6. I’d like to point out that I approved twiceuponatime’s comment, even though it says something negative about another blog, because based on the description of the “worse comment of the week,” I would have to agree with him/her that this does appear to be bullying. I will definitely approve a rebuttal to this claim from whoever is responsible for that blog (I have never even heard of “worst comment of the week” and I don’t know what blog that is on, but again this does seem to me from afar to create the atmosphere for cyber-bullying and public humiliation — I could be wrong).

  7. Geoff,

    By the way, I liked the way you approached this post.

    I would add a comment. We shouldn’t see ‘bullying’ as the same as ‘honest discussion.’ But I suspect any sort of bullying *can* be rethought as honest discussion and usually is and likewise any sort of honest discussion can come across to some as bullying and usually will be seen in that light by someone or other.

    I’ve love to hear other people’s thoughts on this. I wrote a post on tolerance a while back trying to answer this question for myself. I think ‘tolerance’ in it’s original form (not as we normally think of it today) is the right way to handle an honest discussion. There are, therefore specific things that are crossing the line. Here is what I suggested as “the line” in a previous post:

    * Tolerance Does Not Mock Other People’s Beliefs
    * Tolerance Does Not Misrepresent, Lie, of be Deceptive about Other People’s Beliefs
    * Tolerance is Being Respectful and Civil in Your Communication to People of Another Belief
    * Tolerance Does Not Use Stereotypes
    * Tolerance Allows People to State their Own Beliefs; It Does Not State it For Them
    * Tolerance Does Not Use Dual Standards

    I personally think saying “I think worst comment of the week is a type of bullying” is clearly with in the above suggested guidelines.

    But here is a question for you: does having “the worst comment of the week” cross the line? Which point above does it violate? Does it violate ‘being respectful’?

    I seems the bottom line on tolerance is being consistent or “do unto others…” But that guideline is tough because we often think we can handle the way we treat other people if directed against ourselves and we are, in fact, often wrong. But try to point out the inconsistency to the us and we have a billion reasons why ‘this situation isn’t the same as that one.’

  8. Bruce, thoughtful comment. I would add at least two other definition of “crossing the line.”

    *Tolerance is following the Golden Rule and treating people like you would like to be treated, especially in an on-line format were personal contact does not exist.
    *Tolerance is avoiding personal, public attacks in a way intended to humiliate the other person.

    As I say, there is a HUGE difference between discussing ideas and personal attacks. If somebody wants to say, “libertarians are idiots,” that is an attack on a group that I associate myself with, but I can distance myself from this by saying, “yeah, some libertarians I know do make stupid comments.” This is why when you said “Republicans hate Mormons” I did not take it personally even though I am a Republican. Yeah, it’s true, some Republicans hate Mormons and your point was valid. But I am obviously the type of Republican who does not, and I support candidates who are avoiding bigotry, so this does not apply to me or the people I support. However, saying, “Geoff B the libertarian is an idiot” is clearly a personal attack on me that is not acceptable. It violates many of the rules of tolerance and is directed squarely at me.

    I would add that “do unto others” is easier than you make it sound. I agree that we violate it all the time (I am guilty of that), but it is really the easiest way of making the point that certain things are not OK. “Would you like it if I posted something on Facebook personally attacking you” is really clear-cut, to the point and easy to understand.

  9. Forgot to answer the “worst comment of the week” question. I have never seen this section, and I don’t even know what blog it is on, so I guess i would have to see the context. If “Worst comment of the week” is kind of light-hearted and self-deprecating, then, no, I don’t see it as a bad thing. If “Worst comment of the week” is publicly mocking other people and deliberately trying to humiliate them, then it sounds like bullying to me. Is it a section that the writer would mind belonging to? Are people following the golden rule, being respectful and avoiding personal attacks? Those would be the relevant questions for me.

  10. I believe that BCC has that WCOTW award, but so far I don’t think we’ve had any winners. Usually it is reserved for fantastically awful trolls.

  11. Geoff B.

    I’m sorry you feel that you were bullied by some of the comments of your last post. Let me make an observation (and one I think that is informed by recent attacks on my own character and scholarship, which, dare I say it, occurred implicitly on this site and more explicitly elsewhere). While I agree that the personal attacks have no place in debates about substantial and important topics of history and contemporary culture and politics, when one enters the public arena with one’s ideas, one should expect to have such attacks occur. Thick skin is needed.

    The overarching point about how Mormons are covered in the media, I think, articulated at M* is spot on. Mormons get it more than any other faith tradition in today’s media landscape. many if not most journalists and pundits (from the left and the right) don’t understand Mormons in large measure and don’t care too. And in a political season when there are prominent Mormons seeking high office, a devout Mormon’s faith is an easy target for ridicule. This is unfortunate and should not be so.

    Yet there are (non-LDS) journalists and academics who are just as appalled by this treatment as those who contribute to and edit this site. These folks (myself included) hope to offer constructive and critical (the two are not mutually exclusive) views on Mormon religious history and contemporary American politics. These writers care deeply about not adding to the fodder for anti-Mormons or anti-Romneys, hence they work to reach out to church officials, everyday Mormons (white and black) to get feedback about the ideas they hope to present (I use the third person plural here because I know that I’m not alone in doing what I hope is thoughtful and considered work on such an important area of political and academic debate). Many of them also care deeply for Mormons and have a great respect for the Church itself.

    M*: Not all non-Mormons who write about Mormonism, even about Mormon politicians are not your enemies. In fact the opposite is true. We seek interlocutors with whom we can debate, disagree (and agree) and display respect. We all share a goal, I believe and hope, of creating a more informed public.

    In the next few months, I’ll be helping to start a new online magazine (with University backing) that seeks to create a space that is poly-partisan and poly-religious, but is always respectful. I invite M* readers and writers to visit this site (which I’d be happy to provide a link to and discuss when we launch in the early spring). I also invite M*’s constituency to think about contributing to such a project, to enter the space, so to speak where their ideas might find support, criticism and probably both, but a space where the persons will not be attacked.

  12. Steve, I have tried to win the worst comment award, but my comments go into comment moderation every time. Does that mean I have already won the award?

  13. Brian, only the truly creative and ingenious deserve the WCOTW award — it will take more than getting modded. Be creative!

  14. Max, thanks for coming by to comment. Let me say that your project seems great, and I look forward to it. I think non-members learning more about the Church and talking about it in a respectful manner is a great thing, and I wish there were hundreds more academics like you doing this.

    I am sure you would like me to address your TNR piece. Let me say that I have read it and found it mostly fair. Then why does this blog say “the liberal assault on the Church picks up steam” and refer to your piece and why did I refer to it in my other post? The reason is one of placement, the title of the piece and timing. TNR does not want Mitt Romney to be the next president. This will become increasingly obvious in the weeks and months ahead if Mitt does well in the coming caucuses and primaries. As you are well aware, many people don’t really read thoughtful pieces like yours. They read the headline and perhaps skim the first paragraph. What do you think the vast majority of people will come away with after reading the headline of your piece? I can tell you exactly what the intent is: “Oh yeah, Romney is a Mormon, and those Mormons are bigoted against African Americans. That scum.” I grew up in northern California and went to school at Stanford, and my friends from my youth are, and I don’t exaggerate, 95 percent liberal/progressive. I have heard words similar to that from, and I don’t exaggerate, a good dozen of them. So, the timing of your piece is not accidental, the headline is not accidental, and the intent is clearly political, ie, to bring Romney down and elicit that type of visceral response. So, the claim that the “liberal assault on the Church picks up steam” is, in my mind, undeniable.

    This of course has nothing to do with your well-written and researched piece, which is just fodder for a larger war. If you were to write this a year from now, after either Obama or Romney (or hopefully Ron Paul) were elected, there would of course be no issues, and I would probably be describing it as “a thoughtful piece on the Church’s history of race relations.” So, my personal issue with your piece has nothing to do with you (and the quality of the piece) and everything to do with TNR editors, who are on a campaign against Romney. I do not think for a second that you are on a campaign against Romney based on the actual content of your article.

    As I say, in my opinion we need a LOT more people like you, so welcome and well met.

  15. “Not all non-Mormons who write about Mormonism, even about Mormon politicians are not your enemies. In fact the opposite is true. We seek interlocutors with whom we can debate, disagree (and agree) and display respect. We all share a goal, I believe and hope, of creating a more informed public.”

    Max, thanks for this. I look forward to watching this project unfold. Personally, I’m less concerned about people having an opinion about Mormonism, as long as they are actually informed before they form one. I appreciate so much the many reasoned voices out there being willing to engage in this kind of conversation.

    “when one enters the public arena with one’s ideas, one should expect to have such attacks occur. ”

    I think anyone who does enter the public arena knows that this will happen. I think the point of Geoff’s post, though, is that it still shouldn’t happen. It doesn’t have to happen. It’s an all-too-easy trap to fall into, though, for any one of us. And I think it’s good to remember and be aware of that.

    In fact, I think it all gets back to the quote I included from your comment above. I think that when bullying does happen, it is a symptom of the more general problem of people often not being able to “debate, disagree (and agree) and display respect.” I personally think this is one of the things that is most amiss in our country…that we’ve lost the ability to simply talk about ideas, problems, etc. without conversations turning into opportunistic attacking. Bullying/humiliating/etc doesn’t just hurt individuals, it hurts us all.

  16. Good point Michelle. Anybody who has visited the comments section at the Salt Lake Tribune (or just about any other well-trafficked web site) knows that if you are going to put out an opinion you are going to be attacked. Frankly, compared to some of the garbage you see out there the attack on me was pretty minor. I would hope, however, that we don’t set our standards based on the lowest common denominator. I think you can have vigorous debate without personally insulting the other person. Just to use one example, Bruce Nielson, my co-blogger at M*, and I have had some real knock-down battles. Vigorous is an understatement for our slug-fests. We even have them when we meet in person. But yet we have never gotten personal. We are discussing IDEAS, and the ideas either have merit or they don’t. I like my ideas to be tested by other smart people because it helps me frame things in my mind. But I don’t like the attacks becoming personal because a)it often becoming bullying, b)it does nothing to further the debate, c)it wastes a lot of time that could be spent discussing ideas and d)it creates contention. Again, I am not claiming innocence — I recognize that in my zeal I have said some nasty things over the years. But I think the record shows that I would prefer a different kind of atmosphere.

  17. I can bear witness to the fact that Geoff and I argue constantly.

    And I only call him “booger-head” (my nastiest personal attack) once in a while. 😉

    Max M,

    Yes, please give links when you have your projects going.

  18. Geoff B.,
    bullying and boundary maintenance go closely together. The Bloggernacle is particulary prone because it is pretty conformist and feels like the internet is its only space for its members to feel open and accepted in their beliefs. The WCOTW is indeed an occasion for what you call ‘bullying.’

  19. SilverRain,

    Personally, I thought things got out of hand when you started handing out boxing gloves because in a group like this we should be playing Halo to settle our political differences. 😛

  20. Adam,

    Personally I see nothing wrong with boundary maintenance. (And I’m sure you don’t either.) Groups needs boundaries and in fact aren’t groups if they don’t have them.

    I do, however, have concerns about deciding that “the internet” is your boundary.

  21. Just a thought about cyber bullying in general. I believe the bullying we’re talking about here can be defined as conflict. In a conflict mediation course I took, conflict was not defined as a simple difference of opinion. It is also not competition, nor a difference in background, culture, or experience. Nor is it a small “pinch.” Conflict is defined as “a relationship where at least one person is angry, resentful or hurt or behaves in a manner that impedes functioning/progress.” For example, my wife and I are not in a conflict because I like the red tie and she likes the blue tie. We are in a conflict because I resent her that she would deliberately buy me the blue tie, knowing that I don’t like it. And so I’m going to teach her a lesson by giving her the silent treatment.
    I think “tolerance,” “personal attacks,” and appeals to the Golden Rule are trying to address the overarching issue of conflict, but I think the real litmus test is the question: “Am I (Is someone) angry, resentful, or hurt in this interaction, and is it impeding our progress?” If such feelings exist, I think it qualifies as contention, and we know what the scriptures say about contention.

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