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.