Thursday, 8 August 2013

Silence or shouting? The problem of bullying

Since the silence was hardly been deafening, you might have missed the news that last Sunday was Twitter Silence Day.

It was a day when some predominantly middle-class journalists and columnists decided not to tweet as a protest against online abuse of women.

Let’s be clear: the nature and level of some of the abuse is disgusting. There is no excuse for it.

Not that she’s alone, but classicist Mary Beard seems to have become a prime and repeated target.

This isn’t just a spot of name-calling, even with the sort of added Anglo-Saxon words that renowned ‘double-cunter’ Paul Dacre would be in admiration of, but goes into explicit and sexual terms, and has reached the level of rape threats and bomb threats.

You have to wonder at the mentality of those who come out with this sort of thing. What do they think they’re doing?

Beard has taken to ‘outing’ some of the abusers by retweeting them. Only last week, one such episode turned darkly hilarious when another woman tweeted back, telling the professor that she knew the address of the abuser’s mother and, if she wanted, she’d forward it.

They don’t all hide behind anonymity and are clearly not all uneducated illiterates. It’s not a class thing or a race thing, because the abusers come from a wide range of backgrounds.

And it’s not something that can be blamed on the internet, social media in general of Twitter specifically.

I’ve had a taste of it online – the imbecile who disagrees with you, runs off to look at any picture of you on Twitter, and then comes back to declare that you’re an ‘ugly cunt’ who is clearly single etc.

I’ve had it in other online places over the years: comments about being a Nazi who had a home decorated in lampshades made of human skin. Which was all the more amusing since the abusive little sod was himself at least sympathetic with the far right.

I’ve had emails with the old fascist tactic of ‘we know who you are and where you live’.

I’ve had abuse in the street: just one example being “Oi! You’re a big fat cunt!” Self-awareness was not his strong point: he was an extremely big, fat slob standing around outside a pub trying to see if his brain cell could come up with something to entertain him.

And some of this was deeply upsetting at the time.

But let’s be clear, so too were all the incidents, over many years and involving more than one female boss, of being put down at every opportunity, often on the basis of how I looked or dressed.

Oh, the language might not be as blatant, but the intent is no less negative.

So let’s not pretend that bullying and abuse are one-way streets.

However, to come back to the point about precisely what is going on with some of these Twitter abusers.

It’s all about power and attempts to exert it. And it isn’t remotely new.

As Libby Purves delightfully explains: “Years ago, when I was the first woman presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in the days of green-ink letters, I amused myself, unbeknownst to my employers, with a standard reply to any correspondence that was couched in rudely misogynistic terms (many men gave their real address, so secure were they in the patriarchy). I’d write:

“Thank you for your interesting letter. I am sure you will not mind my passing it on to Professor (Fictional name) of the Cambridge University Institute of Psychosexual Medicine, who has a research study about men who write strongly-worded letters to women in public life.”

I had several panicky replies forbidding me to pass on their name and even apologising. Nothing scares a nasty bloke more than the thought of someone knowing all about him. Digital technology doesn’t change that.”

In the days before the internet – or prehistory, as it sometimes known to today’s youngsters – I was bullied at school, too, but in some ways my parents seemed to regard it as quite normal (both of them had, apparently, suffered it too) and believed that teaching the old ‘sticks and stones’ rhyme would have power over bullies, together with the knowledge that a kick to the shins would sort out problems where that didn't.

There was an irony here in that constant put-downs were my father’s chosen oevre.

But while my fists eventually sorted out two particular situations of long-term persistent bullying (both were in all-girl schools, incidentally), one nearly got me into a real jam, while in the first, I apparently nearly broke the ring-leader's nose.

Interestingly, in both cases, the culprits were younger. Both also taught me that ignoring it is far from guaranteed to actually work.

But then again, that’s easier said than done, as I later found it in the workplace, where a boss bullying is a rather different matter, since it is based on very specific and quite real, economic power.

At least these days we take bullying more seriously.

And the kind of harassment that Beard and others have been faced with is prosecutable – as harassment. In other words, there are real, existing legal solutions to such issues.

I remain convinced that censorship is to be avoided at all. And the idea of a Twitter report button concerns me, as it’s easy enough to see how it could be abused (for want of a better phrase) against people who have done absolutely nothing wrong.

If there is to be any such system, it needs very serious and good moderation.

In the same vein, I reserve the right to call a politician, for instance, a choice name, just as I don’t go bleating to anyone if I get called something similar. These days, I’m old enough, ugly enough and thick-skinned enough to realise that if I want to play hardball, I have no right to expect to be treated with kid gloves myself.

There may be, however, some cases where some forums need either to be closed altogether or where some very strict and serious moderation needs to come into play.

Such an example is, a social networking Q&A site that has featured in a number of cyber bullying cases, up to and including ones where young people have taken their own lives, apparently as a direct response to serious online bullying.

The latest to die in such an horrifically tragic way was 14-year-old Hannah Smith.

Prime Minister David Cameron has called for people to “boycott” such sites. Yes, because that’s what teenagers are going to do, isn’t it? And instead of putting all the responsibility on young people who could become abused, how about acting at government level to demand that such sites be closed down or better regulated?

Is it hysterical to ask how many more young people have to die before it ceases to be their responsibility alone?

The onus so often seems to be on the bullied.

And here I’m also wary of the words. I deeply dislike the promotion of any ideas of inherent victimhood. My own personal experience is that the key is confidence.

Since getting some, I’ve never had a repeat of any of the verbal assaults I was on the receiving end of in the street. It’s a clich√© for a reason, to say that bullies themselves are basically cowards. They don’t pick on someone they realistically think will fight back. But they seem to be able to easily spot those who will not; those who are low on confidence.

I do also wonder whether part of the targeting of Beard and other high-profile women is not so much just about sex as also about a very British dislike and distrust of intellectualism. It could also be suggested that it’s about a dislike or even fear of those who don’t conform, and we Brits do, in so many ways, remain wedded to conformity.

Beard most certainly doesn’t conform – in her case, on the grounds of how she has chosen to allow herself to be seen, without kowtowing to conventional and mainstream views on make-up, hair etc.

I wonder too what other issues are at play. Does a society that is, of itself, so troubled with massive job insecurity, for instance, also help to create a climate where some feeling need to target those who appear to have success?

In a country where politicians regularly demonise those who cannot easily make their own voices heard – the disabled, for instance – is it then easier to start targeting all manner of other groups?

Does such a level of abuse exist in other Western European nations?

A good friend, who was a young adult in Germany in the 1960s and had a very libertarian attitude toward anything that occurs between consenting adults, once observed to me that he was also shocked (and he was pretty unshockable) at the way in which he overheard British men talking openly about women.

There are real questions about bullying and about the wider culture, but they seem to get lost – perhaps because they’re difficult.

What we don’t need is some really poor new legislation or scheme, but education and a system whereby real offences can be easily reported and are properly followed up and, where applicable, the law is brought to bear.

What benefits nobody is gestures. And while I sympathise with anyone – male or female – who has been harassed and abused online, the Twitter silence was just that. If anything, there’s a danger that it will have given encouragement to the trolls: ‘oh look – if we do it more, maybe they’ll fuck off altogether and we’ll have won’.

That Beard was subsequently berated by Giles Coren for ‘breaking’ the silence by using Twitter to highlight yet more abuse should perhaps tell us something about the rather elitist nature of this protest.

Now, on one hand, good for Giles for considering the abuse unacceptable and for supporting those (or some of those) facing it. But frankly, outing these bastards is actually far better. Let them be seen for their attitudes. Don’t hide them – and certainly don’t hide from them.

The abuse is not acceptable. But in terms of social media, boycotting it is tantamount to giving in.

Many, many women (and supportive men) chose not to be silent. They used the day, instead, to go about their normal social media business, or to #ShoutOut against sexist behaviour and, even more positively, list #InspiringWomen – a hashtag that was both educational and full of surprises, and precisely because of that, genuinely inspiring.

The underlying roots and causes are complex – and the last thing this issue needs is simple answers that will merely wallpaper those real roots and causes. And treating it as though it's essentially a matter of sexism will also get in the way of finding real and lasting ways of dealing with bullying as a whole.

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