NOTE: This post originally ran in my blog, Busted Bitches and Internet Stalkers on April 8, 2013.
GUEST POST BY JOE MONKS –
By: Joe Monks – http://www.sightunseenpictures.com
I run several true crime groups, and occasionally use my blog to comment on social issues-everything from reality TV to politics to pretty much any topic that captures the public’s attention. Over the past two years, I’ve noticed a trend that, while it should be straightforward and easy to pin down, is as amorphous and malleable as The Blob.
Bullying. It’s hip and trendy. Fodder for internet discussions-and flame wars. The subject of movies. The target of online activists and hacktivists. Sound bite gold for CNN and FOX and the who’s-who of the mainstream media. It’s the bane of organizations like stopbullying.gov, Full Time Nanny, Anonymous and BULLYVILLE, to name a few. And, while the effort is noble, I can’t help but think that we need to get a better handle on the definition of bullying, because I’m seeing a scapegoating that in some instances borders on hysterical.
I want to start out by making one thing clear. I’m no apologist for online stalkers, cyberbullies, or the good ol’ fashioned in-your-face personal tormentor we all came into contact with at one time or another in jr. high or elsewhere. Part of the reason I’m bothering to say anything, in fact, is to draw attention to that very problem. Part of doing that, I believe, is to start narrowing down this vast grey area where the act of bullying is concerned.
Recently, the group BULLYVILLE made news by outing several long-time harassers of reality TV star Kate Gosselin, who’d been victimized by a number of vicious cyberstalkers. In an article, I read some of the tweets directed at Gosselin, and to be sure, some of them were not only demeaning and creepy, but did seem like legitimate threats. Not to mention, some were outright defamatory, making criminal claims about Gosselin for which no proof was provided. On top of that, it appeared that some of the abuse was coordinated. A mob-mentality could be seen in tweets posted by certain clusters of people. BULLYVILLE took up Kate’s cause, and as of this writing, at least two of the abusers have apologized publicly, and a lawsuit is being launched to go after ‘the worst of the worst’.
I wasn’t terribly impressed by all the tweets I read. Out of context, on their own, several seemed to be little more than rude criticism. As a writer/publisher who works in the film industry, that gave me pause. It wasn’t until I did more digging that I found the treasure trove of tweets that the media didn’t savor re-publishing.
But it did get me to thinking. Because to some extent, I don’t have a problem with people criticizing Gosselin. I think that her choices have dictated that there will be critics, and some will be vocal. Many very vocal. I’ve taken my shots at the folks behind Toddlers & Tiaras, and find the whole Honey Boo Boo phenomena rather repulsive. I do firmly believe the mom there is exploiting her child. I think it’s unconscionable. I find it repugnant that she would sex up her child like that and put her on TV as a cash-cow. I have no problem with expressing those opinions and don’t think others who share them (or who disagree) should be concerned about doing so.
I think the difference is, when you tweet to Kate Gosselin or another celeb tens of thousands of times, you’ve crossed the line. You have left the grey area. A grey area that’s by far too vast. A grey area that begs to be better defined, lest the hysterics win and everything that one can take as being critical runs the risk of being labeled bullying.
From Facebook, the world’s biggest social network. This is from a while ago, and the names and much of the text has been altered. It gives you the gist, though, which is all that’s important.
Status Update. Posted a new pic to her gallery.
Oh, gross! Did U really wear that sweater??? What’s wrong with U?
What’s wrong w it?
Piss off, Tina, why do you always have to be such a bitch? Stop bullying
You could’ve left it off.
Why do you guys have to be such a**holes!
Kids. High schoolers, to be exact, from Anywheresville USA. Monica thinks Dawn was getting bullied. I don’t. Somebody probably thinks Tom was sexually harassing Dawn. I don’t.
You’d be surprised how often a line like the following appears in a true crime story that makes one of my lists. This, for example: “…by friends who said the victim had been unfriended on Facebook by several classmates.” Or, “According to reports, a group of friends had recently spurned the teen on shared social networks.”
You read that right. ‘Victim.’ ‘True crime’ stories. The kind of stories in which a 13-year-old is found hanging in a closet, or turns up in the woods with a parents’ bottle of sleeping pills empty beside them. Over things like getting unfriended/unfollowed, or being criticized online.
Monica is a problem, because Monica is the knee-jerk type who sees everything critical as bullying. She’s the type that doesn’t see Tom being too embarrassed to tell Dawn he thinks she’s cute, so he does it like many boys do, through innuendo and proxy, hoping one of Dawn’s friends will ask him what he meant by that post in the cafeteria the next day. He isn’t sexually harassing her, he’s making a lighthearted comment and grinning.
Problem is, and this goes for the bullying epidemic as a whole, not every criticism is bullying. Not every offhand comment is cyberstalking or sexual harassment. Had Dawn been ridiculed in post after post by those above, it would be different. That’s what makes the Kate Gosselin case so onerous—the sheer volume of harassing tweets. But in the Facebook exchange, all we have is one girl telling another she wore a hideous sweater and a guy saying it would’ve been cool had she skipped wearing it entirely. I cannot, in any way, shape or form, view that type of comment as an example of bullying. Doesn’t meet my standard. Nor does unfollowing somebody. Or unfriending them on Facebook. Yet, you look up enough stories, you’ll find lines like the one I mentioned, published by reputable news outlets as verifiable examples of bullying.
To employ some internet slang, I call BS. I don’t think any kid deserves to feel guilty for unfollowing somebody or blocking them on Twitter. I don’t think any teenager in that fragile world needs to be held up as a bully for not approving a friend on AskFM or Facebook. There’s a vast difference between the kind of abuse Kate Gosselin was subjected to and the examples cited by media sources that, to them at least, constitute bullying.
Listen, bullying has been around since humans have been around. That’s just a fact. Bullying exists, and it’s vicious, and it’s uncalled for, and the world would be a much better place if it didn’t exist. But by the same token, simply labeling everything bullying isn’t helping matters, and I believe is hurting in the long run. If someone wants to post to Honey Boo Boo’s mom to tell her they think she’s a skank who’s fame-whoring off her child, I don’t want that freedom of expression quashed because of some misguided notion that only bullies are critical. Maybe it comes across as crude or tasteless, but it certainly isn’t illegal to express that type of opinion. Do it dozens of times day after day after day? Then we’re talking something very different indeed. Kate Gosselin is, after all, somebody who puts herself and her children out there for the public to see. Criticism is going to come with that. Dawn may put up galleries of pics on Facebook for the public to see, and if people think she made a fashion faux-pas? Well…so be it. For something to qualify as bullying, though, I believe it needs to meet a more stringent benchmark.
I don’t want the hysterics to win. I don’t want people to feel they can’t voice their opinions, even if they’re very negative, because no one should fear that. No one should wonder, “Gee, if I post to so-and-so’s Twitter to tell them they looked like an elephant on tranquilizers on Dancing With the Stars, will I be called a bully?” if it runs over two or three tweets. We can’t have that.
Bullying. We should know what it is just by seeing it. But too many people don’t. It’s time for some rules to be established, some consensus to be reached so that bullying doesn’t become a catch-all term that loses its meaning. That would be a great disservice. Victims of bullying don’t deserve that. They don’t deserve to be lumped in with, “Oh, another one of those…” They’ve earned the resources now being made available. They have every right to the protection of law enforcement when reprehensible claims are made. Those who accuse others of being criminals, of being pedophiles, of being child abusers, etc. (as Kate Gosselin was), deserve to have their tormentors outed and prosecuted. That isn’t going to happen if the courts are inundated with cases of so-called bullying made up of group-unfollow campaigns or because some kid posted a Youtube video doing something stupid and the world reacted with scorn.
Let’s narrow down that grey area, and make it clear what constitutes online bullying. It may not fit every case, but it should help to establish where the line is. Right now? I think that line’s as blurry as video of Bigfoot. Only, this problem is real, and it’s costing lives. It’s making teenagers reach for a rope instead of thinking about options. It’s making victims rue ever buying a computer. It’s making true bullies feel empowered whenever they drive somebody into the fetal position, too afraid to speak up. That’s the problem we need to focus on. The true cyberstalkers and bullies. Let’s not lose sight of that by simply spreading the net so wide as to include offenses which really don’t qualify. Do that, and we’ll all be best-served in the long run.