Monday, 16 April 2012

The Internet: A Haven For Bullies?

"I hope u don't see Christmas because of cancer and ur kids never enjoy Christmas ever again."

A shocking statement? I certainly think so. This is just one of the many, vile messages sent via Twitter to the comedian Alan Davies, after he misguidedly (and very insensitively) suggested that Liverpool FC were wrong for refusing to play a match on the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 fans lost their lives.

With feelings understandably running high so close to the anniversary itself (15th April), Alan's remarks, however harmless he may have intended them to be, were bound to cause offence to those who lost loved ones in the tragedy and some anger was to be expected. However, the deluge of bile that Alan Davies received immediately outweighed his original comments. It's important to remember that although his words were undoubtedly insensitive, he at no point "mocked the dead," as he was subsequently accused of doing; he simply said that other teams play on the anniversaries of other disasters and asked why Liverpool didn't do the same. Rash words, spoken without thought of how they might sound to those affected by events at Hillsborough, but not an outright mockery of the dead, or an attack on the grieving. At least I don't believe that's how they were intended.

Yet, within hours of the comments being heard, Alan Davies was flooded with a cascade of horrendous tweets: "You f***ing w***er, I'm gonna piss on your mother's grave. Hope she doesn't rest in peace" and "just you TRY going to Liverpool now you c**t, you'll DIE" are just two of many, all of which shame those who sent them more than Alan Davies' words could ever shame him.

Yet this is not an isolated incident. Even more worryingly, there are cases of celebrities and non-celebrities alike, being sent abusive messages without having done anything to provoke it.

In one of the first cases of its kind, student Liam Stacey was jailed for 56 days after being found guilty of racial abuse via the social networking site, Twitter. Following the news that footballer Fabrice Muamba had collapsed on the pitch after suffering a cardiac arrest, Liam tweeted: "LOL! F*ck Muamba, he's dead!!!" When some of his Twitter followers took offence at this incredibly insensitive statement, Liam began referring to them as "wog c**ts" and telling them to go and "pick cotton." His responses became more and more racially offensive and abusive (most newspaper reports declared the worst of his tweets to be so offensive that they couldn't be published), until eventually, his Twitter followers began reporting him to police forces around the UK, leading to his eventual arrest and subsequent incarceration. Liam Stacey claimed he was drunk and deeply regretted his actions, but the judge still insisted that an example had to be made of him.

Whether or not his prison sentence was fair or, as many have claimed, he was unfairly made a scapegoat for all "trolls" who hide behind the internet in order to attack others, remains the subject of much debate. What concerns me, however, is the seemingly unstoppable rise of the internet bully, hiding behind his/her computer screen, thinking the relative anonymity given by an online pseudonym means that they can say whatever they like, whenever they like and to whoever they like.

"Cyberbullying" - where a person uses the internet to send nasty messages to someone, or to write hurtful, often false statements about their victim, encouraging others to join in, is on the increase. Incidents of people setting up fake Twitter or Facebook accounts to make fun of others are all too common and there have been cases where entire Facebook groups have been created for no purpose other than to ridicule someone - often a person of school-age who will already be suffering during the day and now feels that they're being attacked at home as well. The combination of bullying at school and at home, via social networking sites can be too much for the victim to take. In October of 2006, schoolgirl Megan Meier committed suicide just three weeks before her 14th birthday. Her parents brought an investigation into their daughter's death and it was eventually attributed to bullying via the social networking site, MySpace. The worst of the bullying came via an account belonging to "Josh Evans," supposedly a 16 year old boy. However, this was a fabricated account, which several different people contributed to, in the hope of humiliating and bullying 13 year old Megan. Most shockingly of all, the person who opened up the account was the mother of one of Megan's former friends, a woman by the name of Lori Drew, who actively sent abusive messages to the teenager under the alias of Josh Evans. The final message Megan received read: "You are a bad person and everybody hates you. Have a shitty rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you." Megan hung herself and was found 20 minutes later.

Sadly, Megan's death is not the only one attributed to cyberbullying and the bullies are no longer always resorting to fake accounts, such is their gloating conviction that they cannot and will not be punished for their actions. Nor does the habit of cyberbullying belong only to social networking sites.

Online forums can be a haven for bullies, who manipulate other members into thinking they're "funny" or "edgy," rather than have the rest of the forum openly call them out as the bully they truly are. I know this from personal experience. I used to belong to a forum and I would like to state now that I can well imagine what a difficult job it is to moderate such a place and to ensure that bullying is always stamped out. However, some remarks are bound to slip through the cracks and when "cliques" form - especially when people are manipulative and clever enough to involve a moderator in their "group" - all too often, a person can feel bullied, with nobody to report their concerns to. In any forum, there are bound to be arguments amongst people and the odd remark that causes upset or offence. I can remember, only too well, posting a photograph of myself in a new outfit I'd bought and returning later to see if anyone had commented, only to see a post written by one person on the forum I knew to be a bully, saying: "Why is everyone saying nice things to her about this photo? She might believe you and think she's actually pretty. I think you should all be honest and tell her how ugly she is. It's better she knows the truth."

Now that statement in isolation can't necessarily be deemed as bullying and although I was very hurt (and had a bit of a cry) about it, I had to accept that the person who wrote it wasn't going to be "punished" for it. For reasons more personal than bullying, I no longer use that internet forum and as I have all of the friends I made through it as Facebook or Twitter contacts, I don't miss it at all. But there are thousands - millions - of people who do still use internet forums on a daily basis and encounter hurtful remarks with an alarming frequency.

What is it that makes a bully turn to the internet? In my view it's the sheer ease and anonymity it offers. In just a few seconds, you can type a hurtful, nasty message to someone and send it without fear of any real comeback. It only takes minutes to set up a Facebook group designed to do nothing but strike fear and humiliation in the heart of your victim and it's ridiculously easy to have a fake account from which to do your dirty work. Bullies are - without fail - always cowards. Being able to abuse and threaten someone without having to face that person is almost irresistible to a bully. But what is just a few minutes out of their life to the perpetrator, is so much more than that to the victim.

I've been bullied. Online and offline. I've had accusations levelled at me via the internet which were untrue and which I was unable to defend myself against, such was the level of nastiness and determination that they were right about me. I've even been wrongly labelled the bully when I've tried to stand up for myself. Anyone who thinks that messages sent on the internet are somehow less hurtful than bullying in "real life" is wrong. When you're bullied at school or at work, you can go home at the end of the day and feel safe. When someone is sending you vile messages, or badmouthing you online, you're already at home. Your safe place has been taken. And who do you complain to? You feel incredibly alone.

Alan Davies has, since his remarks, donated £1000 to the Justice For The 96 Hillsborough campaign. He has apologised and explained that he didn't set out to cause offence. But those who sent him tweets of such a disgusting nature that they instantly obliterated any genuine point they might have conveyed, have, with one notable exception, made no such apology. Such is the cowardice of the bully - online and off.

Fabrice Muamba left hospital today, having amazed doctors with his quick recovery. Liam Stacey appealed against his sentence. He lost.

The internet is a wonderful thing. A tool that can used for so many wonderful things and a part of our lives that I suspect most of us would now be lost without. Freedom of speech is also a wonderful thing. Freedom to express ourselves and to put our opinions out there - it's one of the reasons why I'm so glad I live in the modern, Western world. But when do we cross the line from free speech, to abuse? When does banter become bullying?

Perhaps we will never fully stamp out trolling or cyberbullying. But we can be vigilant against it. We can tell ourselves to stop and think before we put our fingers to the keyboard. To consider the consequences of our actions before we hit "send" or "post." Maybe that way, we can use the internet for good, without hurting others. Perhaps we can all do our best to ensure that there'll never be another teenager committing suicide because of abuse online.

Think before you post.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

"Don't Hate Me Because I'm Beautiful..."

I'm going to start off by saying I'm a little angry with myself for writing this blog. Angry because I'm giving The Daily Fail more attention than it deserves and angry because it's a rather predictable response to something that was probably only ever intended to cause a reaction like this in the first place. But here goes anyway...
In Yesterday's Daily Mail newspaper, there was an article written by a lady named Samantha Brick. I don't really wish to link to the article, because according to whispers from The Internet People (by which I mean, "I read this on Twitter"), The Daily Mail have already made a whopping £30,000 in revenue from the surge of people rushing to their website to read Ms Brick's offending article and I sure as Hell don't wish to line their (or her) pockets any further. But do a little Googling and I'm certain you'll find the piece in question - and probably a zillion blogs and responses just like this one, too.
For those of you who live overseas, or who haven't seen the article, however, I will explain it here, in brief.
Samantha Brick, you see, is beautiful. She is so stunning, that wherever she goes, men shower her with free drinks, compliments and attention. When she's out and about, blokes rush to help her with her shopping, so overcome are they by her good looks. She has doors opened for her so often that she doesn't actually know how to work them herself. I may have made that last bit up. The trouble facing poor Sam, is that being so utterly gorgeous isn't an enjoyable experience. Why? Because women are so disgustingly jealous, that they make life rather unpleasant for her. The poor love has never been a bridesmaid at any of her female friends' weddings. All the ladies she knows are paranoid that she might steal their husbands, so don't invite her anywhere, lest their other halves are overcome with sheer desire and no longer fancy them, due to their utter plainness in comparison. Life for Samantha Brick is, she tells us, horribly difficult. Because she's JUST SO BEAUTIFUL and it's JUST NOT FAIR.
Oh, by the way, this is Samantha Brick:
Get on your knees and worship her, you ugly fools!
Now I have several problems with Brick and her article. I'm about to list them and I'd better do it quickly, because I'll be honest, staring at that picture is difficult; she's so stunning I think I'm about to turn gay...
Lets start at the very beginning, shall we? It is, after all, a very good place to start.
Samantha Brick begins her article by telling us she "frequently"has bar tenders "shoo away" her credit card when she tries to pay her bill at the end of an evening out. First of all, how often is "frequently?" She "frequently" has strangers hand her bunches of flowers in the street, or offer to buy her train tickets for her. I don't know about you, but I find this a little hard to believe. You might be asked out on a date one week, have someone happen to send a drink to your table whilst you're out and about the next and be complimented on your attractiveness the following. Does that count as "frequent?" Maybe, but what about the weeks during which Samantha Brick doesn't have a "smartly dressed gentleman" buy her train tickets for her? She neglects to mention those, of course. Or perhaps she literally never has a week go by without something happening as a result of her "lovely looks."
Secondly, Samantha doesn't say whether free drinks are given by the bar staff at ONE bar or EVERY bar. Now, I've had people knock money off for me. I've had the guy at the local Chinese takeaway throw in free prawn crackers on more than one occasion. Because I'm gorgeous? Nope, because I'm local, he recognises me from previous visits and is grateful for my ongoing custom. If it's a local bar, is there not a teensy chance that Samantha Brick is known, recognised as a "journalist" (I'm sorry, but the quotation marks are necessary) and the bar tenders are thinking: "Best keep in with this one?" After all, she seems the sort of woman who rather likes (positive) attention and that kind of person is more likely to visit somewhere where she has had that sort of reception before.
Now before you all cry out: "But she's STUNNING! THAT is why she gets free stuff and compliments everywhere she goes! Why can't you accept that and stop being so jealous?!" I must point out that a) That's precisely the reaction Samantha Brick both expects and indeed wants from her article and that b) I am in no way jealous of her.
It would be really easy for me to mock Samantha's overly large forehead, snub nose or the fact that her teeth don't seem to fit right. But in doing so, I'd be nothing more than a bully (which regular readers of this blog will know I am not and never will be) and I'd be falling squarely into the trap Samantha Brick has set for her readers as her article continues...
"Other women hate me, for no reason other than my lovely looks...Women find nothing more annoying than someone else being the most attractive girl in the room."
I'm going to say something now and if she reads this, she'll laugh and tell me I'm being stupid, but my friend Kirstie is, in my view, exceptionally pretty. When I'm with her, I know she's better looking than me. In many rooms we've been in, I've looked at her and thought: "Yep, she's the prettiest person here." And you know what? I don't hate her for it. I don't think: "What a bitch. I will never introduce her to any future boyfriends I have, lest they prefer her to me. And she will NEVER be a bridesmaid at my wedding!" In fact, I'm oddly proud of her. Because Kirstie is not only attractive on the outside, she's rather lovely on the inside too; never coming across as arrogant and never snubbing anyone for being less pretty than she is (Samantha Brick makes references in both the original article and today's online defence of it, to women who "don't make an effort" with their looks and even goes as far as to criticise women who "comfort their friends when they're having a "fat day."" Thus implying that we should instead tell them to shape up and stop looking so grim, which seems to be just as bad as what she claims women are doing to her).
I could stretch this out to my circle of friends as a whole. I envy my adorable best bud Lydia for her gorgeous hair. I admire Lizzie's slim figure. Clare has a very sweet smile and infinitely better teeth than I do. Kate is just that little bit taller than me and I envy those extra inches!
Samantha Brick implies that all women loathe her because she's "beautiful." Even her friends, who wont invite them into their houses in case their husbands are tempted to stray. She believes that the reason she has never been asked to be a bridesmaid is most likely because of her beauty.
Let me just clarify, in the extremely unlikely event that Ms Brick is reading this: Aside from Pippa Middleton and her world-famous arse, when people go to a wedding, they're there to look at the BRIDE, not the bridesmaid. Wouldn't matter if you were Angelina Jolie, or someone considered to be equally gorgeous (for the record, I don't think Angelina's that beautiful either - shock, horror, personal opinion!): The people in the church/registry office/wherever-the-Hell-the-wedding-is are there to see a couple get married. They want to see how good the bride looks. And with only very, very few exceptions, a bride always looks stunning. More so than the bridesmaids! Okay, so come the evening reception, some of the blokes are getting merry and thinking: "Cor, that bridesmaid's a bit fit," but unless said bridesmaid decides to get down and dirty with a bloke on the dance floor in front of the bride's Granny, she's still not going to take attention away from the happy couple. The bride will still remain the centre of attention. I would therefore hazard a guess that none of Samantha's friends have asked her to be their bridesmaid because they don't consider her to be a close enough friend to fulfil that role. Oh and then there's the fact that she seems to openly assume that every woman she meets has a husband who's so attracted to her that she is deemed "a threat." I'm a woman and I can safely say, the only friend I considered a "threat" to any of my exes was deemed so because she was a flirtatious, nasty, arrogant little madam who tried it on with everyone. She was also anything but particularly attractive, yet put it on a plate so readily that men were often tempted to take it "because it was there," as my last ex put it. If you're deemed a "threat" by your friends, it might not be because they think you're especially beautiful. And you might not even be deemed a threat. You might just think you're a threat, which comes from a rather arrogant, unpleasant place, which I'd imagine your friends don't particularly appreciate and would be unlikely to lead to them rushing to get your measurements for the bridesmaids outfits...
As a woman, I personally find the idea that we, as a sex, can't stand beauty in another female, rather unkind and over exaggerated at best. Yes, women can be bitchy. I'm just as guilty as anyone else of making a barbed comment here and there, or of looking at a woman and making a snap judgement. What I don't do, is hate a woman purely because she's prettier than I am and nor do I know any girls who do. Woman are notorious for whispering about the shortness of a skirt, or the orange-ness of a fake tan, but we generally applaud women who are attractive, particularly if they're nice with it. There are makeover shows on TV and beauty guides in magazines... Would we be encouraging each other to look as good as possible, if we secretly wanted everyone to be less attractive than ourselves? I will agree that there is a grain of truth in Ms Brick's comments about women having the capacity to be bitchy, but I will never agree that we universally condemn other females for having the audacity to be good looking.
Then I come to a point that may sound a little whiny, but which I still believe needs to be made.
Samantha Brick ends her article by saying she can't wait til she starts losing her "beautiful" looks and begins to age, so that she can "blend in." Presumably, she means "blend in with all you ugly folk," although she doesn't go quite that far. That way, her Hellish life will finally become normal again and she won't have to "suffer" anymore.
So let me get this straight. Your average-looking person (which is precisely what Samantha Brick is, but lets not even go down that road) and of course, ugly people, are blessed because they don't have to "put up with" the kind of things that poor Samantha deals with so very "frequently?" I can't be the only person who has been through bullying who finds that pretty abhorrent?!
I open magazines and newspapers every day and I'm confronted with images of perfection that I will never attain. I look at myself in the mirror and I have days where I could cry, because I still see the twelve year old girl the school bullies used to spit at and wish death upon, based only on my unappealing facial features. I have a pot belly, which doesn't budge with any great ease, even when I make an effort to eat healthily and get more exercise. And I'm supposed to be grateful for this?! Does Ms Brick have any idea as to just how many weddings most "ugly" people would gladly sit at the back for, rather than stand as a bridesmaid, just for the chance to have someone call them "beautiful?" Does she have the faintest clue as to how often "ugly" people come across so-called attractive women, who make it very obvious that they're looking down on them for not being visually acceptable enough?! And yet she paints herself as the poor little victim - none of the bad experiences that come her way could possibly be her fault (reminds me of my ex, to be honest), it must just be because she's so damn beautiful that people can't handle it!
Beauty, as I have said so many times before, comes from within. It's not just about having a killer figure, or the perfect hair, or legs that go on forever. It's about behaving with dignity and kindness. It's about showing warmth and respect for others. It's about carrying yourself with a little class and poise. It's about having just a shred of humility. Something which I'm afraid Samantha Bricks' article (and her online defence of it today) shows she lacks.
Confidence is a wonderful thing. We should all be able to look at ourselves and say just with just as much certainty as Ms Bricks: "I am beautiful." Human beings come in all sorts of colours and shapes and sizes. That's what makes the world so fascinating! How dull would it be if we all looked the same? Everyone is beautiful in their own way and should be encouraged to see themselves as such. But when we assume that we're prettier than everyone else around us, or we blame our beauty for all the bad things that happen to us, in the manner of a small child stamping her foot, or when we throw a blanket judgement over all the people we clearly view as not being as attractive as we are? I'm afraid that's when we become very ugly indeed.