Sunday, 28 July 2013

Cyber-Bullying: Why ignoring it won't make it go away.

The Internet can be a wonderful thing.  It has taught me invaluable lessons, helped answer questions that had long been bugging me, introduced me to some of my closest friends and kept me in touch with school mates who've moved to pastures new.  I can't imagine my life without the Internet and that's no overstatement.

I found THIS thanks to the Internet.  For that alone, it is WONDERFUL.

However, there are downsides to the Internet.  It's not all David Tennant pictures (sadly).  With the invention of social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as blogging and online forums, we've all been handed our own little corner of the World Wide Web, from which to spout our silly thoughts, our angry rants and our idle daydreams.  All of us.

And not all of us are nice.

The term "Internet Troll" is one I take issue with.  Because all too often, the real description for these people who seek out others to belittle, tease or threaten, is "bully."  And in much the same way as victims of school bullying are told "just ignore them," we are told, in our online lives, that we must not "feed the trolls."

There is some reason behind that suggestion.  When faced with someone who seeks only to get a reaction out of you and who won't listen to any reasonable defence you may put up, there's some sense to the notion that it's wise to turn your e-back on them and refuse to engage, particularly if you are sensitive and don't feel able to speak out against them.  They'll get bored soon enough, after all.

The trouble is, they'll get bored and they'll move onto another victim, unchecked and seemingly free to say or do whatever they please.  Being ignored isn't pleasant for a bully - they crave attention, after all - but it's essentially harmless to them.  They learn precisely nothing from remaining unchallenged, other than that they can make hurtful remarks or casual threats and receive no comeback.  And that is a dangerous lesson.

Why should we allow bullying to go unpunished? 

People say that sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you.  And I call bullshit on that.  In big, shouty capitals.  I've blogged about my own experiences of bullying and how profoundly it affected me at the time, as well as the way it has continued to influence me throughout my adult life (you can, if you'd like, read that blog here).

Words aren't like physical blows, although when they're harsh enough, they can feel like it.  They aren't like physical marks that fade with time and gradually disappear altogether.  Heard over and over, insults begin to seep beneath your skin.  They sink into your pores until they become part of your psyche.  Tell someone they're ugly enough times and they'll start to believe it.  And then it becomes more than just a word.  It begins to define who you think you are.  Because once those words are in your head, they cling on and don't let go.  The bully's negative opinion of you eventually becomes your own negative opinion of yourself.  "Words will never hurt you?"  In the words of Jim Royle: My arse.

Never search for "my arse" without Google's "safe search" turned on.  Just so you know.

So, if we're going to quite rightly state that words can and do hurt when screamed at us, or snidely whispered into our ears by someone right there in front of us, I see no reason to argue that those words aren't just as effective when typed on a computer screen.

All too often, people dismiss online bullying as something easily ignored.  "Just don't respond and they'll go away," they say.  "How can it upset you?!  Just turn your computer off!"  Or, possibly worst of all: "Lighten up, they're probably only joking."

Try being the target of cyber-bullying.  Try experiencing relentless threats and insults.  Try, as I had recently, having total strangers believe utter crap about you and write nasty blogs in which they call you a bully because you've called someone out on their own negative behaviour.  Try, again as I had recently, having someone attempt to use your own writing career against you, by posting Amazon links to your books and making nasty little digs, thus encouraging their followers to slag them off as well!  Then tell me it's all just one big joke.  Tell me you can just turn off your computer and forget about it.  Because when someone is actively stalking your Twitter timeline in order to insult you or lie about you, it's not easy to ignore.  

When you're bullied at school or in the workplace, home becomes your sanctuary.  It's your safe place.  When you're being bullied online, it's happening within your home.  Your safe place is gone.  The Internet is everywhere and that means so are the bullies.  If you genuinely can't understand why that idea is utterly terrifying to those who experience this kind of harassment, then you're part of the problem.  Cyber-bullying is very real and has no less power to affect lives as "real life" bullying does.  The Internet is part of our real lives.  The sensation of dreading checking your emails, or visiting a social networking site is just as powerful as the sensation of dreading getting on the school bus.  I know.  I've experienced both.

The subject of cyber-bullying has come to the fore on Twitter, recently.  Feminist campaigner, Caroline Criado-Perez, successfully protested against the Bank of England's decision to replace the only woman on a UK banknote with a man, thus leaving women entirely unrepresented on our currency (the Queen will someday give way to a king, before anyone pipes up about her presence on every banknote/coin and she's there not due to achievement, but purely as a birthright, which is hardly the same).  Following the Bank of England's decision to introduce a new £10 note featuring Jane Austen in 2017, Ms Criado-Perez was rightfully congratulated by hundreds of her supporters.  However, not everyone was pleased by her victory.

Alongside the tweets of support, Ms Criado-Perez began to receive messages of an altogether different nature.  "You're just a media hungry attention seeker," one Twitter user ranted.  "Stop breathing," demanded another.  Both horrible and entirely unnecessary. Then came: "Can I rape you?"  Hang on... WHAT?

These tweets got worse and worse as time went on.  Descending into genuine threats ("Don't come to Newcastle, bitch!") and several mentions of rape and violent sexual assault.  These cyber-bullies attempted to post Ms Criado-Perez's address online publicly. 

"If your friends survived rape, they weren't raped properly," one vile Twitter user crowed.  "Wouldn't mind tying this bitch to my stove," leered another.  "Hey sweetheart, give me a shout when you're ready to be put in your place."

This wasn't a case of one, sick, pathetic little voice, needling someone whose success they were unable to stomach.  This was dozens - hundreds, even - of sick, pathetic loud voices, yelling their obscenities at one person who had done precisely nothing to any of them.

Caroline Criado-Perez is not of the "don't feed the trolls" mentality.  She believes - as do I - that ignoring these disgusting individuals does precisely nothing to solve the problem.  Calling them out, shouting back and reporting cases to the police and to Twitter/Facebook/wherever online abuse takes place, is a much more effective method.  As I write this, one man has already been arrested for his part in the torrent of abuse and illegal threats of rape and violence and I say that can only be a good thing.  I'm glad to see the police taking a case like this seriously.

Every day, all over the world, bullies take to their computers.  They sit in relative obscurity and send hate out across the Internet.  They make threats, they issue deliberately hurtful insults, they victim-blame and lie and they do so because they can.  Because they're behind a screen.  Because they believe they are untraceable.  Beyond punishment.

They are not.  When we raise our voices against these hateful bullies, we can become noisier than they are.  When they shout abuse, we need to shout louder. Our social network providers need to sit up and listen.  We need easier reporting methods when we come under attack from these bullies.  We need to know that we're protected by authorities who take these vicious threats and harassment seriously.

Imagine rape threats - hundreds of them - being sent to your mother.  Your daughter.  Would you be able to ignore them?  Would you be telling her that it was just a laugh and that she should turn off her computer and get a life?!

When we do nothing to challenge abuse, it will only worsen.  I know that from my experiences with my ex.  Not standing up to him only ever made him nastier.  It's no different with bullies, hiding behind their laptops. Ignore them and they'll eventually move onto someone else.  But why should someone else suffer?!  Why should any of us?

Speaking out is hard.  I have been guilty of silence too many times.  I've even told others to "just ignore them hun," with nothing but the best intentions.  But it's time that we took our heads out of the sand.  There is a problem - a very real problem - with bullying online.  According to the Cyber Bully hotline, roughly 20% of all teenagers who experience cyberbullying will consider suicide.  One in ten will attempt it.  How can we ignore a problem that causes our young to attempt to take their own lives?

The time has come to stand as one and shout back.  It doesn't matter who you are; what gender, nationality, sexuality or religion you may be.  Nobody deserves abuse.  It's time to support each other and say "enough is enough."  If you see cyber-bullying, report it.  Call the person out on their behaviour.  We don't have to "feed the trolls."  But we don't have to tolerate them either.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Dear Westboro Baptist Church...

Yesterday, the news broke that 31 year old Glee actor, Cory Monteith, had been found dead in a Vancouver hotel room.  Cory had spoken with searing honesty about his past addiction to drugs and at the age of 19, he had spent time in rehab.  Whilst the cause of Cory's death is currently still unknown, earlier this year, the star had checked into rehab for a second time.  Now, there will always be narrow-minded people who claim that any death that may have even the slightest connection to substance or alcohol abuse is somehow less important the death of a "clean-living" person.  That the deceased person "had it coming."  But Cory Monteith was open and honest about his issues with drugs and had sought help.  He was 31 years old and, according to rumours, hoping to marry his long-term girlfriend and Glee co-star, Lea Michele.  He most certainly didn't "deserve" to die.

Try telling that to the Westboro Baptist Church.  Yes, yes, I know.  The Westboro Baptist Church are despicable maggots, crawling on the face of our planet and polluting it with hatred, bigotry and intolerance.  Their words are to be taken no more seriously than the words of Tinky Winky, Dipsy, La La and Po in a particularly silly episode of The Tellytubbies.  However, they have a large platform and their disgusting words reach a big audience.  And even more dangerously, they honestly seem to think that they're right.  So this is how they chose to announce Cory's death to their followers on Twitter:

"STRUCK DOWN BY GOD."  Yes, according to the WBC, Cory died because he was a "fag enabler."  He had gay friends and was part of a TV show that appealed to gay people and which featured gay characters.  So far, so pathetically predictable.  But wait...  What is that underneath the words "STRUCK DOWN BY GOD?"  Ah yes.  They tweeted this to Lea Michele.  Let's rephrase that in nice, big words, shall we?

These parasites tweeted the grieving girlfriend of a man they never met, in order to inform her that the person she loved and was hoping to marry had been killed by God.  On purpose.  And that they plan to picket his funeral.

Now I know what you're thinking.  I'm giving these useless excuses for humans the oxygen of publicity just by writing this blog.  But you know what?  If we don't make our voices heard against them, then theirs become the only ones shouting.  And of course, all reasonable, well-adjusted people know that the WBC are just shouting ridiculousness.  That their words are vile, ludicrous and not to be taken even slightly seriously.  So maybe we should leave them to yell obscenities into the ether for all eternity.

Or maybe we shouldn't.

Why should we allow anyone a platform from which to preach hate?  Is it because this group calls itself - laughably - Christian, that we feel no need to intervene?  If this was a Muslim society, would we be quicker to pour scorn over their words?!  Why is that fair?

For a start, the WBC is as far removed from true Christianity as lard is from freshly churned butter.  For all their anger, vitriol and bigotry, here's what the Bible actually says about God's forgiving nature in Psalm 103:8-12:

"The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever.  He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.  For as high as the Heavens are above the Earth, so great is his steadfast love..."


Now, I'll admit here and now that I'm not particularly religious, but even I can see that that psalm doesn't point towards a vengeful God who will STRIKE DOWN a man purely because he has gay friends.  Yes, the Bible famously contradicts itself, but I still see no reason to believe in the God that the WBC claim to be serving.

The WBC however, opted not to stop at that first tweet.  They then sent this one:

So, in case you didn't get it the first time, Lea, that guy you're devastated over losing?  These people are thrilled to bits about his loss.  So happy, they feel the need to tell you personally.  I actually don't have words for how abhorrent this is.  I can't even go down the "what if someone tweeted YOU to tell you that YOUR partner deserved to die?!" route, because these people are so utterly unable to see beyond their own atrocious opinions that they'd simply tell me that their family members are pure and perfect and will sit in God's Heaven for all eternity, pissing on gay people from on high.  Or something.

They didn't stop there, either.  The above tweet was sent to every actor on Glee.  Every producer, director and assistant they could find.  Every fan page.  And in case you weren't aware of it, Glee has some pretty young fans.  Fans who would have been mortified to discover that their beloved "Finn Hudson" was gone.  The Westboro Baptist Church was sending this message not only to Cory Monteith's family and friends, but to children.

The WBC then took to using the name of the show that made Cory famous, in order to further express how pleased his demise had made them.  Phrases such as "we are GLEE-ful!" made an appearance.  Because God hates fags, but he just loves a pun...

Still, this was as low as they could stoop, right?  Right?  Wrong.

In case this tweet/photo causes any confusion, let me explain:  An organisation, claiming to be a CHURCH OF GOD, has tweeted a woman whose partner died less than 48 hours earlier, encouraging her to COMMIT SUICIDE and just for added extras, encouraging her fans (some of whom, to reiterate, ARE CHILDREN) to do the same.  

There are many, many more tweets of this nature, even including messages suggesting that George Zimmerman murdered Treyvon Martin because we live in a world that "allows fags to exist" (don't even get me started on them bringing that case into their shitty little world of hate) but if those reading this blog are anything like me, they will have been shocked, saddened and disgusted enough for one evening.  I don't need to post any further evidence that these inhuman parasites are dangerous and morally wrong.

So I'll say again:  To give the Westboro Baptist Church the oxygen of publicity is no good thing.  To draw attention to their hate is negative.  But to stand back and do nothing is worse.  

I'm aware that I may be inviting hatred on myself.  But hey, I've been stalked online this year and had malicious lies written about me already, so it's nothing new.  I would rather stand up and shout back than sit down and keep my mouth shut.  It's not good enough to quietly say "I disagree with that" when you see something wrong.  It's not enough to shake your head and watch as minorities are treated with contempt and disgust.  We need to do more than wring our hands over racism, sexism, homophobia and all other forms of bigotry.  We need to speak.  We need to stand as one and speak with our voices united when we say we will NOT accept hatred.  We will NOT accept intolerance.  We will support those who need justice, we will encourage those who want and deserve equality and we will comfort those in need.  Because, Westboro Baptist Church, if there is a God, that is what he'd want.

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgement you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye."  Matthew 7:1-5