Via Jeff Jarvis, I read a disturbing post on Amanda Palmer’s blog today. A 15 year old girl named Amanda Todd killed herself after years of online and offline bullying and persecution. She made one error in judgment (flashing a guy online who egged her on) and that began a trail of blackmail and harassment that she felt she could never escape.
My first impulse was to try and figure out who to blame. The creeper who convinced a 13 year old girl to flash him on her webcam and kept harassing her for more? The kids at school after school who refused to let her live down a youthful mistake? The kids online who, shielded by not having to say it to her face, said she should just die and get it over with?
And inevitably, being both a thriller writer and someone raised on Batman comics, began thinking about how to protect the victims of cyberbullying by punishing the guilty. Of armies of chubby boys making life miserable for people who said mean things online (spoofing online purchases in their name is a start, drawing the attention of Homeland Security and getting these people disappeared as domestic terrorists is possible).
But really, that’s fantasy. The reality is that human beings are primates. We are hard-wired to lash out against the “other.” Tribalism is in our DNA. And policies of deterrence can only go so far. People do what people do, even if we say it’s not okay.
I don’t think people hate any more now than they ever did. In fact, they probably hate a lot less, in total, in our increasingly multicultural society. But ironically, because we don’t have a socially acceptable Other to demonize anymore, we increasingly turn against ourselves. Kids like Amanda Todd are hounded, ruthlessly and 24/7, for stepping out of line.
I probably wouldn’t be here today if Facebook had existed when I was growing up. As it is, I barely made it out of 1983 (seventh grade, Pershing Middle School, Houston, Texas) breathing. And if I hadn’t been able to go home and get away from my tormenters in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, high school might have killed me just as it did Amanda Todd.
So what can we do?
Instead of punishing the guilty, we can support the victims. We’re never getting rid of the cruelty and hate in the world. But we counteract it with love and acceptance. We can call out bullies when we see them, and make sure their targets know they’re not alone. No one has to feel the hopelessness Amanda Todd felt, that I’ve felt myself.
Because life is never hopeless. And you’re never as alone as you think you are.