Few of us consider ourselves bullies.
Maybe we should re-think that, and wonder if we’re more like 30 Rock heroine Liz Lemon (played by Tina Fey), who found out at a reunion that contrary to her recollections of being a loner nerd in high school, she had instead been a bully.
Sure, most of us weren’t bullies in high school. But what about how we act online now?
Take the recent case of a college student who wrote an incredibly offensive blog post about women last week. His insights included “Girls are lying all day long. They lie about their feelings, their weight, how much cardio they did” and “I don’t want to know what they had for lunch or what they thought about the Justin Bieber movie … I just want to know if she is going to spend the night, or if I need to text someone else for that.” And at the end, there is the wild card: “Women are the best. You should love them and treat them with respect.”
The post by this student (who will remain nameless in this column) went viral. Student newspaper The Daily Texan’s piece about the post has received 1.7 thousand Facebook likes. The Huffington Post, women’s site Jezebel, and British tabloid The Daily Mail also all reported on the blog post. The student told student newspaper The Horn that he had received “four death threats, about 30 ‘I hate you’s’” and had “lost three of my closest female friends.” He also argued the post (which he has since taken down) was “satirical.”
This isn’t an isolated case. When movie star Amanda Bynes (now hospitalized for a reported mental health condition) was tweeting bizarre comments, plenty of people on Twitter seemed to think it was fun to mention and/or mock her tweets. When a former intern of New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, Olivia Nuzzi, told her story in the New York Daily News (and was then featured on the front cover, reportedly without her permission), New York Times columnist Frank Bruni was comfortable with faulting her for “spilling secrets in return for a glamour shot on the front page of a major newspaper, determining that attention was worth whatever crassness it called for.”
Of course, if you blog, or tweet (especially if you’re a celebrity), or write for a newspaper, you can’t expect anonymity. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us should feel free to jeer and mock without compunction. And while shaming can prove a powerful societal force (although not in the case of mental illness), it hardly appears that the internet crowds are sharing and laughing at others out of a pure wish to help them become better people.
In a graduation commencement speech at Syracuse University this year, writer George Saunders told graduates, “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.”
Yet online, we’re going further than just responding “sensibly” to unkindness; we’re too often the ones promoting it, via sharing stories on social media. People who would never insult a person they had met in person seem careless to hurts they can cause by attacking those who they haven’t met.
There is a quote (its origin disputed) that sums it up: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” As we know from our own and our loved ones’ experience, that’s too often true – and it’s something we should keep in mind before we snark, even online.