I read an article yesterday called “Are we too Quick to Cry Bully?” The article pointed out something I have been thinking for a long time. There are lots of ways to be mean that aren’t bullying. Bullying is specific. Bullying is when a person who has power picks on someone who doesn’t.
The article was about bullying as it pertains to young people. Middles schoolers and teenagers bullying each other is a special kind of torture – one that sometimes ends in suicide. The concern of the article was that by referring to simple acts of meanness as “bullying” we are diluting the horror of actual bullying, and empowering the true bullies.
Recently I have heard grown-ups talk about adult-on-adult bullying. Adult bullying happens. Bosses bully their employees. Wealthy HOA members bully their less fortunate neighbors. Misguided adults use race, religion, gender and sexuality as reasons to bully, much as children do.
I’d like to believe that adults have more resilience to bullying than young people do, but that’s not always the case, especially when one’s livelihood or home might be threatened.
The internet offers a new platform to bullies of all ages. But not every mean person on the internet is a bully. Somehow the internet can bring out the worst in all of us. We feel empowered to say things we might not in real life. There is even an internet term for mean-spirited people who say rude things online. We call them “trolls”.
There is a huge difference between a troll and a bully. A bully is someone who has actual power over you and uses that power to hurt you. A troll is simply someone who says mean things. Some people feel bullied by trolls. Artists consider not making art, writers considering giving up writing and sensitive people suffer depression because of the power they give to internet trolls.
I’ve dealt with my share of trolls. Sometimes the most effective tactic is to call them on their meanness; to flatly accuse them of doing exactly what they are doing. I’ve elicited some very heartfelt apologies that way, and even become friendly with a few of them. Sometimes people just don’t think about what they are saying until you reflect it back to them – not in anger but in rational terms.
Some internet trolls hide behind other titles. They are “reviewers” or “speakers of the truth”. As a writer I’ve received my share of bad reviews. Sometimes a bad review is a gift that makes your next work better. There is a transparent difference between using a review to give needed constructive criticism and using a review as a platform to hurl insults. But, even in the latter case, once those insults are hurled, how we react to them is completely in our control.
Mean words can hurt, no matter who says them. It is impossible to have an online presence and not attract some negative attention. Over the past few years I have written a few blog posts that struck nerves I didn’t expect. I was surprised by the number of mean, rude comments I received, and the fact that those commenters followed me around on social media for a while. It was a little chilling that such unkind people could seemingly reach into my living room any time of the day or night.
I was also surprised by the number of people who reached out to me in sympathy. I really appreciated the kind words and support of people; both friends and people I had never met. But I was not as upset by the trolls as those supportive people expected me to be. The trolls’ comments made me wish I had been clearer in my posts; there were a few things I hadn’t understood until I saw the backlash. And I was proud that something I wrote could elicit such a response. Writers want to touch nerves.
I didn’t feel bullied because these people had no power over me. There was nothing they could really do to hurt me. They could say mean things about me. They could spread lies about me. None of that really hurt me. In the end they were trolls, not bullies. Bullies are dangerous, trolls are irritating.
Speaking out is often the right defense against both bullies and trolls. Recently a writer’s unflattering photo went viral with an even more unflattering caption. She contacted the rude posters and made them deal with her as a human being. She shared her surprising results in an inspiring post.
In the case of bullies it is important to expose them for what they are. Shedding light on their activities may not take away their power in terms of money and position, but it will take away some of their authority. Trolls have no inherent power. The only power they have is the power we give them. If we want to give trolls the power to make us feel depressed or to contemplate giving up our talent, that’s our bad choice.
Eleanor Roosevelt lived and died before social media existed. Her immortal words are maybe more important now than they ever were. Eleanor is credited with saying “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
If we don’t give the trolls consent to make us feel badly they really can’t hurt us. They don’t have the power to hurt us without our help. I’m concerned, too, that if we, as adults, allow our feelings to be hurt by thoughtless and mean-spirited people, how will we be able to inspire our children to stand against their own mean peers?
Mean people suck, and they are everywhere. Mostly they are mean because of their own misfortunes. I have compassion for mean people. I hold them in love and light. But I do not give them consent to make me feel inferior. You don’t have to, either.