One of the amazing benefits of online interaction is that people do not need to be in the same place to communicate in real time. Whilst has huge benefits, it does have disadvantages. Online interaction filters out many of the communication cues that we instinctively rely on. In short, online interaction only involves part of the message.
This makes some things harder; nuance or dry humour can often be lost – the twinkle in an eye needs to be typed. Emoticons and arcane abbreviations only achieve so much.
Some things, however, become easier. We all know that “difficult conversations” are easier if we do not have to look the other person in the eye. We also know that this is precisely why some things should be done face to face. This is nothing to do with technology, but is simple “good manners” and a function of the moral courage to which most of us aspire (forgive my naive optimism). This brings us back to Cyber Bullying….
Historically cowardice has been one of the hallmarks of a bully, most of us learn this in the school playground and use it to manage the problem. It goes without saying that finding a workable strategy is often fraught with difficulty, and we must all find our own way. For me, the secret has always lain in the realisation that bullying is not a demonstration of strength, but of weakness and cowardice masked by aggression. Once I understood this, it always became easier to manage unacceptable behaviour; it gave me the initiative.
Is it always as simple as this? Of course not! In many cases “bullying” may simply be an inability or unwillingness to communicate. Having said that, given that communication is a two way process – one of the first things we must always consider is our own end of the communication channel – are we always projecting what we intend – and are we interpreting incoming communications in the spirit in which they were intended?
We have long been aware of the dangers of “flame mail” and the importance of not sending contentious emails immediately. Of course digital social interaction often exposes us to the worst of both worlds, with an immediacy of communication which is not tempered by having to look someone in the eye. Whilst flame mail and fully fledged bullying are not the same thing, there is no doubt that they are on the same spectrum. With this in mind, we must all be aware of our own responsibilities and the additional personal disciplines that are necessary if we are to use online media in an acceptable way.
Real bullying is deeply unpleasant and can be a real problem, but it is also an indication of deep weakness within the bully. In many cultures, aggression is seen as a positive attribute, and this is often misinterpreted as a vindication by bullies. I know of no culture where cowardice is seen as an attribute. The moment we understand this, the bully loses their power and we gain strength. If the online society can treat bullying as a sign of cowardice and weakness rather than as an evil strength, then perhaps it will become less attractive to those who practice it.
How should we respond to bullying? Rather than berating online bullies as aggressive and mean …. and feeding the habit, we should take a moment to think about what is actually happening… and if it is bullying, we should treat it with the contempt that it deserves. If appropriate, any action taken should reflect the weakness of the activity rather than its perceived strengths. This way we can make it culturally unacceptable in all cultures.