July 26, 2012

What is Online Bullying? Part III

be excellent to each otherWe learned about bullying in Part I, discovering that most experts on the subject believe the term should only be used to describe behavior occurring in persons under 18. In Part II, we learned about cyber-harassment, a criminal offense describing a fairly small portion of online communication. What about communication that is upsetting in some way but falls short of cyber-harassment? How do we label it, and do we even need to do so?

I have certainly seen examples of communication that would qualify as cyber-harassment or cyber-stalking under the law (e.g., repeated threatening or harassing messages intended to cause distress). Anybody remember the case of Dennis Markuze (aka, David Mabus)? This shifted from cyber-harassment to the more serious cyber-stalking when he was caught on camera in the location of an atheist conference at which some of those he had threatened were present.

Of course, it is far more common to see communication, especially online, that bumps up to the line of cyber-harassment without crossing it. So what do we call it, and do we even need a name for it?

Not Harassment

We already have many names for communication that falls into this category. We describe it as demeaning, juvenile, intolerant, racist, sexist, uncivil, and the like. We recognize that it is perfectly legal and that it occurs far more often than cyber-harassment. Communication like this usually falls short of including threats, and it is not repetitive enough to constitute harassment.

Someone can be a rude asshole without being guilty of harassment. Someone can exhibit extremely poor social judgment without harassing anyone. Communication can be thoroughly insensitive without crossing the line to harassment.

Maybe we do not need to create another label for this sort of communication. That is not to say we should just ignore the behavior. Instead, we can describe it and how it impacts us. That may take more time and effort on our part, but it also seems more likely to result in some sort of increased awareness on the part of the person doing it.

Don't be a Dick?

Does all of this really come down to some version of the infamous "don't be a dick" pronouncement? I don't know. The "don't be a dick" thing was mostly about how we atheists present ourselves to religious believers and whether we should feign respect for what they believe so we don't contribute to their defensiveness. On the other hand, the present discussion is partially about how we should communicate with one another but mostly about how we handle disagreement within our community.

It does seem reasonable to expect that there would be a modicum of civility in how we interact with one another within the atheist community. The question is what we do when this expectation is violated, and I'm afraid there aren't any easy universally agreed upon answers.

It is important that we feel comfortable disagreeing with one another. This means that we should not seek to stifle productive discussion or demonize each other through petty name calling.

Freethought Bullies?

When I wrote previously about the bullying behavior from a few of the bloggers at Freethought Blogs, I used the "bully" label because it was already part of the meme. In fact, Ophelia Benson seemed to (Butterflies & Wheels) take credit for getting the #FTBullies hashtag to trend on Twitter.

From what I've learned in writing this series, "bullying" probably isn't the best label to use. Moreover, I not seen anything from the bloggers on Freethought Blogs that I would call cyber-harassment. That label seems far more appropriate for those who have been threatening them than it does for anything they have written.

Moving forward, it makes sense to be more descriptive rather than using flawed labels that do not adequately capture the behavior with which many have objected. If you feel bullied, describe the behavior that leads you to feel that way (e.g., name calling, shutting down disagreement by shifting the topic). Here's an example of what describing specific behavior might look like.

As we go about trying to have productive discussions, it is helpful to remember that we are all going to have somewhat different agendas within the atheist community. Some may be more focused on separation of church and state, others may be more interested in feminism, and so on. Fortunately, the community is large enough for all of us, and so is the atheist blogosphere.

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