I don't often use my blog to write about controversial topics, and the closest I have ever come to being an activist is my pet No Love Locks project. But I read something today that hit a nerve. I started to write about it on Facebook, and what started as a quote from the article and a short comment soon turned into something much bigger: a blog post.
The Guardian published this article by Lindy West on cyber-bullying a few days ago. From reading that article, I jumped to one of the links to another article the same author had written for Jezebel.com, about why she sometimes chooses to confront the "trolls" (i.e. cyber-bullies) who frequently attack and even threaten her online, despite conventional wisdom dictating that she should ignore the trolls altogether, that "feeding" the trolls is precisely what they want and she shouldn't give in to them.
"I talk back because the expectation is that when you tell a woman to shut up, she should shut up. I reject that. I talk back because it's fun, sometimes, to rip an abusive dummy to shreds with my friends. I talk back because my mental health is my priority—not some troll's personal satisfaction. I talk back because it emboldens other women to talk back online and in real life, and I talk back because women have told me that my responses give them a script for dealing with monsters in their own lives. And, most importantly, I talk back because internet trolls are not, in fact, monsters. They are human beings—and I don't believe that their attempts to dehumanize me can be counteracted by dehumanizing them."
Oh, I could so relate to this! This is precisely why, though I rarely have had problems with trolls on my blog or social media (I'm just not that controversial), there have been times where I have chosen to talk back to a troll using the best tools I have at my disposal: my words. Others have told me the same thing they told Lindy: Don't feed the trolls, don't give them the attention they want, ignore them and they'll go away. It seems like sound advice, the same thing your mother might have told you when you were a child and some snarky kid on the playground was pulling your hair or shoving your face in the sand. Take the high ground! Be the bigger person! Don't give those losers the satisfaction of noticing them! Don't show them you care what they think! Ignore them, ignore them, ignore them!
Except for one thing: Lindy is right. Internet trolls and bullies DON'T go just away, in most cases, whether you feed them or not. In the Internet age, it is more and more difficult to fight back against the sort of cowardly person who would venomously and almost always anonymously attack a total stranger for no reason other than THEY BELIEVE THEY CAN.
It was a little different in the pre-Internet days. When someone was bullying you at school, for instance, you could at least have a name and a face to connect to the torture. You had at least the possibility that something might be done, if you were brave enough to speak out. Not that you would necessarily be that brave, but at least the attacks weren't anonymous.
Let me share a story: When I was 13, some girls in my class decided, for no good reason other than I existed in their space and breathed their air, to start routinely torturing me verbally and occasionally, physically. One of those girls had been my best friend until she decided, for reasons of her own, to hook herself up with the so-called "cool kids". And so it began: the breaking of my heart by the betrayal of a friend, and spending every single day trying to figure out how to avoid the abuse and keep myself sane. It got increasingly difficult. Other kids in the class quickly jumped on the bully bandwagon, although a few did not and remained kind to me. But no one actively stood up for me or encouraged me to fight back; they didn't want to be targets either. Could I blame them? I went home and cried nearly every day. My mother wanted to contact the school; I begged her not to, afraid of the inevitable backlash, because at 13, peer pressure is all there is, and you don't yet have the life experience to know you can survive it if you speak out.
But finally, one afternoon, I snapped. The bully group, led by one girl in particular who always seemed to be the meanest of the mean, pushed my buttons once too often by literally PUSHING me down the school hallway after the last bell at the end of the day. Usually, their tactics were verbal, but this time, this bitch put her hands on me. Suddenly, without thinking about it, I whipped around with my hand balled into a fist, fully prepared to knock that girl flat on her mean, skinny ass, if that's what it would take to get her/all of them to back the fuck off. I had never hit another person in my life (excepting sibling slap-fighting with my little sister), and I was mortally afraid of fighting this girl or anyone, but by this point I no longer cared. It was my "Scut Farkis" moment:
Well... not quite. The FEAR I saw on that mean girl's face in those long seconds, where I stared her down with my fist at the ready, was all the satisfaction I needed. In the end, I didn't hit her. I didn't have to; I saw that SHE knew I meant business, that I was no longer willing to take it from her or from any of them, and that she was an inch from serious pain if she didn't stop. She stopped.
I turned away and walked down the hallway with my head held high and with no more pushing or taunting from the bullies. I got on my school bus and went home, where I promptly burst into tears again. Then I flatly refused to return to school until the principal had changed my entire class schedule so that I wouldn't have to be with any of those kids again (even though there was only one month left in the school year). He tried to reason with me, assuring me the other kids wouldn't bother me again, that he'd make sure of that; but I wouldn't budge, and I no longer cared about retribution from my peers at school. I named names and gave details. I told him everything. I wanted freedom from their abuse and from even having to see their faces every day, and I wanted them held accountable.
I won. The principal not only changed my schedule, but he hauled the five worst bullies (the three original girls plus two of the boys) and their parents into school on the following day so that the kids could be appropriately punished (I think it involved a few days of suspension). I went back to school the next day, nervous but relieved. Their dirty looks I could handle, but at least I didn't have to be in a classroom with them. I got through that last month without any further problems with those kids. The next year, and for the rest of my school career, I never had any more bullying issues, either. I made other friends, got involved in activities, and generally had a good social life. Looking back, I now think of my last years of high school as one of the best times of my life. By the end of it, I was even on speaking terms with the girl who had once been my best friend but betrayed me; in my senior yearbook, she even wrote me a full-page apology for what she had done to me at 13. Wow.
And you know what else? Last year, out of nowhere, nearly 40 years later, that meanest of the mean girls, the one I nearly punched in the face, actually contacted me privately on Facebook and apologized for having been mean to me when we were 13. I could not have been more shocked, quite honestly. She also wanted to be Facebook "friends", but although I accepted her apology with good grace, I also politely declined her attempt at virtual friendship. I mean, we weren't friends before, so why pretend now? Still, I forgave her that day, and easily so. Actually, I had forgiven her decades earlier.
Forgiveness isn't about telling an abuser that what he/she/they did to you is permissible, acceptable, OK. It's about not holding onto the negative emotions that stem from the abuse, about not letting those emotions define and impact your life or your vision of who you really are. So I forgave those mean girls and boys long ago. I may not have forgotten, and I didn't care to be friendly with them, but I did forgive them in the sense that I let go of their good or bad opinion of me and decided that MY opinion of myself was the one that mattered the most. In that sense, those teenage "trolls" probably did me a big favor by bullying me. I learned to stand up for myself for the first time in my life, and discovered that sometimes it was OK to fight back; this was a lesson I have carried with me ever since, and my life no longer revolves around the need for the good opinion of others.
(Not that I don't love it when someone compliments my writing, of course. Writers thrive on love from readers, we all know that.)
For the record, though I don't have many trolls passing by this blog (you Bold Soul readers are super-awesome!), you would not believe some of the hate mail and nasty comments my No Love Locks co-founder and I received as a result of trying to get people to stop putting locks on historic Parisian bridges. Whether the hateful words came from a minority of French who just can't stand Americans, or from Americans who either loved the love locks or else hated the fact that we chose to live in France (i.e. we must be traitors to the good ol' U.S. of A. if we wanted to live somewhere else especially FRANCE), the thing we most often heard was "Why do Americans have to stick their big noses into other countries' business? What makes you think you have the right?" And all we thought we were doing was supporting the city and other Parisians by getting the ugly locks cleaned off the bridges! I can't even count the number of times profanity was used, including the infamous "C" word. And that word sure wasn't "Class".
Now, when I do encounter the rare Internet bully, what do I do? Many times, I ignore them. Most of the time, they are not worth the effort of responding. If I do write anything in return, I try to take that high road and rather than attacking them directly, do my best to use the power of my words to make them look like the idiots they really are, but in a sarcastic, amusing way. I mean, there is nothing a bully hates more than when you point your finger and laugh at him, like the boggart in Harry Potter. Some well-placed sarcasm can be your Riddikulus charm against a bully.
And then, every so often, when I feel like it really matters to me personally and that not speaking my truth will be worse than backing off, I will stand up at my keyboard and tell it like it is, and to hell with the high road. As Lindy said, if it makes me feel better about myself, then why not say what I want and do it my way? Especially when it's on my blog or my social media account. Because now you're on MY turf, you twat.
Do I think I can change the opinion of my biggest critics, or even silence them, by speaking up and fighting back? Not really. They may shut up and go away. I may be forced to block them if I am able. Yet they will still be "out there", and it is a very rare thing when a troll sees the error of their ways and then apologizes, as happened to Lindy or when my former classmate contacted me after 40 years.
But I will be damned if I sit silently and take it when some wanker crosses the line from "critique"/the freedom to disagree with me to bashing, insulting (or worse, threatening) me, just because I am a woman and a blogger and I have the audacity to put myself "out there" on the Internet and voice an opinion they don't like. Or, heaven forbid I go so far as to post a mocking photo of a Turkish toilet on my blog, which for some insane reason resulted in a lot of heated commentary that mystifies me to this very day.
I'm lucky, in the sense that in the 10 years I have been blogging and "putting myself out there" in the public eye with my writing, it has been rare that a persistent troll has tried to shut me up, and even more rare that I've felt the need to resort to a strong response in my own defense. But there are so many other women bloggers who are getting slammed by these jerks on a daily basis, and not only slammed but threatened terroristically with rape and murder, and as much as we can try and tell ourselves it doesn't sting or scare us, the fact is, sometimes it does, and then you have a choice to make: stay silent with your tail between your legs and try to let it go; or talk back and risk the troll army advancing even further.
There is no perfect solution here. We live in a world where bullies exist in all forms: from the mean kids at school who make your (or your kid's) life an adolescent hell; to cyber-bullies and blog trolls who try to crowd-force you into disappearing from the Internet; to people who will tell you your religion or your politics are wrong because you don't believe what they believe; to open-carry gun activists hanging around the Walmart or your local diner because they like to show off their "rights" by scaring the rest us with their legalized heavy artillery (THERE, I said it: showing up with your damn gun in a public place because you're trying to prove your point makes you a BULLY); to actual terrorists who hijack planes, level buildings and kill hostages on camera. There will always be some bully, somewhere; it's just a matter of degree. Sometimes, it's okay, maybe even prudent, to remain silent when faced with a bully. You will always have to use your own best judgment about that.
But sometimes, you have to stand up to the bullies and speak out, if for no other reason than to keep your self respect. Especially in a world where some will still try and silence a voice raised in defense or protest, just because that voice is female.
So whether you're a prominent female blogger who's being told you have no right (write) to be on the Internet or that you're a terrible mother, or whether you're a teenage girl or boy who is being cyber-bullied by your peers, the point is, you will take back your own power when you choose to stand up, ball your virtual fist, and find a way to say, in your own best words: "That's enough, Troll. I've had it with you. You've crossed the line. So just back the fuck off."
It's silence that allows the trolls to win. That's why, sometimes, I also talk back. Thanks, Lindy.