(Content Warning: This blog includes discussion of bullying and a suicide attempt.)
Of all my interactions with the worst bully I ever had to deal with in my younger days — and believe me, I had to deal with a lot of bullies back then — two stick out the most. The first was an act of public embarrassment so mortifying that it led me to attempt suicide, right there on campus, after I was finally able to evade everyone who was laughing at me. The second came a couple of years later, when my efforts at fighting back against physical assaults were starting to get better. This bully pinned me down on the floor of the hallway outside my math class (after school had let out for the day) and explained, in a low but clear whisper, that if I ever caused any physical harm to him, then his parents would sue my family for everything we were worth. Nearly everyone at that school knew that my family was a “poor family” (by that school’s messed-up standards; we were relatively well-off by nearly everyone else’s), and I was already too well aware of the double standard that people like me faced at that school from students and teachers and administrators alike. I didn’t do anything more to fight back against that bully, until he eventually tired of abusing me some months later.
That episode is why I’ve always had problems with anti-bullying advice like “Don’t let other people rent space in your head for free,” and “They can’t hurt you unless you let them,” because those statements just don’t hold true for some bullies. If a bully has power — physical, cultural or otherwise — and they operate in a system that allows them to exploit that power, then they will find a way to hurt you, and get in your head, and do whatever else they please. Advice like the lines above may work for some garden-variety bullies, but for those who really want to hurt someone, and who have the means and privilege to let them to get away with it, then the only way to stop them is to find a way of removing that means and privilege, and that’s not the kind of thing that a typical teenager is capable of handling on their own.
Modern harassment culture — which has been around for a while, but really “hit the big time” a few years ago with Gamergate — is nothing more than an organized form of bullying. The battlegrounds and tools may be far different from what I experienced when I was younger — I honestly don’t think I would have survived high school if I’d had to deal with cyberbullying on top of everything else I endured back in the day — but the mindsets and methodologies are exactly the same. Add in the organizational and other opportunities afforded by modern technology, a society that’s gradually losing its capacity to confront this kind of naked malevolence, and the inability of many harassment targets’ support networks to provide them with help because of how stressful modern life has become, and it’s no wonder that the suicide rate in the United States continues to rise.
There are more than a few parallels between the tactics of modern harassment culture and right-wing “outrage campaigns” against certain targets (both old and new). Especially when those campaigns have deliberately trafficked in misinformation — whether through stereotypes, purposefully-distorted “facts” or flat-out lies — there’s a strong argument to be made that these campaigns’ main purpose is to essentially harass people or entities out of public life and/or their livelihood, making comparisons to modern harassment culture much more apt. Even when these campaigns have attacked their target through indirect means, like organizing boycotts and such, the similarities in tactics are still plain to see.
One way in which older conservative outrage campaigns are definitely similar to modern harassment culture is in their organization of large numbers of participants. Long before most of us had even heard of the Internet, conservatives were able to mobilize their base through venues like right-wing talk radio and early conservative television shows like The 700 Club; after Pat Robertson ran for president in 1988, the mailing list of supporters he accumulated morphed into the starting base of the Christian Coalition, and Democrats didn’t really have anything of their own to rival that kind of large-scale organization until MoveOn came into being a decade later. Nowadays, of course, all it takes is a persuasive website or Facebook page to organize, and weaponize, an army of followers ready to harass any target at the click of a mouse button. (This doesn’t even touch on how the more computer-literate are capable of simulating such a following through bots.)
Higher education has been a target of right-wing outrage campaigns since before I was even old enough to be a student there. Conservative media long ago perfected the rhetorical art of creating an extreme case of the stereotypical left-wing person behaving badly (often employing exaggeration or all-out fabrication), then insinuating that person is typical of whatever group they supposedly represent, like professors. As with so many of these large-scale campaigns, the sheer scope of attacks winds up creating a primary, broader narrative about larger cultural forces fighting against one another, and while it’s important to understand these larger narratives in order to gain an understanding of the principles at play, they frequently have the dire side effect of obfuscating the overwhelming levels of bullying that individual targets of these campaigns often receive.
Social media has stepped in to fill the void created by the lack of a left-wing media empire to help these targets get their stories out, usually in their own words. When Gamergate was in its infancy, reading the Twitter feeds of targets like Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu was nothing short of terrifying, especially as the systems that were supposed to enforce existing laws against harassment failed them over and over again. What the targets of Gamergate endured would have been horrible enough if those kinds of tactics were isolated to Gamergate, but because laws and society have failed to address the problems of harassment culture at even the most basic levels, Gamergate has now become a template for attacks on everyone from academics to Zootopia fan-artists.
As higher education will probably become an even bigger target of right-wing attacks in the coming months, and as it appears likely that those in power will continue to ignore how current laws and structures are enabling harassment culture — one need only look at how the First Lady’s alleged efforts against cyberbullying are failing to alter her own husband’s Twitter feed for evidence of that — it becomes more imperative for those of us in academia, who could become the targets of these attacks at any moment, to lead by example. Many of us already belong to groups that are frequent targets of harassment campaigns (feminists, cultural critics), which makes immediate action all the more necessary, if not to protect ourselves then to at least protect our colleagues.
In addition to telling our own stories about being the targets of organized harassment, we must also use the power we have to advocate for the changes that we, and other people likely to become the targets of these campaigns, will need in order to stop harassment culture dead in its tracks. New laws and regulations will likely be necessary to ensure personal safety, since so much of what’s on the books right now was written before the Internet completely rewrote how we go about our day-to-day lives, but the first step we need to take has to be insisting on the enforcement of the existing laws and regulations against stalking and libel and harassment. Even when the target of a harassment campaign has had their life and/or livelihood seriously threatened, all too often they’re told that law enforcement “really can’t do much” about the problem, and it might be better for them to just shut up and give in to the harassers’ demands.
Just like the school where I had to endure that bully all those years ago, we academics, and feminists, and cultural critics, are living in a culture and power structure that often turns a blind eye to bullying, and sometimes even encourages it. That bully I had to deal with when I was younger knew that he could do nearly whatever he wanted to do to make my life miserable, and all I could do was put up with his abuse and assaults as well as I could. I may have become strong enough to survive everything he did to me, but not every target of bullying is so lucky, and all of us may become a target of modern harassment culture at any moment. If we cannot adequately defend ourselves against these bullies right now, then we need to put every ounce of effort we can into changing the systems we live in so the bullies of modern harassment culture no longer have the privilege and power that lets them attack us with impunity, because there is literally nothing less than our lives, and the lives of our friends and family members, on the line.