A Personal Statement About Online Bullying and Abuse

(The immediate impetus for this post is a string of events affecting the literary and publishing communities in which I live my life, but I’m sure that everyone reading this has seen similar incidents online, in other areas. And I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. This is the moment it felt right to step forward and say something.)

My perspective on online bullies is shaped by the fact that I used to be one.

When I first got on the Internet as a graduate student, using a university account, the web had yet to become a significant platform, so one of the biggest games in town, perhaps the most significant, was Usenet—a collection of threaded conversations, tagged and sorted by a many-layered hierarchy of subject matters, diverse enough that you could find a “newsgroup” for just about any topic you were interested in discussing. It was a forum where knowledge and the ability to write well could contribute much to your social reputation, and I took to it immediately.

At some point, I acquired a separate account from a commercial Internet service provider, and for a number of reasons I chose to post from that account using a pseudonym. At the time, I could and did give a whole spiel using postmodern theory about distinguishing “the author-function” from the writer and how online technology enabled us to reshape our personalities and the way we present ourselves to the world, but the bottom line is I liked the freedom of “performing” in that voice, that persona, in ways that were unlikely to bring about the consequences they would if I behaved the same way offline.

To be blunt, I was able to behave like a complete asshole.

It wasn’t sufficient for me to be smart and articulate; I also had to be right, and more importantly to be acknowledged as right, goddammit. I imagined myself as clever, as cutting, as unrelenting in my willingness to tell it like it is and call people out on their bullshit. In reality, I was often deliberately rude, brutally offensive, and willing to say the most devastatingly insulting, sometimes even hurtful, thing I could think of if it would shut the other person up and establish that I had “won” the “argument.”

And enough people found that entertaining, or found the people I was battling with so distasteful, that they encouraged me and I accepted their praise and kept on going. If other people said I was being an asshole, well, what the hell did they know?

When I look back at that time in my life, from about 1994 to 1997, the overwhelming emotional response is shame at having inflicted emotional hurt on so many people, mostly strangers, simply to fuel my own ego and sense of self-worth. I won’t discuss specific examples here, but suffice to say that I was likely, on one occasion or another, as cruel as you can imagine, and believed at the time that I’d been perfectly justified.

Sometimes I wasn’t the one who started the fight, but that doesn’t matter. Because if somebody came and picked a fight with me online, I was going to be the one to finish it, and I would quickly resort to a scorched earth policy, even more verbally abusive than usual.

Those online fights began to take up more and more of my time, and more and more of my head space, until I had to recognize that it was affecting my quality of life. I wish I could say that I made a radical change, but the process of extricating myself from the battlefield took time, and involved some recidivism. The basic upshot was this, though: If I continued to stay where I was, it was inevitable that I would continue to behave like an abusive asshole. The only viable solution was to leave that environment, and find new environments where I could learn to behave in more emotionally and socially productive ways.

I’ve spent 17 years on that path; some days I did better than others, but I feel like I live a much healthier life now. I’ve come to realize how destructive my behavior back then was, and how it affected those I attacked. In particular, I’ve realized that actions without conscious misogynist intent can and do have the same effect on women as open misogyny, and that calling yourself a feminist counts for nothing if your actions don’t reflect it.

My wife didn’t meet me until several years after I’d begun to change my life. In a recent discussion, she said that if she’d met me closer to that period, or in that period, she would not have associated with me. I completely understand, because if, in the world I live in today, I encountered somebody who acted as abusive as I behaved when I was younger, I would reject any association with them as well. (So I’m very fortunate that I met her when I did, because she has played no small role in keeping me on this path.)

When I was settling into the life that I have now, I used to be afraid that this part of my past would resurface, that it could be used to discredit me and turn people against me. I suppose that’s still possible; I would certainly understand if anyone learned the worst details, or even just some of the really bad details, and came away disappointed. My past is what it is, though, and I can’t change it; I need to relinquish my fear and hope that people judge me by the life I live now.

My own experience gives me reason to believe in the capability of people to change their lives and work towards redemption. It also gives me reason to believe the operative term there is “work,” that change requires a sincere overwhelming desire to become a better person, and the discipline to conduct yourself in a way that can make that happen. I count myself lucky that I’ve been able to take those steps, especially when I see so many bullies and abusers online who seem entrenched in their behavior.

I’ve seen too many examples of what bullies and assholes do to the people around them, especially when they’re not confronted or, even worse, when they’re given approval for their abusive behavior. That’s not a world I want to live in, and it’s not a world I want for my colleagues and friends and loved ones. I do my best to create the world I do want for them, and on my best days I think I might be getting somewhere with that.

30 September 2014 | uncategorized |