Trigger warning for frank discussion of bullying and PTSD.
When I was young, I was bullied. A lot. Maybe not more than other kids who’ve been bullied, but I was definitely the target of my grade for many years running in my tiny grade school and middle school. It started to let up a bit in high school after I attacked one of my bullies physically. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but I had been at my wits’ end that there were exactly zero consequences for harassing me for years on end.
I was wrong to attack that person. And yet, I was able to breathe easier afterward.
My father, as fathers do, attempted to coach me on how to deal with the bullies and put a stop to the harassment — coaching that ranged from “don’t react in any way” to “react as strongly and as violently as possible” to “stop doing the things that make them harass you”. None of it really worked, and violence was always my last resort because I was scrawny and not very capable of it. The harassment started because I was a bit of a klutz, because I was a little too smart, because I was the tallest fifth grader, because I stood out a little too much in a few too many ways. Somehow I made myself a target, because at that age, societal pressures trend toward conformity. If you’re too different, you’re wrong and must be brought into line. The fact that some of these aspects of myself were endemic to my nature and could not be baffled or muted meant that I stayed a target for a very long time. I was very, very miserable. I completely understand the battle fatigue that comes with long-term harassment, and I empathize when the bullying escalates to the point of suicide or psychological damage. I am not unconvinced that there is no psychological damage in my own makeup as a result.
I’m seeing many of the same dynamics at play in the blogosphere, twenty years later. Agitators and people who advocate too strongly for change or too strongly against peoples’ saints and heroes get shouted down. They get targeted for being different, for standing out. They especially get targeted for pointing out the moral failings of others — targeted until they themselves break.
Let’s ground you in a comic reference, to keep up my geek cred. Think of what The Joker did to Commissioner Gordon in The Killing Joke, trying to push him over the edge of insanity by making sure he had the absolute worst day imaginable. Stretch that out over years, with microaggressions instead of single gigantic aggressions, and you get what some people experience for standing out a little too much. You get a decade of bad days. That has a psychological effect. That causes stress, fatigue. That causes anger and resentment, deep rifts, reactionary behaviours.
But I will not blame the victim under any circumstances.
This brings me around to Greg Laden, whom people seem to think is some sort of devil that should be made a pariah in the movement. (And this from a culture that thinks criticizing, say, DJ Grothe or Richard Dawkins is an attempt to make THEM pariahs, no less. Who’re the shunners?)
I haven’t talked much about the incidents surrounding his departure from FtB, mostly because I saw a perfect storm of harassment and victims and reactionary behaviour all out of proportion to what was actually happening. I saw all the setup for everything that was to come. I first saw Greg harassed to the point where he decided to shut down his FtB blog for a month and just blog at Scienceblogs, as a way to gain some temporary reprieve from Team Douchebag and their constant swarming attacks. I saw Justin Griffith step up to tell everyone that the members of Team Douchebag were just misunderstood, and that they were using 4Chan humour to get lolz — never mind that said lolz were at someone else’s expense, we saw that, we understood the culture and the jokes and the lolz, and that’s what we objected to. If we’re talking about stopping bullies, the focus shouldn’t be on what VICTIMS can do better (including ignoring the “for the lolz” crowd that makes up the majority of these bullies).
And yes, I then saw Greg react very strongly to what he (absolutely correctly) saw as someone haplessly defending the very people who’d attacked him, his dear friends, and everything they believed in, for years on end — pretending like we just didn’t understand their culture. Greg issued to Justin what Greg describes as a “Patton Slap”, a letter he worded so forcefully because he intended to smarten Justin up and realize that the people who’d targeted him, me, Stephanie, Jen McCreight, Ophelia Benson, PZ Myers, and countless others in the blogosphere would use Justin’s status as a veteran against him. That they would use the fact that he had to engage in activities at the army’s behest that would break most of us. And Greg’s “Patton Slap” went over the line in a lot of ways — warning that these people would try to trigger Justin’s PTSD was, in a way, just another trigger, even if Greg didn’t intend it that way, since intention isn’t magic. It’s the same reason you scream “trigger warning” before a post containing these potential triggers — you don’t want to accidentally hurt someone you’re not intending to.
I don’t think I’d have sent that letter. I might have thought about it, I might even have DONE it, but I do try not to say things in anger as much as possible because that anger tends to undercut what you’re trying to do. It was, to my mind, unreasonably lashing out come the end, with the “if you approach me I’ll kick your fucking ass (unless you apologize)”. Frankly, a “threat” of that nature doesn’t carry a lot of force from Greg, where as he points out he’s not a musclebound gun-toting doberman owner who’s famed for kicking ass. But such a non-threat was a threat nonetheless — it was a very bad reaction to the harassment he received. Yet I also think getting kicked off the network was a steep price for someone whose intents were pretty plain in the letters that Justin made public. I don’t necessarily disagree with him leaving this network, but I don’t like it being piled on top of the shit he was already getting.
It’s for that reason that I didn’t get involved — Greg was a victim reacting too harshly; and Justin was the victim reacting too harshly as well, who preferred to escalate by making the fight public at Greg’s exclusive expense, rather than trying to put time between the events or to let cooler heads prevail. There are lots of ways the situation could have de-escalated — neither Justin nor Greg reacted to one another appropriately. I won’t talk about the proportions of offense because that in itself is offensive, though people seem to be unduly focused on who did what when and in what order; on “who’s right” and “who scored the most points.”
I like Greg Laden a good deal. He is personable, witty, and knowledgeable. I still owe him a beer; I’m hoping to see him this New Year’s so he might collect. I suspect I’d like Justin a lot in person too. He seems funny, and I bet he’s got a lot of things to say about atheism in the military that I’m not personally exposed to in general. I know Justin’s mad at me for not hating Greg, but I hope that’ll pass and he’ll be less mad at me in time. (Or maybe it’s just that I pointed out when Justin was sympathizing with the harassers too much for my tastes, and that’s why he’s actually mad at me — that’s how it all started, after all. In which case, he’ll probably continue being mad at me when I point out his future transgressions.)
Just because I held my tongue when it all happened because of all the harassment and victimization and how tangled it all was, though, doesn’t mean I won’t point out these incautious and damaging actions when they’re not done as poor reactions to victimization. Stephanie posted her wish not to be used as a poster-child for how to be a victim properly, and far be it from me to criticize angry reactions to years of targeted harassment. I don’t think there IS a good way to be a victim — and having been a victim, I have a lot of sympathy for when people react badly. I, like Stephanie, have more sympathy for the bullied than for the bullies.
And all of us here would prefer to be left alone by the harassers, rather than targeted for stepping out of ideological line (this is FREEthought!!!1). So while I’d disagree with Justin that we are just not understanding the “for the lolz” crowd, and I’d disagree with Justin’s evident sympathy for harassers just because they’re targeting someone who threatened him (even if you don’t take Greg’s good intentions at face value because of the language), and I’d disagree with Greg’s letter, and I’d disagree with how Greg reacted to this latest spate of harassment by one of the pro-harassment crowd — by “dox’ing” a serial harasser who’d issued many threats on par with what Justin got from Greg over a month — while ALL of this is true, I still see all of this as a distraction from the harassment that caused it all. Disagreement doesn’t mean judgment, though. I don’t KNOW how I’d react. I don’t know how YOU’D react. I can’t express much judgment for how anyone reacted to anything here, except perhaps for the harassment that led up to it all.
After all, I won breathing room when I physically attacked one of my bullies. Even if I know that was wrong.
I don’t think that Greg’s won anything in this case but more targeting, though. They’ve seen him react badly. The bullies already smell blood in the water. They’re going to keep harassing until he leaves the internet, keep escalating until he breaks and does something that hurts his career, keep making him miserable until he’s ruined utterly, silenced ultimately because he’s a vocal feminist.
I only wish his latest misstep as a victim didn’t make him even more of a target for the harassers, the real devils here; and now also for the people who sympathize with the harassers, because Greg’s obviously a “nasty piece of work” — judging only by how he reacts to years of abuse.
How do YOU react to years of abuse? Can you judge?