Jul 26, 2010

half-formed thoughts on cyberbullying

A work in progress. Your comments and suggestions are appreciated.

Sticks and stones
May break my bones
But words will never hurt me.

I'm made of rubber,
You're made of glue.
Everything you say
Bounces off me
And sticks to you.

--children's sayings
Recently a reader sent this email:
I'm a long-time reader of your blog. I was hoping that you would blog about cyberbullying laws sometime since they have been a matter of controversy for a while now. Thanks!
I was somewhat stumped. As a teacher who uses the Internet all throughout the curriculum, and for someone who has established a persistent online presence for seven years, I'm ashamed to admit that my perspective on cyberbullying is, at best, half-formed and ad hoc.

Which it shouldn't be, as cyberbullying challenges traditional notions of education, juvenile law, and parenting.

My thoughts were expanded when another reader, Kevin, sent along one an otherwise unrelated email titled "German Civil Rights Fail." (Any insertions or edits are his.)
"Article Five: Freedom of Expression.

(1) Every person shall have the right freely to express and disseminate his opinions in speech, writing, and pictures and to inform himself without hindrance from generally accessible sources. Freedom of the press and freedom of repor...ting by means of broadcasts and films shall be guaranteed. **There shall be no censorship.** [Sweet! Censorship = un-Constitutional in Germany.]

(2) **These rights shall find their limits** [Wait a minute! You just promised us CONSTITUTIONALLY that censorship will not happen! What happened?] in the provisions of general laws, in provisions for the protection of young persons, and in the right to **personal honor** [What does this even mean?! It's a violation of civil rights to insult somebody?!]."


At first I didn't notice the connection, but there it is: the language of the German constitution provides a perfect framework for understanding the current controversy over cyberbullying. After all, it is a form of speech that threatens the mental and emotional wellbeing of young persons, and is an affront to their personal honor.

But should it be a crime? And, if so, what about free speech?

In one sense, the German constitution is superior to its U.S. counterpart; at least it explicitly notes the limitations on free speech, while in the U.S., we have to rely solely on decades of muddled juriprudence to determine where the boundaries of infringement lie. (Eugene Volokh, discussing a related issue, notes that even the word "infringement" isn't simple.  See also his critique of a new cyberbullying statute.  Legislators definitely run the risk of too broadly defining what constitutes cyberbullying.)

Here in the U.S., as the children's sayings imply, we certainly value personal honor and the sensibilities of the young. We don't want a nation of wimps.  A societally coordinated and aggressive approach to bullying, though, is a fairly recent invention. We leave personal honor to the person, creating a razor-thin line between encouraging mental toughness and blaming the victim--because sometimes words will hurt, and arguing otherwise is a form of denial. (If you disagree, imagine what a bully thinks when told that "words will never hurt.")

Throw this kind of thinking into a culture saturated with technology, which creates new dimensions for bullies.  What happens?

  • There are new means of public or private aggression.  Blogs. Forums.  YouTube videos. Text messages.
  • There seem to be no natural "times out," given the ubiquity of technology.
  • The audience is potentially global, multiplying any humiliations--especially when older folks get in on the act. (Children aren't the only ones who cyberbully, as the Jessi Slaughter incident makes obvious. And if you look up Slaughter's experience, be warned: it's disturbing on multiple levels.)
  • Anonymity and the removal from a personal context increase aggression.
  • Thanks to Google, cyberbullying's evidence can last a lifetime.  How do you heal when the sting never stops?
Humans live out narratives, selves couched in stories and words.  As we migrate further into the digital hemisphere, words take on more and more importance. Maybe the Germans are on to something.

For further reading: Emily Bazelon's excellent series on the subject over at Slate.

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