Emily S. Whitten: Cyberbullying Is Never The Answer

cyberbullying_introSo if you missed it, a past cyberbullying occurrence (if you can call three years of personal harassment an “occurrence”) involving two comics industry creators made its way to the forefront of comics news last week. Following this, both people involved in the original incidents have taken a few steps away from the online world for a while.

I… have mixed feelings about all of this. Oh, don’t get me wrong; I don’t have a single mixed feeling about the original harassment. Chris Sims was wrong to wage a personal, harassing vendetta against Valerie D’Orazio, and D’Orazio was right to address it in public.

What I have mixed feelings about is the, if you can call it that, “resolution” of this, which could be seen as “too little, too late,” or as “finally stepping up to the plate” to admit wrongdoing; and the attendant fallout from addressing this years down the line. Including the fact that D’Orazio, years after the original harassment, has now been put in a position where she unfortunately feels it necessary, despite Sims’ “apology,” to close her public Twitter due to further harassment – not from Sims; but from, presumably, “fans” of Sims or just generally hateful people.

Just bringing up the old harassment, for which she has been diagnosed with actual PTSD, has brought a heaping serving of new harassment for her to deal with; and that’s awful. Granted, Sims is also stepping away from some of his online presence for a while; but choosing to do such a thing is very different from being forced to in order to escape harassment, feelings of being unsafe, or whatever other terrible stuff D’Orazio has been dealing with.

I also have mixed feelings because prior to knowing about this harassment (I was not aware of it until last week), I really liked reading Chris Sims’ Comics Alliance writings and Twitter. In particular, the Smallville recaps he did with David Uzumeri have cheered me and made me laugh on many a lunch break and dull commute. And from Sims’ writings, he seemed like, for someone I’ve never met, a pretty laid-back guy. Not the sort of person who’d spend hours of his time and efforts trying to tear down somebody else. And yet, that’s what happened. For three years. How completely awful of him.

I don’t know either party outside of a passing online interaction, which could just as easily be smoke and bombast as it could be real sincerity. The interesting thing about this is that Sims, based on his recent addressing of the situation and actions, may possibly have actually grown as a person in the interim between his terrible behavior and the present.

Usually, when I see online harassment I see it in the moment, and the reflection of the harasser is pure awfulness. In that moment when someone is being a hateful human being, there isn’t any change of heart in sight. And yet, because of the time that passed between the original harassment here and the present, it’s possible we are able to observe someone who has actually become a better person since his earlier actions. If that’s true, and Sims isn’t posturing but sincerely regrets his actions (not just because of the consequences to his writing career, but because they were wrong), then it leaves me pondering some questions for which I don’t really have answers, but which deserve to be addressed in an ongoing manner.

Questions like: once a person realizes they’ve behaved badly, what can atone for it? What is the proper societal or professional “punishment” for such atrocious behavior, and is there a time limit to it? And should it be ameliorated by the fact that the person has recognized it? Does any of this help the victim of the original harassment? What would they want to see happen? And what if their harassment is still ongoing, caused by the ripples of the original harassment?

Do others, as observers aware of the situation, have a responsibility to, e.g., boycott a harasser’s creations? To continually speak out against the harasser (and does that sometimes turn into harassment in the other direction)? What if it’s a harasser who has changed his (or her) ways? What then? What is the best way to support someone who has been harassed and speak up consistently against harassment without closing our minds to the possible redemption of someone who has been the harasser? Can they grow if we don’t let them? How can we let them without letting them off the hook for what they’ve done?

I don’t know all the answers here; I really don’t. What I do know is that harassment and cyberbullying are never the answer; and that it is important to speak out against unacceptable behavior, no matter who the perpetrator is.

I also know that for me, anyway, being made aware of someone’s harassing or otherwise cruel behavior either turns me off to their creative work, or, if they are sincerely trying to apologize and atone for it (as I hope Sims is here), at the very least makes me hugely disappointed in them and puts their work into the mental category labeled, “Trust In Creator Lost: Use Caution In Future Consumption of Creative Output.” In other words, even though of course the person harassed is the most hurt, these people are also hurting themselves professionally by their behavior. It astonishes me that more people don’t consider that before they act. Or maybe they do, and their preferred audience is one full of jerks who don’t care about hurting others; in which case, I just feel sad for them. There are so many things in life more worthy of spending one’s energy on than tearing another person down.

I think it’s important for all of us (myself included, because I’m nowhere near perfect and do not claim to be) to make an effort to consciously consider the effects of our words and actions. It’s an old truth that words have power. They can shape the world; but sometimes it seems we are taught little care for them, or that we both accept that truth and then discard it when we act.

There’s a quote from Terry Pratchett’s A Hat Full of Sky that seems apropos here, in which his character Tiffany is explaining how she thinks about the world:

“First Thoughts are the everyday thoughts. Everyone has those. Second Thoughts are the thoughts you think about the way you think. People who enjoy thinking have those. Third Thoughts are thoughts that watch the world and think all by themselves. They’re rare, and often troublesome. Listening to them is part of witchcraft.”

I think we could all use a little more witchcraft, in the sense that we could all do with getting out of our own heads and watching the world and our actions in it from an unbiased observer’s perspective a little more. Or even by flipping the bias and trying to imagine ourselves in the place of the person being harassed. Imagining the continual hurt, anger, frustration, helplessness, and fear that someone must feel when being attacked; and then realizing that this is what bullies choose to add to the world.

Because that’s who a bully is: someone who chooses to create pain for another human being. Someone who wreaks chaos on another life because…because they can? Because they feel small in their own lives? Because they have a grudge for some reason, and think the nuclear option is the best way to deal with it? I don’t know; there may be many reasons – but it’s important to realize that none of them justify, to steal another Terry Pratchett quote, “treating people as things.”

It’s up to each of us to consistently realize that, and to realize that we’re all vulnerable; and that any person could decide tomorrow that it’s your turn to have your life ruined by careless words. And to choose, each moment, not to be that person in somebody else’s life.

I hope this unfortunate situation with D’Orazio and Sims has at least given us all something to think about and grow from; and until next time, Servo Lectio.