The internet is a wonderful tool in so many ways, and there is no doubt that it largely enhances our lives. From online shopping which makes daily life for the disabled or isolated, much easier, to educational information available to everyone, to online business opportunities, it opens life up to us in ways we never realised were closed before.
As with most things in life however, there is a darker side to the internet, and it seems to be gaining in strength. There have been several high profile instances of cyber bullying and general aggressiveness, the latest of which is the abuse suffered by Stan Collymore, the retired English football player. He has been on the receiving end of racial abuse, mainly via twitter, which has escalated into death threats and all sorts of other horrors.
There are two questions that spring to mind immediately. Why do people do this and what can we do about it?
The first of these questions is multi-faceted, but simple to answer – because it’s anonymous. You don’t have to identify yourself truthfully anywhere on the internet, and this allows you the safety to behave in ways you would never dream of otherwise. You can call yourself any name you can think of, you can put any random photo on your profile, and no one need know who you really are. This is extremely empowering, especially for those people who are socially introverted, and/or too afraid to take part in what used to be called ‘normal social situations.’
Suddenly, we can now spit forth all of the darkest horrors that dwell deep within the most animalistic region of our minds, and which we tend to keep locked away when we have to physically interact with people. No one in their right mind would walk down the street, see a black skinned ex footballer, and yell the N word at the top of their voice. The chances are that the aforementioned would come over and nut you one if you did. We all know this, and, not wishing to invite fisticuffs with another person who might hurt us far more than we are able to hurt him/her, we keep our mouths shut and our kneecaps intact.
Get on the internet however, and suddenly those risks are not there anymore. We no longer have to risk getting a black eye or broken nose, we can be as horrible as we like and be totally confident that we will always get away with it. That gives us all a lot of power, but it is a power that causes nothing but pain.
I think there are several underlying causes of this upswing in anonymous aggression. Firstly, our societies are terribly over populated and our territorial boundaries are being invaded every day as more and more housing goes up, gardens get smaller and more people are being housed in apartments without even a balcony, let alone a garden. We now have more neighbours, far more closer to us than ever before and we are forced to live in far too close a proximity to everyone else. Everyone likes their own space, but when your own space is not much bigger than your own footprint, it has a detrimental psychological effect, so much so that there is now a new educational discipline called Environmental Psychology. People can now study the effects of overcrowding and the way it affects us.
This enforced crowding, leads me to the second reason. The closer we are forced to live with our neighbours, and the less personal space we are allowed, makes us withdraw from social interaction more than we would have done fifty years ago, in order to try to get some time away from all these people so close around. This withdrawal does nothing to enhance or develop our social or interpersonal skills, and subsequent generations are much less effective at what I call, compassionate social interaction than people of my parents’ generation was.
Given our dwindling ability to interact in a compassionate way, the dwindling of our personal space, and the enforced ‘close proximity living’ we are all experiencing, the type of interaction offered us by the internet, with it’s anonymity, makes cyber abuse bound to happen. We now have a platform on which to vent all of the pent up feelings our lives cause us, and knowing that we can say whatever we want without anyone having to know who we are, the temptation to vent forth with our most vicious feelings is too strong for many to resist.
So what can we do about it?
This is a hard one, and one that does not have a simple answer. We should encourage our younger generation to interact physically more than they do, limit their time on the internet so that real interaction becomes the norm for them, and give them other opportunities to vent their feelings in a way that does not involve hurting anyone else. Ideally we would all have the opportunity to live in slightly larger personal spaces than we now do, but unless there happens to be a sudden pandemic anytime soon, we are doomed to live shoulder to shoulder with our neighbours. Education is very important and often overlooked in this particular arena. Those who have spent many years being educated to a high standard, have not only showed that they have high self discipline, necessary for study, but they often have life goals that involve getting out into the world and doing something with their time and skills. Under educated inner city no-go area housing estates are often filled with people who have not had such a good education and who have practically no job prospects. They have more free time in which to sit around and get bored, due to not having a high standard of living, and the temptation to spend hours daily on the internet, and using it as an outlet for all of their woes, is very high.
We need to be teaching the younger generation how to be a compassionate social person in a high density society. This is where we can blame the parents – us, for not having done our job properly. Human nature is naturally compassionate, to a degree, but we are also naturally competitive and want to be better than the next guy. We are capable of great violence and as kids, we need to be taught how to control our selfish urges and live in harmony with others. With all the educational, racial, cultural and religious differences between us and our neighbours in our new borderless societies, we need to learn how to live and let live. It doesn’t come naturally, it needs to be learned and we haven’t taught this to our kids.
When it comes to social media, those in charge of these sites need to jump on any wrong doing quickly and deal with it, and this is where they are falling behind. In all of the recent high profile cases, the social media site(s) involved have done nothing about the abuse. This needs to change, especially as there have been several suicides resulting from cyber abuse. The problem for us as users is that we are almost totally powerless to force their hands. We can email, tweet, post etc demanding they toughen up, but 99% of people, while agreeing, won’t bother to get involved, (another demonstration of today’s lack of compassion for others).
I’ve had a few nasty comments on facebook over the years I’ve been involved with it, and my response is always to go public with it. I copy and paste the comment, with the person’s name, and let all my followers see it. I respond not with aggression, but with honesty and openness and show the world who this person is. Hopefully the ensuing embarrassment will help them to decide not to do it again. If I get a reputation for always showing the world what you’ve said to me, the chances are you will try to make sure what you say to me is not abusive. That’s my opinion anyway, and however flawed it may be, it works for me.
I hope Stan Collymore gets the result he deserves, and I hope the twitter bigwigs get off their fat asses and tighten up their response to such crap. In an ideal world this shit would not happen, but this is not an ideal world, because people live on it.