Defining Our Terms

6 Aug

So a couple of things have come together to form today’s topic/question: When is something “mean,” when is it “bullying,” and when is it “hate speech”? One of those things was a recent tweet by a friend who argued that there was a concerted difference between “being mean” online and “cyberbullying.” Another is the fact that I’m putting together a short presentation for SMCRVA on online harassment and bullying with some other folks called “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Tweet No Evil.”

My first reaction was to disagree with my friend’s assessment, actually. To say that while “bullying” may have a variety of degrees, “being mean” is one of them. But then I thought about what this friend was saying. In short, that “mean” comments are sometimes not actually “bullying.” I’ve reproduced the sequence below (with names removed to protect the innocent):


I can totally tell when someone never experienced RL bullying yet uses the word “cyberbullying.” Being mean to someone isn’t cyberbullying.

It’s certainly part of it, but bullying is more than mean-ness. It’s the systematic use of violence to demean, belittle, and harm another.

Yes, it’s true that disagreement is not bullying. Someone can disagree with you (the whole Chik-fil-a mess being a prime example) without bullying you, infringing upon your rights, or committing an act of anti-free speech or hate speech. The means by which someone chooses to disagree can, however, be both “mean” and “bullying.” But I take the point here – bullying has a different connotation than “being mean.”

We’re all mean sometimes. We say things out of a knee-jerk reaction – whether online or off – or passion for the topic at hand that are designed to be hurtful or intimidating. But is that really “bullying”? And if not, when does it cross the line into “bullying”?

If I take my friend’s definition, bullying is a pattern of concerted and deliberate acts of meanness, whether over a long period of time or short, designed to make the other person or group feel marginalized, belittled, weak, and unworthy. It can include being mean. It can also include – I would argue – hate speech.

But hate speech is something more nefarious than either “meanness” or “bullying.” Hate speech is a symptom of a larger cultural problem. It refuses to acknowledge people on a global, rather than personal, scale. It discriminates based on a category over which an individual has no control (gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity) or a category that is shared by an entire community (religion, nationality, interest), and demeans all people in that category. But we can generally agree when something is hate speech.

We don’t seem to have a clear grasp on when “meanness” and “bullying” cross, nor do we seem to have a clear sense of when we should interfere or what type of interference is appropriate. On the one hand, I think we should all be respectful of our differences. On the other, I don’t like the idea of being unable to express frustrations or disagreements without being accused of “bullying” or “infringing upon the right to free speech.”

I think my friend is right. Disagreement that doesn’t involve insults or hate speech is not bullying. If it’s reasonable and doesn’t contain offensive language, it isn’t even mean. It’s disagreement.

I also don’t think we should be regulating “meanness” in any substantial way. I think it’s not only fair, but worth encouraging people to “say something” if they feel they are being targeted by or witnessing “meanness” (for instance, saying, “Hey, that wasn’t nice.”), but I don’t think it’s within the purview of companies, moderators, or anyone else to “regulate.”

Bullying, on the other hand, seems to be a larger problem, especially within certain online communities. I talk mostly about gaming communities, but it seems to be present elsewhere, as well. The female blogging community, for instance. And in many online communities, the bullying is also (or at least contains) hate speech. Most of my examples have been concerned with misogyny, but homophobic bigotry is also fairly rampant online.

Here’s the thing. When we talk about “bullying,” most people think of children. They think of high school and “how do we stop kids from bullying.” And being what I think of as a “survivor” of high school, I agree that it’s a problem. But I also think that the kids – especially the kids online – are only mimicking what they see adults doing. The adults on Fark or Reddit or XBL can be vicious. And here’s the thing. Sometimes adults are “mean” in a friendly way. And most adults understand that in certain contexts, that “meanness” isn’t really mean, and it isn’t bullying (although there is also a grey area, as I’ve talked about, where it isn’t clear which is which). But kids, even mature teenagers, don’t always see that. Heck, some adults don’t see that (and some of them for good reason – traumatic experience, a close relationship with someone who’s experienced trauma, a history of having been bullied, etc.).

But from a leadership standpoint, we need to actually consider our actions and all their repercussions, especially online. Online space is in many ways freer than the real world. It’s also much, much more public. Millions of people can read your post, follow your twitter account, or be offended by your snarky comment on someone else’s blog forum. Lead by example. In a public online space, think about whatever you’ve written before you hit “post” or “send.” Reread it. Think about how a stranger you don’t know and who doesn’t know you might react to what you’ve just written.

And, furthermore, remember that your online identity is not just yours. Now especially, it can be linked to your real identity, your career identity, and your family identity. Would you want your boss to know what you think? Would you want him or her to read it the way you just wrote it, profanity and lewd pictures and all? What about your mom? Would you want to be thought of as the person who wrote that comment or blog post?

But it goes both ways. Yes, we should be respectful and considerate, think about what we say and in what contexts. But we should also try to give people as much benefit of the doubt as we can. Sometimes people say things in a way that might seem offensive, but it isn’t really meant that way. Sometimes a fight isn’t worth pursuing. Sometimes – as a recent tongue-in-cheek Kotaku article suggested – the best thing to do is just to be nice. To not feed the proverbial trolls.

Sometimes, yes, the fight is worth having, the comment is worth rebutting, or the troll is worth feeding with Exlax. Sometimes it is important, and vitally so, to speak out against what we’ve seen. But sometimes it’s hard to find where that line actually exists when the sand is constantly shifting.