Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Culture of Compassion

This weekend I have a little break in the Sanctum blog tour, and I want to shift back into my usual blogging habits to post on something a lot of folks are talking about, and with very good reason.

Bullying and harassment.

In this post, I'm speaking specifically about this phenomenon within our writing, reading, reviewing, publishing, blogging, book-celebrating community (because the topic in general is massively broad and can't be addressed in a single post!)

October is Bullying Prevention Awareness Month. It's a chance for all of us to sit down and ponder this phenomenon. It's not new, and no one's arguing that it is. However, the reach and impact of bullying and harassment has clearly been intensified by technology, like so many other aspects of our lives. We're connected to each other 24/7, and we can speak to people who are thousands of miles away as easily as we speak to our neighbors, classmates, colleagues, and family. That brings a lot more people into our worlds, but in a very particular way: none of us have to look each other in the eye.

First, a definition. Bullying is not a synonym for criticism. It's just not. Bullying is an abusive, coercive behavior with the intention to intimidate or control its target. This is a repetitive behavior, not a one-time occurrence. Often there is a power imbalance. When this is happening online and between adults, it's called "cyberharassment" or "cyberstalking". In technical parlance, "cyberbullying" is a term reserved for when the victim is a minor.

There have been many research studies on what makes for effective bullying prevention. You know what I've noticed? One factor seems to be a key determinant in stamping out bullying or harassment within a system, be it a school, a workplace, or any other venue: CULTURE.

If the culture or climate of a place tolerates bullying/harassment or reinforces it, whether through active participation or silent complicity, cruelty will thrive.

In light of that, I have a few suggestions to help promote a culture of compassion while preserving our discourse. And I'm going to assume I'm talking to people who are not actively engaging in bullying or harassment. I also want to specify that I'm speaking not as someone who is above this fray, but as a member of this community. Everything I say below is something I'm working on doing, not something I've got down pat.

BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE. Obviously, those aren't my words (they're Gandhi's). But I had to open with that because it's so powerful: We can't stamp out bullying if we don't carefully guard our hearts, mouths, and typing fingers from spewing hatred. And if we start to do this, we can step back from it--we can change our behavior. We can speak to each other with civility and respect while still disagreeing. It's not always easy, especially online where the emotional consequences of our actions are largely invisible to us. This means we also need to support each other to keep things cool. If we fire each other up in hatred, we're not helping--we're hurting. One truly awesome example of someone who uses her power for good is Maureen Johnson. I've become a huge fan of hers as I've watched her deal with people online with constant respect and measured civility, even when she vehemently disagrees with them. It's lovely to watch. It can't always be easy for her, but her online persona is an example of how to extend grace to others while being strong and assertive.

DON'T GO THERE. In the online world, it's clear that pageviews often reinforce bullying/harassing behavior (I've seen harassers say this themselves). The person who is harassing sees how much traffic s/he's getting and takes it as a sign that people are enjoying watching the spectacle. Refusing to give someone an audience, as hard as it is (because outlandish, incendiary stuff is sometimes morbidly entertaining to read, right? I admit my own guilt in this--I might read something and shake my head, but I'm still providing an audience, and I've been trying to stop that recently). Let's help each other resist providing a constant source of attention directly to the behavior we'd like to see go extinct.

SUFFOCATE THE FIRE. Let's not speak directly to online bullies/harassers. Truly.  If you engage the harasser in a flame war, you're not helping. That kind of intense connection often fuels bad behavior and sometimes costs well-intentioned people the moral high ground. We can't fight hate with hate. If you feel yourself getting riled up and wanting to rage, STEP AWAY FROM THE KEYBOARD for at least several minutes. I'm not saying "stay silent." I'm just suggesting we direct our energy elsewhere, in a constructive way that will reduce harassment rather than intensifying it.

REACH OUT. If we witness someone being harassed and intimidated, let's reach out. THAT'S where we can put our energy. Especially to those who are vulnerable and not necessarily shiny, not popular, not established. Let's let them know they are worthy of time and compassion. Let them know they matter. Let them know they are deserving of peace. We shouldn't be shy about telling others that we're happy to be sharing the world with them and that their voices can be heard. In fact, let's not wait until someone gets bullied to do this. Let's get in the habit of doing it now.

SPEAK OUT. If we do see bullying or harassing behavior, let's label it and say that it's unacceptable. Alert authorities if applicable (website administrators, law enforcement under certain circumstances, advocacy groups). And if you are being bullied or harassed, do say so! A powerful example of this is Cassandra Clare's recent post about what she's gone through lately. She explains in detail what's happened to her--but makes it clear that talking directly to these harassers is not the thing to do. She differentiates between criticism of her books (which is not bullying or harassment) and what the people who are cyberharassing/cyberstalking her have done (whipping up outrage against her using false rumors and accusations, revealing personal details about how to find her, and a few other nasty things). She refuses to remain silent, but she channels all her energy into directing people to respond appropriately.

What say you? Shall we follow her example? Shall we openly and explicitly commit to a culture of compassion? Shall we support each other in civility and empathy (including forgiving the occasional slip up when it is accompanied by a commitment to re-engage in a kinder, more appropriate manner)? Shall we reach out to those who are vulnerable, and model treating every member of this community as worthy to share it with us?

So many of you can say this better than I can, and so many of you already do this more than I do. And so I will also say this: thank you for being good examples, and for being brave and speaking out. I am grateful. You inspire me to be better.


  1. Stepping away from the keyboard is huge. Just yesterday I defended an author online, and only later realized the person who'd commented negatively was coming from the right place, but had simply misunderstood something. And I should've put it that way, instead of simply kicking him in the shins.

  2. Walking away for a bit is a good thing. Sometimes it's hard not to just open your mouth or use your keyboard to respond immediately (I know, because I've done it way too many times - and with not so good results)but most times that's a bad idea because you're thinking with your angry brain rather than your logical brain which increases the likelihood that what you say will not be what you mean. I'm sorry for what Cassandra Clare has gone through/is going through because it sucks to be bullied or harassed no matter how old you are.

    And I'm with you 100% on committing to a culture of compassion.

  3. Aaaaamen. I think the hardest part for me is the "don't go there" - because I like to have the information, I like to know what's going on, even if I completely disagree with it. It's hard to make the deliberate choice not to be an audience sometimes. But you're right - it's so important to undercut the harassers' sense of power, and you do that to some extent by just staying away, and redirecting your energy to more positive people and places. Thanks for the reminder!

  4. Hang on, Hate Blogs??? Seriously? Good grief, people. I do agree there's a certain level of unpleasantness that goes along with the online culture in which we live now, and you'll find the "be the change" quote everywhere with me (even in TTAF!), but CC's right. That kind of harassment needs to be reported. Posting someone's name and address online on a Hate Blog takes it way too far. :p

    Can't wait for SANCTUM! One more day... :o) <3