Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Kids can be Terrible People, just like Everyone Else

When I was four years old
They tried to test my I.Q.
They showed me a picture of 3 oranges and a pear
They said, which one is different?
It does not belong
They taught me different is wrong
-"My IQ" by Ani DiFranco

I was reading up on cyberbullying in Newsweek this morning, reflecting on how we train children to think and act a certain way, then are shocked when they exceed a suicidal society's wildest hopes and dreams. The article opened with the tale of Phoebe Prince who was "bullied to death" over Facebook and in real life (IRL). The poor girl was fighting a two-front war and decided to surrender with a rope.

The article goes on to call into question the logistics of punishing Phoebe's (and other victims') tormentors. It points out sticky spots like Phoebe's history of suicidal tendencies, her attackers' good academic standing (as if that matters), and the fact that it's difficult to hold people responsible for actions they did not directly perform. I'm sure those girls didn't want Phoebe to kill herself; that would have ended their awful little fun.

Those of you who know me very well may be familiar with my own experiences with the shitheadedness of children. To this day, there are a few things that just bug me, hurt me or shut down my coping mechanisms thanks to a slight breech by some unwitting person in my life reminding me of something said when I was 11. These things, they happen. Certainly I had mornings I didn't want to get up, let alone go to school, and some times I got that wish. Sometimes not. I look back on those days with a slightly better emotional framework, so I'd like to offer a couple of ideas on the cyberbullying conversation. Maybe I can even contextualize it in the human condition.

Cyberbullying, and the whiplash reaction to it, occurs at the intersection of at least two of three phenomena in human sociology/psychology:
  1. Different is wrong: how interesting this possibly evolutionary trait should be applied within a species.
  2. Pattern-finding: while this determines "different," it also leads to the decade sentences over some of these bullies' heads. Check out the Historian's Fallacy.
  3. John Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory: or, to quote Oscar Wilde, "give a man a mask, and he'll tell you the truth." Not that calling someone a whore is truthful, but it does release the caller from a modicum of responsibility.
While I can't determine which of these occur within our minds and which we've created, or a mixture of the two, I do know these cause of lot of this conversation's talking points.

The US government legislates against homosexuals, many churches decry their "lifestyles" (because you are who you fuck, right?) and in general are given the scarlet word of "other," so people shouldn't be surprised when children treat gays like subhumans. This was the case of two boys in California and a college student named Tyler Clementi who threw himself off George Washington Bridge.

The problem lies in a culture which trains children to think in terms of exclusivity and entertainment: Clementi's roommate streamed a video of him and a lover. Children, even college students, have a hard time separating degrees of what society considers acceptable levels of hatred. It's generally okay in the US to support "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (you won't lose friends over it, probably), but it's wrong to out and out ostracize LGBT people.

Furthermore, when a culture values entertainment like "Flavor of Love," which operates like "Lord of the Herpetic Flies," children are going to think the "other" is there for entertainment. If we want to stop cyberbullying, this would be a good place to start.

Breaking the human's idea of pervasive patterns would be something to consider as well. Newsweek, hoping to elicit some sympathy for her torturers, points out that Phoebe Prince had already attempted suicide. The idea is that since she had the problems anyway, there is less responsibility on the bullies' part. If Jessica Bennett (the article's author) really thought it through, she'd realize it would make more sense to hold them more responsible (you don't give an alcoholic a fifth of Jack).

She is right, though, in asking whether bullies can, as a policy, be punished for their victims' actions. The Historian's Fallacy and people's... interesting use of cause and effect make us work backwards. So while two bullies post the same sentence on Facebook, the one whose subject commits suicide becomes the media's pariah. It reduces the question of causality and responsibility to moral luck. When you factor in the fact that one of Phoebe's bullies had her own emotional demons, this takes on a whole other facet of culpability.

As for the intersection of anonymity and responsibility, Facebook disallows most of that problem, but this has become part of human's approach to interaction online. Couple that with how analogous using a computer to socialize is with gaming, where moral rules are often suspended, stark realities focus. Again, people should not be surprised when "just a video game" thinking leads to "just a wall post" actions.

I hope this will give you something to consider, and maybe even help around the water cooler when and if this comes up. And let's have some sympathy for our devils.

No comments: