Apparently the government are going to fight trolls, by making it a requirement for sites to hand over details of abusive users. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-18404621 It could work. It means articles need not be taken down for one spurious allegation, and it means real bullies and liars might have a tougher time of it. On the whole, that would be a good thing. There are balances to strike here around freedom of speech and the protection of whistleblowers. I want the freedom to complain about my politicians, say if I think organisations are acting shamefully and whatnot. But, I’m not hiding behind an unrecognisable name, and I’ve got no desire to unfairly bash anyone. That of course doesn’t mean that someone else couldn’t take umbrage at what I write though.
I’m not sure how much odds laws will make, in the scheme of things. People have to act on them, crown prosecution has to be willing to take cases forwards, and judges need to take the offences seriously. At the moment, crimes against the body are taken very seriously, where crimes against the mind are not. It does not help that psychological violence leaves much less clear-cut evidence. Bullying is often subtle, and if it’s not written on a web page or spoken in front of witnesses, what you get is a one person’s word against another’s scenario, and they are pretty much impossible to take to court.
In terms of damage done, if someone attacks me and breaks a bone, I’m going to experience pain, fear, and a long period of bodily healing. If it seems like a one off thing and I have good support, odds are I will get over it. The fear, the psychological part of the attack will give me more of a harmful legacy than the wounding. If someone torments me psychologically, over a period of time, I might never have so much as a bruise on my skin, but my mind might be damaged for the rest of my life. To destroy a person’s confidence or self esteem, is to destroy them. To make a person afraid to leave the house, is to imprison them, but you don’t even need to lock the door.
Culturally though, we don’t take this kind of attack seriously enough. Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me, and all that rubbish. Words push teenagers to suicide. Words need taking seriously. But while psychological assaults are taken as less serious, we collectively tend to look the other way. If you saw someone being beaten up in the street, you might do something, might call the police. But if a friend is crying, again, because she’s been shouted at, again, you might feel tempted to suggest she pulls herself together. We don’t, as someone pointed out to me on facebook, bother the police just because we’re being shouted at. Even though being shouted at can demoralise, humiliate, take away our confidence and autonomy, make us do something we didn’t want to for fear of worse to come if we do not behave as required. The threat of violence, or the implication of it can be frightening, but is much harder to prove, or explain. A person who fears what will be done if they don’t comply can end up doing hideous things under duress, with little scope for legal protection.
We say ‘it’s just’ ‘it was only’ and we minimise the effects of psychological abuse. We say it’s better to be thicker skinned. You’re too sensitive. You’re over reacting. You’re making a fuss about nothing, because you are weak, silly, attention seeking, and so the victim is knocked down again, and becomes unable to even mention how shitty they feel.
This is not the world I want to live in.
Bullying is not ok. Verbal cruelty is not ok. Shouting at people and intimidating them is not ok. Using websites and hiding behind fake names to harass people, is not ok. My main hope is that this change in the law might mark a sea change, in which we all start expecting better of each other, and not turning away from the issues of non-physical violence.