I have found in most of my circles - social work, gender studies classrooms, feminist relationships with friends and partners, family time, and even in casual work relationships - that when we think we're over something or we've talked it to death, we have really only scratched the surface. Because we are asking the wrong questions.
One of the problems- or advantages?- of working with social media and the internet is that it keeps changing and evolving. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not. In the last few weeks while thinking about this piece I found myself thinking that cyber bullying perhaps isn't relevant, or anything that I can say would be repetitive. But the problem persists, so the discourse must also persist. When the act of a young person taking his or her own life becomes fodder for jokes under the guise of anonymity and lack of consequences, we must ask ourselves what this bit of "freedom" costs us. And more importantly, where does this anger and hatefulness come from?
A quick Google news search of "cyber bullies" or "internet + suicide" yields a depressing number of shocking results. The incidences of self-harm as a result of internet bullying or intimidating are becoming public knowledge, and in many cases, it only seems to incite the ones bullying more. In the case of Natasha MacBryde's tragic death, many of her peers were still posting offensive remarks onto her memorial page. Other family members have been sent pictures of their deceased's bodies. The tales go on and on. The "why" is hotly debated. Is the internet responsible for the lack of empathy young people are showing, or is it just a symptom of something bigger? Is this anti-empathetic mindset something that has existed for generations but is exposed now that there is a virtually consequence-free venue to make these remarks?
I am inclined to think that the internet didn't magically create these monstrous occurrences. In the case of the white male patriarchy of the United States, our past is a bloody and entitled one. This total lack of connection and empathy between peoples in the same communities isn't a new problem (look at the treatment of any marginalized group, anywhere), and it is my opinion that learning to moderate comments on internet discussions and teaching etiquette isn't going to be any sort of long-lasting answer. Finding a more permanent solution, however, could have far-reaching benefits for everyone.
Instead, let's open the discussion. How do we teach empathy? Is it something teachable at all? Perhaps simply education is the answer.
I had been sitting on this piece for a few days when the White House held a conference about bullying, in which the President and First Lady offer some answers but mostly open up the discussion and start the problem-solving process. If nothing they said was groundbreaking, it was still good to see the White House taking some time for the youth of the country when there are so many other hot-button issues being discussed right now.
Both our President and the First lady speak about engagement with young people, speaking up, and taking action, when it comes to bullying. What pleased me the most, however, was their insistence that adults take responsibility for what is going on. Whether we know why it's happening or we don't, whether it's worse or better than when we were all children, these cases that result in the deaths of young people are not just "kids being kids," and that is a cop out. Good on the our leaders for calling that out. Like they said, we've got a lot of work to do.