The desire to wield power over other people and to get enjoyment from doing so are unpleasant traits. While the structure of complex modern society requires hierarchies that have people in positions in authority over others, the exercise of power often extends well beyond the demands of one’s job and some people seem to actually enjoy having others be submissive to them and belittling and humiliating them.
This leads to situations of abuse in both the workplace and the home. But another manifestation of the desire is that of bullying that can occur outside of institutional structures. Hazing and other initiation rites are instances in which bullying is actually institutionalized and normalized, and not seen as aberrant behavior.
Maria Konnikova writes that while the phenomenon of bullying is ubiquitous, it used to be that there was a rural-urban distinction in that in the larger urban setting it was possible to be more anonymous or change one’s environment to escape from it, whereas people in more rural areas had less opportunity to escape. But the internet has changed that.
In some ways, when it comes to bullying, the Internet has made the world more rural. Before the Internet, bullying ended when you withdrew from whatever environment you were in. But now, the bullying dynamic is harder to contain and harder to ignore. If you’re harassed on your Facebook page, all of your social circles know about it; as long as you have access to the network, a ceaseless stream of notifications leaves you vulnerable to victimhood. Bullying may not have become more prevalent—in fact, a recent review of international data suggests that its incidence has declined by as much as ten per cent around the world. But getting away from it has become more difficult.
Adult bullying on the internet or ‘cyberbullying’ has become a problem with public shaming campaigns and “the rise of cyberbrigades which unite in virtual outrage, on Twitter, Reddit, or elsewhere online, to disparage someone’s words or behavior.” What drives this behavior is the same attitude that drives the school or playground bully.
Participants often feel that their abusive actions flow from justified outrage—but all bullies think that their behavior is justified. “We know from moral disengagement work that all bullies feel morally justified in their actions,” Swearer pointed out. Ask people why they bully, and they rarely say, “Because I can.” They say, “Because I need to.” Bullies believe they are teaching someone a lesson; they claim that their victims are, through their own actions or faults, asking for it, and that they need to be called out and corrected. “They say it’s retaliatory. ‘I just retaliated,’ ” Swearer said. “They build narratives of their behaviors.” Many of the bullies Swearer has dealt with don’t seem to have realized that what they did was bullying: they demonstrate “a lack of insight and self-awareness.” Instead, they see themselves as righteous crusaders.
When I was both a student and later a faculty member in the university in Sri Lanka I had an ongoing campaign against hazing which was a serious problem that sometimes ended even in death. When I challenged my fellow students as to why they were hazing (the term used there was ‘ragging’) the new students, they would reply that the new students needed to be taken down a peg, made to realize that they were not superior to others, not be shy, become part of the group, and other such reasons. My response that people had a right to be left alone, not join any group, and to act stuck up if they wanted to fell on deaf ears.
And that was only with physical bullying that one could escape by just making oneself scarce or hiding in the crowd. Now bullying is much harder to counter.
In short, the picture that’s emerged suggests that the Internet has made bullying both harder to escape and harder to identify. It has also, perhaps, made bullies out of some of us who would otherwise not be. We are immersed in an online world in which consequences often go unseen—and that has made it easier to deceive ourselves about what we are doing. The first step to preventing bullying among adults, therefore, might be simple: introspection.
The idea that the internet might be actually enabling bullying behavior and creating new bullies is worrisome.