How online bullying became an epidemic we're all guilty of

I like to think of myself as a pretty nice guy. I'm polite. I give to charity. I like to think that if I saw someone getting bullied by a racist on the bus, I would stand up for them – provided the racist was smaller than me and didn't look like they knew karate. Possibly I wouldn't. Probably I'd just shame them online from a safe distance.

The thing is, none of us like to think of ourselves as a bully. In the comic book version of our lives, we all cast ourselves as the hero and by the villain is always someone else. Definitely not us. Or our friends. Or anyone who agrees with us. Always the other guy. To a point.

Setting a benchmark

The other day, competing with a friend to see who'd been more crippled by primary school, told me about the most well intentioned road to hell I've ever heard of; "The Friendship Bench".

His school had a bullying problem, so to remedy it, the teachers put a bench the middle of the playground – if you were lonely and had no friends, then you sat on it, so that the teachers would know to pay extra attention to you, and your peers and classmates would know to beat you up every day for the rest of your life.

One day, when a new kid sat on the bench, my friend saw a chance to distract the bullies who tormented him, was the first into the stacks-on to ruin the new kid's life.

The potential for harm

Every human being has the potential to ruin somebody's day to make themselves ourselves feel better. That's why we invented Facebook.

A little over a week ago Bill Leak, the controversial editorial cartoonist of The Australian passed away. Dozens of politicians and journalists farewelled him at a public service at Sydney's Town Hall. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull praised him for uniting Australians with his work.

At the same time, people on Twitter who were upset over his campaigning against section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and his associated (alleged) racism were gleeful he was dead.

When both sides are guilty

This glee intensified further when conservative columnist Daisy Cousens published My Bill, a strangely intimate eulogy about the late Leak.

Advertisement

The backlash against her was swift and brutal – she was bullied relentlessly, just for writing a (rather peculiar) personal essay of the deceased.

There used to be a protocol when a controversial public figure died – their loved ones would mourn publicly, their enemies would express some kind of grudging admiration for their fallen foe, then wait a respectable amount of time before happily slagging them off in the press.

Rewarding bad behaviour

Those days are as dead as 18C, which many blame for driving Leak to an early grave. In the wake of the controversy, the Government moved to push through changes to 18C – a move to court a swinging vote that believes you can literally die from being called racist. It just goes to show, though, that even Mr. Turnbull, ostensibly the most powerful politician in the country, can still be wedgied and pushed into a locker by a surly Newspoll.

The internet is basically the school playground, except that lunchtime lasts forever, everyone is more immature than a seven-year old, and you can ring in an army of bullies to join in the stacks-on at a moment's notice.

There's no getting around the fact that bullies do very well in our society. Statistically, sociopaths are vastly over-represented in leadership positions in finance, commerce, reality television production – any field where empathy will get in the way of being good at your job. Heck, if you are belligerent and intentionally obtuse enough you don't even need to be good at your job.

Just be a little nicer

A friend of mine has a son who is being bullied at school. She's been trying to help him through it, but despairs at a world where the worst behaviour tends to be mostly richly rewarded. How is she supposed to raise him to have patience, be kind, considerate, to respect women, where the cultural imperative teaches that these things don't matter as much as being the loudest voice in the room?

If that's all we've got going for us, then we're essentially a bunch of kids circling around the Friendship Bench, looking for someone to pick on. It's a hard realisation, but maybe we don't need to be so cruel to each other.

There's room for a little civility; in business, in politics, even online. Even to the polemicist cartoonist.