BULLYING (OR NOT SO MUCH)
So, I guess you’d have to live under a rock (or be a writer in the cruel, all-consuming throes of a developing story) to have missed all the #AskELJames … stuff. And if you’ve seen all that, you’ve likely seen the follow-up calls of shame on you or shame on us or shame on them and then the inevitable cries to STOP THE BULLYING!
And, on principle, I don’t necessarily disagree with any of them.
When it comes to bullying, we’re not dealing with “principle”. We’re dealing with something a lot harder and colder and plainer. Or, well, we should be.
Now, there are several points to be made here, but the bullying accusation is what I want to start with. Because I’ve seen it so often over the past few years, and to be perfectly frank, it’s starting to lose its meaning. Which, to me, is a very, very bad thing. But probably not in the way you think.
Let’s start with a definition, because it’s always better coming from something official:
: to frighten, hurt, or threaten (a smaller or weaker person)
: to cause (someone) to do something by making threats or insults or by using force
: to treat abusively
: to affect by means of force or coercion
I want to concentrate on that top definition, because I think that one’s the key here: to frighten, hurt, or threaten (a smaller or weaker person).
And here’s where I disagree with those who define what happened to E.L. James as bullying, and are using it to make a point about “author bullying” or maybe “reader bullying” or even what the neo-Conservatives have started waving around when their beliefs are trotted out and exposed as the bigoted points of view they are. Because none of that is actually bullying. It’s unpleasant, yes. Hurtful, absolutely. Mean-spirited fuckery and a platform for asshole trolls, yup. Almost invariably unnecessary. Generally uneducated. Any adjective for “bad” one can come up with.
But it’s not bullying.
Now, I’m not here to pile on E.L. James, by any means, though I’ll admit I don’t like what she does. I personally think her lack of research and her callous treatment of her subject matter is unforgivable and potentially harmful. I think my teenaged daughter can out-prose her at her most (questionably) eloquent. I think she’s done actual harm to women’s issues by giving opponents a notorious, though admittedly shaky, set of clay feet upon which to lay their arguments.
That doesn’t mean I condone what happened with that hashtag. But it doesn’t mean I’m inclined to defend her from “bullying” either.
Because—and let me state this plainly and without question—what happened to E.L. James was not bullying. The people who participated in that hashtag were, by and large, indefensible jerks, but “jerks” does not automatically equal “bullies”. And, in truth, not all of the points brought up in all of that were indefensible. There were some rather valid arguments raised, and approached with perhaps some snarky wit but without rancor or foul invective. That’s called free speech and people are allowed to have it, regardless of whether or not we like what they say, or how they say it.
I know, I know, I can already hear the “but, but, but!” and I understand where the whole bullying thing comes from. I even empathize with it up to a point. But it doesn’t change the fact that we’re taking a very serious word here and trivializing it with “those people were mean.” And, yes, absolutely, some of them were. But they weren’t bullies. It’s a distinction I think is enormously important, because we’re losing the point of that word—bully—and we need that point with all its sharp edges.
Doxing is bullying. What happened to the women during GamerGate was bullying. What happens to the skinny gay kid who’s afraid to go to school for fear of getting pantsed or beaten up is bullying. What happens to a woman who’s groped on the subway is bullying. What happens to a person in an abusive relationship is bullying. What happens to people of color when confronted with a bigoted cop is bullying.
That hashtag? No. And saying it was bullying is saying that it’s just as bad as those situations in that paragraph above. It takes away the power of the word and therefore, the power of the people who are victims of real bullying who’ve already lost most of their power.
Look at that definition again—to frighten, hurt, or threaten (a smaller or weaker person)
Was E.L. James frightened? I suppose it’s possible, but I doubt it. There were no threats I could see, and I read—I think—the entire thread. Was she hurt? Maybe her feelings, because no matter my opinion of her talents as such, she is an author, and we’re a rather thin-skinned lot. Did she feel threatened? Again, it’s possible, but doubtful.
But here’s the key to this, and it’s really important—E.L. James, especially in the context of this internet Q&A, was neither a smaller nor a weaker person. If anything, she was the only one in the entirety of that situation who had any power. The woman is a multi-millionaire with the comfort of the knowledge that probably a good percentage of the people who participated in that hashtag free-for-all had most likely purchased at least one of her books, even if it was to make fun of it with their friends. Or seen the movie. A portion of the people engaging in the mockery on Twitter, statistically speaking, have put money in E.L. James’s pocket, have given her power, both as a wealthy person in a world where wealth already equals power, and as a best-selling author in an industry where that’s the only kind that matters.
But, most importantly, E.L. James, if she even read through the thread at all (which I doubt), was doing so from behind the safety of her computer monitor, comfortably ensconced… wherever multi-millionaire best-selling authors ensconce themselves. There was no danger. There was no threat. E.L. James was not and is not small or powerless. There was, therefore, no bullying.
And I need to say this again—I do not condone what happened, but if ever there was a subject that needs perspective, it’s bullying and what it really is and who really needs our protection from it.
Look, I’ve been on the receiving end of some pretty nasty commentary in my years of toddling about the troll-infested Lord of the Flies world we call the internet. I’ve been told I needed to be raped and die in a fire. I’ve been told the only good female brain is the one that’s scooped out to make room for a good skull-fucking. I’ve been told I should be beaten to death with my keyboard. And those are only the ones I remember off the top of my head. There have been more. And it’s not like I go to message boards or forums where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a troll. This is just in the normal course of being an author who is accessible online. And who among us hasn’t gotten the one-starring troll treatment for no good reason?
Do I like it? Absolutely not. Do I think it’s fair? Nope. Do I think it’s nasty and hurtful and infuriating? Yes, yes, and yes.
But do I think it’s bullying? No. No. Because when I’m sitting in my home with my laptop and reading these things on my monitor, regardless of my actual size and/or strength, I am neither smaller nor weaker than the person saying them. In point of fact, intellectually speaking—which is the only part that matters on the internet—I’m betting I’m the much bigger and stronger person. And if worse came to worse, all I really have to do is turn the internet off and walk away. These trolls have no power over me but what I give them, and I refuse to give them any. Which means, by definition, I am not being bullied.
And neither was E.L. James.
Personally, I’d like to see that word—bullied—saved for the people who actually need it, not robbed of its power by those who get their feelings hurt because someone was mean to them on the internet. Those who truly are bullied have lost enough power already, don’t you think?