Bullies: Cowards who belittle or exclude others

Over the past several years, my normal routine has been to wake up and check in on Facebook, ordinarily finding an update or two from someone I considered a close friend. We had spent many hours together over the years, commiserating over sad times, illnesses and triumphs. I had been going through a period of self-evaluation and talked about my feelings with this friend at a local coffee shop, who at the time seemed sensitive to what I was sharing. Growing older, I was looking back with joy and tinged with some sadness, capturing the blessings and realizing all that I probably would never know. When the conversation ended she seemed to understand and we closed with a hug.

The next morning on Facebook, no message appeared. I hoped she was OK, and went to her page to see any news. Much to my surprise I had no access. Then I tried a mutual friend, and ditto, access was denied. I knew then and there that I had been given the honor of the adolescent scourge of being defriended, blocked on Facebook. Seeking an explanation, I sent e-mails. No response. I tried calling. No response. This sudden action mystified me, and took time to settle in. While walking the streets of my hometown, I ran into an acquaintance, who told me that he, too, had been defriended by a high school pal because he was friendly with someone she did not like.

The process of defriending, and the implications of this rather thoughtless act, struck me as one example of cyberbullying. Determining who is and who isn’t an electronic friend at any given moment leaves no room for conflict resolution or mediation. Facebook, although a fine medium for keeping up with acquaintances and sharing information, can never take the place of face-to-face conversations.

Blithely ending relationships with a click is heartless and removes the opportunity for dialogue and healing of whatever breach has occurred. Social networking is just that, and not a substitute for substantive relationships. I had to ask myself, in the context of using media, why is it that adults, following in the footsteps of adolescents, have captured some of the less admirable traits of youth? How many adults walk along with cell phones glued to the ear or, um, like, you know, have adopted the linguistic shortcuts we abhor in children?

Language and general rudeness aside, more alarming is the growing use of ostracizing channeled through the media of social networking. The new Facebook organization fuels this with the many categorizations of friends, favorites and the like. Those boundaries create an atmosphere in which many forms of cruelty and bullying can be easily executed, but which should not be tolerated. Those who perpetrate such behaviors need to be re-educated to the possible ramifications of their cyberbullying acts.
After a few minutes of Internet sleuthing I found out that cyberbullying of all kinds is victimizing more and more adults. Others like me are initially bewildered, realizing that they are being ignored and that what they say has been twisted or totally fabricated. Some cyberbullies, after defriending someone, encourage others to do the same. In adolescent and younger children this bullying behavior has even led to suicide.

Bullying is generally about power. The bully’s primary desire is to cause harm, to hurt and to humiliate someone. It is not difficult to pick out where an individual is vulnerable and if it is one’s inclination, to go for the jugular. Cruel behavior is rationalized by thinking that by banishing or trying to destroy someone’s reputation, they are doing something worthwhile. Bullies are essentially cowards who feel the need to aggrandize themselves by belittling or excluding the other.

In the first preschool class that I taught for the University of California at Santa Barbara, one little girl stood out as being a bully. She delighted in gossiping and inciting other children to reject or make fun of another child. Her behavior was toxic and almost impossible to channel. I could only imagine the cues that she was getting from home and how she brought them into the classroom. The difference between this childish antisocial behavior and cyberbullying is the lack of personal recourse. I would have loved to speak to the people who so abruptly disappeared from my life to find out what was troubling them and resolve any misunderstanding.

Opening up to a friend by sharing personal treasures happens when one feels safe enough to do so. Long ago, I had a wise therapist who, in speaking of my background, said something like this, “In your life, you have experienced more loss then many do in the entirety of theirs. When you open up to others, if they accept you, fine, and if not, you will have to move on.” That is what I had shared with the friends who subsequently rejected me. I am sure that similarly, others who have risked opening up about sexual orientation, encounters with abuse or neglect have found the same. The good news is that being rejected opened me to deeper relationships with people who really know and appreciate what I bring to their lives, and they to mine.

Very recently while having my hair cut, the beautiful young and accomplished cosmetologist began to cry. I did not ask her why and started to cry myself, joining her in a very special moment. A few days later, a mutual friend told me she had shared that moment with her and that the friend counseled, “She knew that you would not reject her for sharing her heart.”