Saturday, 4 July 2015

Cyber bullying legislation

We've just passed a new law here in NZ that is designed to curtail cyber-bullying. It's a tricky area because of the tension between restricting free speech and, for example, ensuring we can take down messages exhorting vulnerable people to kill themselves. It seems people are a lot meaner on-line than in real life, or something.

I have a bit of trouble relating to this. If someone was sending me hate txts I would just block their number. I don't know if their phone company would still charge them for sending the txts but I just wouldn't see them. As far as I can tell pretty much every social medium I use has some equivalent. Ignoring the whole space, for me anyway, would not be a hardship. Still, it would be wrong if the haters won that fight so we need something.

But I wanted to say something about bullying in general, rather than cyber-bullying alone, and I wonder if this ought to have been considered in the legislation. Bullying of any kind is about power. Powerful people exercise control over the less powerful. We all understand this, but it is easy to lose sight of in the murk sometimes.

When the boss makes a lewd comment at the new office girl and she gets upset he says something like 'Can't you take a joke?' and we all know he's being a bully and calling it humour. What if she makes a joke about his appearance (that overhanging gut, perhaps) which might seem to be just as hurtful, just as mean? Is it the same thing?

To say it isn't the same might seem like we're being unfair but I suggest it is different (mean is still mean, I'm not saying either of these comments are good). He's in a position of power, she's not. She simply cannot bully her boss, unless there is something else going on we cannot see like blackmail. So while she is being offensive, she is not being a bully.

The distinction is important. We had a story I found astonishing here a few months back. When I first read it I assumed it was some kind of parody that hadn't quite worked, but it turned out our prime minister repeatedly 'playfully' pulled a waitress' pony tail at a cafe he frequented. This is after she asked him to stop. He suggested the cafe was the kind of place where all kinds of hi-jinx went on and he was part of that and it was all good fun etc.

Now turn this around (we have to imagine our prime minister has a pony tail which he doesn't) and have the waitress pulling the PM's pony tail. Here's the leader of the country surrounded by his goons (we didn't used to do this but now politicians, especially our PM, always have goons) getting his pony tail pulled. Yes, that's kind of funny. Everyone could laugh, call it hi-jinx, no one felt intimidated. But the other way around adds the kind of power difference that turns it into bullying. It's conceivable that the waitress might find it funny, but it is pretty obvious that it could so easily go wrong.

So bullying is about power. If someone makes a mean comment about a politician on twitter it isn't about power. You go into that job with a thick skin or you don't go into the job (or maybe you just stay away from twitter). But part of the story behind this new legislation includes politicians quoting the mean comments (mostly about their appearance) they have to put up with. Mean is mean, but it isn't bullying. Look where the power is.

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