We can’t afford to ‘just ignore’ bullies any more. We need to investigate our cultural bullying problem.
Once or twice a month I receive a phone call from Good Morning Britain, asking if I’d like to appear on the programme and take part on a debate. For me, going on television is slightly scarier than going to the dentist’s, and slightly less awful than going through a pile of financial paperwork. For a while, I kept doing it because every time, it seemed marginally less scary and I felt more confident as a result. More importantly, I did it for all of the women who would be brilliant on TV — about eight thousand times better than me — but turn down opportunities because they are understandably anxious about exposing themselves and dealing with the consequences of that exposure.
I wanted to prove that if I am able to brave Piers Morgan in his den, anyone can do it. I wanted to fight against the tide and do whatever I can to stop morning television becoming an uninterrupted period of straight white men shouting. But after my last appearance on the show, I decided that the bad outweighed the good. These debates were promoting and exacerbating a culture of bullying, and I reached a point where I could not reconcile ‘tolerating bullies’ with ‘doing my job’.
About a year ago, I debated the meaning of Baby It’s Cold Outside and whether a US radio station was right to ban it from the airwaves. I said that in 2018, a year after #metoo, there have been no significant changes, and no reduction in sexual assault figures. I can’t think anything positive that comes out of playing a song that tells a story of a woman who wants to go home, and a man who does not want to let her leave. It sounded very different many years ago, when the song was first written and performed — but it has aged badly. It’s not like Fairytale Of New York, where a single, hateful word can be cut out — the problematic veins and threads turn something charmingly cheesy into stinky stilton. A woman sings “The answer is NO!” while a man sings, over her, “What’s the point in hurting my pride?” An examination of the song seems especially significant in light of the news that a third of men surveyed do not think non-consensual sex is rape “if the woman had flirted on a date.”
Even if you take away the sexual element, it bothers me that the song is about a woman trying to express her wishes and thoughts as politely as possible, as a man talks over her. This is exactly what happened to me as GMB. I made points about consent and spoke about why no means no as Piers Morgan yelled angrily “IT IS HARMLESS FLIRTING! HARMLESS FLIRTING!”
I expected the debate itself to be inflammatory. That’s part of the job I agreed to do. The element that I did not sign up for came afterwards; wading through social media, muting, deleting and reporting the abusive comments about my appearance and intelligence. In the past, I had laughed it off. I felt as though it was my responsibility to ignore it, or rise above it. This time, there was something about the subject of consent and a woman’s right to say no to sex that really touched a nerve. As well as the usual abusive tweets, I had abusive Instagram message requests, abuse from strangers in my social media inboxes and abusive comments on a Facebook post I had written the previous summer.
The abusers were mainly men, but some were women. I didn’t feel hurt, or sad, or vulnerable. I felt furious. How dare strangers bully me simply because they disagree with my opinions about a Christmas song? How can these people get away with being rude and cruel and obnoxious, making not just me, but many women, feel as though they daren’t contribute to public discussion, not because people will disagree with them, but because they will worm into our social spaces and spew venomous, anonymous abuse?
At school, I was bullied, and my teachers told me to ignore the bullies. For them, this strategy was much easier than tackling the problem at source and dealing directly with the abusers. As an adult, I tell social media about these messages, and social media suggest that I block or mute — essentially, that I ignore them. One boy messaged me on Instagram to call me a ‘stupid c***”. Instagram users will know that when a stranger sends a message you can choose to decline the message, but you still have to see it and read it. The stranger still has the option of sending you that message. (On Twitter, unless you open your inbox you can only message the people who follow you, which means that most abuse is, at least, posted publicly.) Just like my old teachers, Instagram told me the abuse ‘did not violate our community guidelines’. Just ignore it.
Ignoring bullies does not stop bullying. Social media can be a wonderful tool that allows people to share their lives with each other, and brings about greater understanding, empathy and connection. However, it has become a place where people reveal the worst of themselves. The bullying is endemic. It is not the work of five baddies wrapped in a single, greasy trench coat. It is being perpetrated by hundreds of thousands of people. We have colleagues, friends and family members who routinely abuse strangers on digital platforms.
I know bullies want attention. I believe that their abuse is inspired by their unhappiness. They have called me, amongst other things, a ‘snowflake’ and ‘triggered’, but how easily triggered do you have to be to go to the effort of finding a space to abuse someone, and then formulating your thoughts into semi-punctuated sentences? Why can’t you disagree in your head, or change channel, or complain to your friends on WhatsApp? How easily upset must you be if you need to spread your pain that much further? To some extent, I believe social media is propagating anger and unhappiness. Most of us start every day by picking up our phones and reading a list of reasons to be angry, and reasons to be jealous. The worse we feel, the quicker we spread the poison.
In spite of this, I don’t feel compassion for my bullies. I don’t see why I should go out of my way to show them any more than the minimum of human courtesy when they won’t even do that for me. Their behaviour needs to stop, and this will only happen if they feel shame. Social media can help with this. It would be easy for Instagram and Facebook to change their messaging policy. I would like the following message to have appeared before any of my abusers got in touch. “The person you are messaging does not follow you. Your message will be monitored for abuse. If the recipient reports this message, your account will be suspended.” For too long, we have given all our power away to bullies. As we’re told to become stronger, they become crueller, and more bullies are born. Heartbreakingly, almost everyone I know has been abused on social media. I don’t know anyone who has admitted to being an abuser. We’re quick to empathise with victims — that’s easy. But to stop bullying, we need to stop bullies. Their behaviour should have consequences for them, and them alone. We can’t afford to ‘just ignore it’ any more.
This piece originally appeared on The Pool