Friday February 1st 2013

Can we change this culture of bullying?

Originally published here for Bea Magazine on 24 January 2013.

This week I’ve witnessed some things I’d rather not have witnessed, read words I’d rather not have read, and this is all because I’ve made it my business to find out what was going on with Mary Beard.

I imagine if you are reading this, you might be the sort of media-savvy type that can’t possibly have failed to have notice that something was going on in recent days, but just in case you are unaware, I will briefly explain: the Cambridge academic and ‘Meet The Romans’ presenter appeared on Question Time last week armed with some opinions, and as a result ended up at the end of an internet-storm of quite shocking abuse.

I must admit that when people appear on Question Time armed with opinions, I occasionally level a degree of abuse at the telly. However, I would argue that there’s not so much harm in letting off a bit of steam by telling a smug Tory who can’t hear you to “shut up”. I would also argue that, if you disagree with someone’s opinion, you should tell them that you disagree with their opinion and offer your own, not create web pages filled with sexist abuse and/or make death and rape threats. It would appear, however, that some think that the latter route is most definitely the way to go.

Like many out there, I believe that Mary Beard received this level of abuse, this type of abuse, because she is a woman, and not because of what she said. A man might get called out on his opinions following an appearance on such a programme, he might even be called an idiot (or perhaps stronger epithets conveying the same), but I seriously doubt critics would be dwelling on his appearance, mocking his teeth, making unpleasant comments about the condition of his genitalia, and certainly not threatening to rape him. Society, it would seem, doesn’t like women who step out of line, who dare to speak their minds, who clearly aren’t worrying about whether they look attractive to men.

Bullying fuelled by misogyny is clearly widespread, and I fear that the modern plethora of ways to interact can only make the situation worse; but at the risk of derailing myself (for I really do believe that sexist abuse is a very unpleasant facet of a very serious wider problem) I do think we need to begin by tackling the issue of bullying in general – the bullying of anyone – and I don’t mean by going into schools and telling children not to do it; it’s pointless when so many of the messages they – and their parents – receive from the media and society at large give them permission to do it.

I am not sure it was always like this. I feel as though the first series of Big Brother probably ushered in a TV era stuffed to the gills with reality programmes that give everyone the chance to laugh and point at someone else. Later versions of the show have seemed pretty much predicated on bullying: put a crowd of people in a house, set them against each other, and set the nation against the whole lot of them. Since then we’ve had shows in which people are forced to do really nasty things (I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here), shows in which people are encouraged to give their all so that a man with a doubtful track record can pour abuse on them (anything with Simon Cowell in it), and shows in which people are encouraged to believe that they look so bloody awful that they need to be completely fixed (Ten Years Younger), to point to just a few.

Or, perhaps it’s not Big Brother’s fault. Perhaps we should lay the blame squarely at the door of the gossip magazines, which relentlessly build up minor celebrities, before knocking them down as hard as they can with all the weapons in their arsenal – pictures of said celebrities displaying cellulite, for example, or wearing – heaven forbid – a frock that doesn’t suit them very well. It’s not just the gossip magazines contributing to this culture, of course; the daily newspapers, the tabloids especially, have for years made it their business to lay into those in the public eye – remember The Sun calling on the populace to evict Jade Goody from the BB house with the words “vote out the pig”?

Meanwhile, the anonymity of the internet, it seems, encourages many to believe that it is okay to use abusive language on message boards, to threaten violence and rape, and to use the world wide web to stalk people, set them up, and mock them. It’s a state of affairs that many of us contribute to, by watching these programmes, reading these magazines, by standing by and watching bullying unfold on Facebook and on Twitter, but also by idly commenting – in front of our children perhaps – on just how ugly or ridiculous such and such a person is.

I’m fairly sure that we can never completely eradicate bullying, and that there will always be people who will step over the line. I’m also one hundred percent sure that I don’t have the answer to this problem. But I do think we could all start by not consuming the media that bully, by not making throwaway judgements, by being careful with what we say, and by setting the example, for our peers and our children, of not ever being mean for the sake of it.