Refinery 29 recently posted an article called The One Thing You Shouldn't Do When A Creep DMs You. It purported to give expert advice on what to do when you are the victim of online harassment.
The “experts” include an etiquette coach, Instagram model, and the author of a dating guide. They all give the same basic advice:
Etiquette coach Patricia Rossi claims that "The minute you engage, they've won. It will just inspire them to continue, and they will come on stronger." Instagram Model Ella Jordan says “All they want is to 'win.' They're combative and insecure, and they want you to come back at them. So by responding, you're just adding fuel to the fire. You're giving them more ammo." Dr. Paulette Sherman, author of Dating From The Inside Out says "Generally, engaging the conversation will only invite more of the same. [Just] disengage and see if they go away."
Before we talk about the age-old “wisdom” of ignoring bullies until they go away, let’s talk for a moment about the realities of online bullying and harassment. It starts with random direct messages, but for many of us it doesn’t end there. I recently read a piece by Clementine Ford that absolutely nailed my experience of online harassment and bullying:
…the cost is in the slow and steady encroachment of your physical and mental space. It's in the knowledge that there are people who try to track down your home address while updating their progress in private online groups filled with other people trying to do the same thing.
It's in the realisation that these same people track the details of your work events, emerging as soon as those details are announced to heap abuse on the people who have engaged you to appear for them.
It's in seeing the obsessive blog posts they write about you (on the website that seems increasingly devoted to monitoring only you) expand to include first your partner's name and then your child's.
Now, let’s address those “expert” opinions.
It seems that Ella has at least some personal experience with online harassment, but I’m pretty unclear what makes Patricia and Paulette experts on dealing with bullies. What I am clear about is that “ignore the bullies and they will go away” is highly questionable advice that may be sourced exclusively from the well-meaning but Ill-advised parents of junior high school students.
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Bullies will say anything to justify their behavior — being an unapologetic liar and complete hypocrite is actually a bonus in the bullying game. If you react to them, they’ll claim that they kept bullying you because you reacted to them. If you don’t react to them, they’ll claim they kept bullying you because you obviously didn’t care. As those who have attempted to ignore bullying can attest, plenty of bullies and harassers aren’t looking for a reaction at all, they just want to bully and harass — it’s the act they are into, the fleeting moment of feeling powerful. Also, ignoring bullies allows them to bully in peace with no pushback and no impetus to change.
It’s not just that “ignore the bullies and they’ll go away” is bad advice, it’s that it can easily become victim blaming and a secondary form of bullying. I’ve seen it far too often – someone posts on Facebook about the harassment that they are a victim of, looking for support. Instead they get a bunch of people chiding them for “giving the bully attention,” claiming that this is why they are getting bullied. That needs to stop right freaking now.
This is terrible advice not just because it doesn’t work, but because it focuses on the bullies’ feelings.
It makes the person being harassed responsible for discerning their harassers’ motivations, predicting their future actions and behaving accordingly, and that’s crap. The proper response to bullying is whatever makes the victim feel better. If they want to ignore and block them, that’s a legitimate choice. If they want to put the harasser on blast, they should. If they want to send that dick pic to the dude's mom, then fire off that Facebook message.
The focus should be on what the victim wants, not on what the harasser may or may not want. And while we’re at it, no matter how someone responds to harassment, neither the current nor any future harassment is their fault.
The problem isn’t the reactions of the people being bullied, it’s a culture where bullying and harassment are considered acceptable. A world where marginalized people are told that we should expect to receive harassment but shouldn’t talk about it is the problem, our reactions to the harassment we receive are not.