The Safety Dance

When I was at school, I was bullied fairly badly. Or to put it another way, I was physically assaulted at a criminal level, on a regular basis.

I mention this because it’s a situation where we had a problem of definitions. Twenty years ago, bullying was an extremely wide term that referred to pretty much anything from shouting out rude names to one inch short of grievous bodily harm. Historical and cultural reasons caused all those things to be bundled under one heading, which greatly impaired the ability to deal with the problem. You can’t solve a problem when it is fact several different problems in disguise.

Nowadays, we are getting much better at separating physical abuse from other aspects of bullying. But when it comes to online “bullying”, we’re facing the same problem – and making the same mistake.

I have been told, for example, that rape threats made against women are just part of online bullying. They are in fact like “pulling pigtails”: men reaching for the low-hanging fruit, the most obvious attack designed to produce the most extreme emotional response in the target. But ultimately such comments are, many believe, just about stirring people up, and just another kind of insult.

But that couldn’t be more wrong, for reasons that deal with fundamental human psychology.

Most of us have heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Abraham Maslow came up with this idea back in 1943 when he was trying to break down the things that motivated humans to action. He envisaged a pyramid of needs, with basic ones at the bottom (food, shelter, warmth) and at the top, needs to do with our sense of self and self determination. The precise categories and progressive nature of the hierarchy have been disputed but the model remains extremely useful for understanding what kinds of things human need and what can get in the way of getting those things.

The important thing about the Hierarchy is right down the bottom – just above food and water – is safety. After out basic needs of survival, we need to feel that our survival and health isn’t threatened. That our body and our bodily integrity are not at risk, nor is that of our loved ones. That is a deep and fundamental need, and the lack of it is a terrible affliction.

A few levels up the scale are things like esteem, confidence and being respected by others. These are important factors, and play a big role in our well-being, but they are less critical. We can deal more easily with the lack of these things, and rebound and heal more quickly than we can a lack of safety. We can source these things from many more places, with greater ease, than we can source a sense of safety.

Even without trying to rate one as somehow “above” the other, it is easy to see how different the two things are. Perhaps the most telling way we know how different they are is because of what happens when they are threatened. Those who have their self-esteem and confidence attacked typically experience distress, sadness and anger, and in extreme, long-term cases, depression and anxiety as they slowly begin to doubt their sense of self respect.

Those who have their sense of safety attacked, however, typically experience trauma. Trauma has a pathology unlike sadness and anger or even fear. It produces entirely different syndromes in its victims, like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder. Depression, anxiety and low-self esteem only occur as side-effects.

Trauma generally occurs after dramatic events such as a traffic accident or being assaulted, sexually or otherwise. However, it is also well known to occur in victims of stalking. The inescapable presence of the obsessive person erodes any sense of safety. In much the same way, extended internet attacks – hundreds of messages and posts, a common tool of trolls – does the same thing.

Likewise, trauma can occur second-hand. Observing someone being injured or attacked, or having the possibility suggested in other ways can trigger trauma. It doesn’t matter how much the person making the suggestion might be kidding; if someone causes you for a moment to doubt your safety, trauma becomes extremely likely. Especially since all evidence we have suggests that the people who make such threats are often sociopathic, and that rape threats are statistically likely to escalate into a reality.

This also applies to threats of murder and assault. Threatening to find someone and kill them or their loved ones is, psychologically, likely to be just as damaging as an actual attack. The trauma is extremely real, the suffering extremely significant, the effects lasting. Threatening people with rape and murder is a vicious and cruel attack that absolutely can cause lasting harm.

Which is why, by the way, it’s already a crime in most countries, even when done over the internet.

Trauma, also, by the way, often leads to flashbacks caused by triggers. Chances are – given the terrifying statistics – the woman involved has already been raped or assaulted or had a near-miss, laying down such trauma. A trigger brings it all flooding back, making the safety assault even worse. That’s why we don’t make rape jokes either.

This doesn’t make it okay to call everyone a big fat jerk, of course. Abuse is not okay, in any form. The problem is, as I said at the start, we tend to bundle all these things together, when in fact they are very different. They have different outcomes and require different treatments. Yet at the source, we can easily jump between them. A lot of us, when mouthing off, can switch all too easily from “Goddammit you crit-getting jerkface” to “I’m gonna find you and eat your children”. In the heat of the moment, with our game faces on, hyperbole is fun, and funny, when everyone is aware of the hyperbole.

But the internet is not about sitting around with your buddies. It’s a gateway to the whole world, full of strangers. And even high-adrenalin fragging sessions demand a level of politeness a notch or two above what your closest friends can handle.

Outside of those sessions, the standards must be much higher. Social media allows your words to go directly to the ears of whoever you might be cursing out – and the whole world as well. It’s hard to remember, but it’s a fact of modern life. As part of being a citizen of the future, we are going to constantly be aware of what we say and where we say it.

And we need to understand the fundamental difference between attacking someone’s esteem, and attacking their safety. Neither is okay, but the second is not the same as the first. We must never downplay it, or pretend it is all just part of trolling. We need to understand how damaging it can be, and treat it with appropriate severity. We must teach ourselves to instinctively recognise the difference and never cross that line.

Attacking someone’s safety is never, ever okay. And men who get the MESSAGE call men on it when they do it.