Dr. Dawg

Framing Amanda Todd: lynch mobs vs the rule of law

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Amanda RIP.jpg

A little more on the emerging debate between the “due process” folks on one hand and the “name and shame” folks on the other, if readers will oblige me.

First of all, we aren’t talking about law here at all, except in extreme cases: criminal harassment, defamation and so on. There is no “due process” involved in social disapproval. A community has a right to express displeasure over the acts of its members, so long as the expression of that displeasure remains within legal bounds.

That’s what socialization is about, after all—norms, values, sanctions. If you shout in a theatre or on a bus, you will likely earn frowns of displeasure, and a bold few might tell you to shut up. If someone knows you, they might address you by name.

“That’s not done,” my parents told me a million times as a child. “That” could mean anything anti-social, of course. Here I would use it to refer to bullying.

The country is outraged at the moment by the killing of Amanda Todd (and yes, I would use the word “killing” for hounding someone to suicide). The RCMP hasn’t caught the initial perpetrator yet, although “Anonymous” claims to have, but there has been collateral damage: a man in Toronto London has lost his job for posting hate messages about Todd (after her death so far as we know).

The other day I suggested that social disapproval be mustered in a good cause, calling for the “naming and shaming” of bullies. The ensuing comment thread contained one of the bast discussions here that I can remember. But it left me unsatisfied. As can happen with any idea, it was caricatured, nitpicked and left for dead.

On reflection, the phrase “name and shame” was, at least tactically, ill-advised. It has a distinct Hester Prynne-like vibe to it: one imagines a scarlet “B” sewn onto high school sweaters. Extrapolating a bit, commenters worried about the presumption of guilt, even about the possibility of vigilantism. They wondered what the process of “naming and shaming” would look like (a fair but unanswerable question). There seemed something uncomfortably anarchic about what I was suggesting. Innocent people could be falsely accused; the bullies might gain more than they lost, or at least be confirmed in their anti-social behaviour; anyone could accuse anyone; and what exactly is a bully anyway?

I have thought about all this since. In the best discussions, a lot of questions are left open. I would renew my proposal, therefore, but phrased in a somewhat different vocabulary, while recognizing that there can be no final answers to some of the queries my readers posed.

First, I deny that anonymity is a “right.” I can make good arguments for it in some cases (whistleblowers come to mind, and journalists’ protected sources) and equally strong arguments against it in others (e.g., rogue police officers, such as the killers of Robert Dziekanski, who were not named in the media for some time).

The old-fashioned school bully is obviously known to his or her victims, and to others besides. But there has traditionally been a cone of silence over what happens at school. The wider community might never find out. Even the parents of victims might never find out; but at least the potential is there. And in some horrendous cases recently reported, that potential should have been realized.

The new cyber-bully, on the other hand, is a coward hiding risk-free behind internet anonymity. He or she, I continue to maintain, has no right whatsoever to that anonymity. It is anonymity that allows these cyber-bullies to perpetrate their evil deeds. Shine a light on them. Besides identifying them, this would also serve as a powerful deterrent to others.

Secondly, we should not fear the exercise of (lawful) social disapproval. That is part of what civilizes us, as I noted. It’s a normal part of social interaction: it goes on all the time. That’s the “shame” part: not a public pillory, or a bullies register, but clear signs and signals that certain behaviours are not to be tolerated.

To exercise such disapproval, however, one needs to know of whom we are disapproving. Hence my view that bullies, of the high school or cyber variety, should be made known to the wider community.

Finally, to dispel any notions that I have reverted to lynch-mob mode, two anecdotes.

In a town where I went to high school, there was a young tough who terrorized kids a little younger than I. Let’s call him Ned.

Ned was partially deaf, and didn’t pronounce words correctly, and he got laughed at for that. His parents were cold and indifferent. I’m not sure how my mother found this out, but he had a basement full of toys, and she suggested that this was what his parents gave him instead of love. To this day I think she was spot on.

One day I happened to witness the older and stronger boy next door to Ned sitting on top of him, pinning him to the grass, causing some pain. And Ned’s mother was watching, not saying a word. Just watching.

Had I been that little kid, something in me would have died, if it hadn’t already. Nobody in the world cared about Ned—and he knew it. No wonder he continually acted out.

But he was known to the community. He himself made certain of that. He took his lumps for it, and, as part of that complex dynamic called “society,” he at least knew that he was not behaving well. But that, of course, was the whole point. He was asking for attention and help, and that’s precisely what he should have received.

Would counseling and other measures have been of any use? In this case, I sincerely believe so. If a community can demonstrate disapproval, after all, it can also—at least in an entirely imaginable world—show some caring and even loving concern. And that’s all Ned wanted.

Disapproval by itself is only a wake-up call. By itself, it is hardly sufficient. While I continue to oppose pointless feel-good anti-bullying campaigns, early intervention programs and dedicated community resources are essential, if we’re serious about tacking the problem.

This whole thing is a two-way street, after all. The community has a right to know. But a bully should have the possibility, at least, of reconciliation: of making good and moving on.

My second story is about a university student I encountered back in the early sixties, when I was a kid maybe sixteen or seventeen years old, having emerged from four hellish years of bullying in high school.

Joe (not his real name) was an effeminate engineering student in a virtually all-male faculty—only one woman student attended at that time. His fellow students thought it would be clever to elect him Homecoming Queen. I snickered at that, just like everyone else.

During Frosh Week, Joe was kidnapped—a criminal act. I was one of the kidnappers. We held him briefly in a room at one of the residences, as I recall. I tried to engage him in conversation, but his dignity had been terribly wounded, and he was nearly in tears. He was eventually released, everyone had a good chortle over it, and that was that.

To this day I feel deeply ashamed of myself for my part in that. If I knew where he was today, I would apologize to his face, and beg forgiveness. But this on-going feeling of shame—call it an unquiet conscience—is a product of my socialization. It’s the way I was brought up, in other words, not just by my parents, but by my community. I knew what I did was profoundly wrong. And I never behaved like that again.

Is it asking too much, is it calling for vigilantism and mob justice, to suggest that a healthy sense of shame be instilled in our children as a perfectly normal part of growing up and making their way in the world? And that, in the case of clearly hurtful, anti-social behaviour, this shame be triggered? I suggest not: indeed, it’s how a society should work—just so long as we offer as well the possibility of contrition and redemption.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on October 17, 2012 11:21 AM.

The Pantsafire Chronicles: Rona Ambrose [updated] was the previous entry in this blog.

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