I sat down with my calendar, and with all your input for my post asking for help with my 2006 work schedule, and I started laying out the year before me. When I had blocked everything in -- with extra chunks allowed for The Unforeseen (like flu, or power outages) -- all was clear. [My thanks to all of you for making that possible.] I could tell that I'll be doing well if I can get all of the following done this year:
1. my three bimonthly newsletters
2. this blog
3. wife/mother/grandmother duty
4. the two sf conventions -- WisCon and Conestoga
5. my correspondence
6. final versions of two of my U.S. Corps of Linguists short stories
7. two or three chapters (and a detailed book proposal) for the verbal self-defense book for kids
With regard to the kids' VSD book, one thing in particular has been holding me back. Where face-to-face hostile language is concerned, I understand what's going on; I know what the payoff is for the attacker. But a very large part of the hostile language that kids face today is online, not face to face, and I have been far less sure that I understand what teenage and younger "cyberbullies" are getting as a reward for their efforts.
Offline, the sequence is pretty obvious, whether those involved are children or adults. Tom goes at Tracy with hostile language. Tracy responds in one of the four traditional ways our culture teaches for dealing with the problem: counterattacking, pleading, logical debate, or pseudo-therapy. All four pay off for Tom in the coin of Tracy's undivided attention, plus a generous tip in the form of an obvious emotional response that serves as proof of Tom's ability to push Tracy's buttons and "get Tracy going." That's clear enough. [Not everybody in the field agrees with my analysis, of course, but that's all right; it's clear.]
With hostile language online, now usually referred to as "cyberbullying," I couldn't see where the payoff was; I couldn't see how a response in written language alone would provide enough reward to make it worth the attacker's time and effort. We discussed the issue at considerable length in this journal (with a memorable fandango about what "Um..." means); many of you posted here, or e-mailed to me, URLs for all sorts of examples of cyberbullying so that I could go examine them. And what I saw when I followed your leads made me even more puzzled. That is, I could see how the written language in sophisticated adult flaming might be somewhat satisfying to an attacker, but the kids were just flinging garbage back and forth. You know the kind of thing: "You're a dorkhead!" "Well, you're a stupid rat pig!" "F-word!" "Oh, yeah? F-word!" And so on ad infinitum. It didn't look very satisfying to me.
[Note: I'm not talking here about online serious pranks and crimes -- those awful incidents where a child takes a picture of another child half-naked in the locker room and posts it all over the Net, or a child threatens to kill another child or the other child's pet, and so on ... all of it with the protection of anonymity for the attacker. When the situation escalates to that extent, there has to be action from outside -- the way that offline verbal alteracations that escalate to physical violence require the intervention of law enforcement or medical professionals. That's a separate issue, and it's critical for parents to establish a language environment in the home that's sufficiently wholesome to guarantee that their kids will immediately come to them for help when things get that serious. I'm just talking about garden variety hostile language, which is where the analysis has to start.]
Now -- after following your URLs all over the Net, and following the links at those URLs all over the Net, and reading a batch of articles you've recommended, and observing the exchanges in this journal for more than a year, I think I finally have a tentative hypothesis ready to propose. It seems to me that the payoff for the "cyberbullies" is simply power -- their feeling that they have the power to tie up people's time and energy with their hostile words. In the same way that an offline attacker can tie up people's time and energy -- Tracy has a plan for how to spend the next thirty minutes or so; along comes Tom with his hostile language; Tracy takes the bait and spends those thirty minutes in an altercation with Tom instead -- the "cyberbullies" can hijack their targets' time and energy and subvert their plans and tie up their attention. Apparently that feeling of power is enough reward, even without the evidence an offline episode provides -- without the angry or frightened intonation and facial expressions, without the yelling and crying, the flushed faces, the shaking... all those goodies that are overt real-world proof of the attacker's power over the target.
That's where I am with this question right now. I promised you I wouldn't write about verbal self-defense techniques in this journal, and I'm not going to break that promise; I'll stay at the level of analysis and save its application for the book. I would be very interested in your reaction to my hypothesis, even if that reaction is only "Well, duh." A lot of answers that seem obvious turn out to be wrong. For example, the idea that offline verbal abusers do what they do because they're sadistic and are trying to cause pain seems obvious, but turns out to be wrong. In almost all cases, it's because they desperately need human attention and are trying to satisfy that need. Maybe the idea that a subjective feeling of power is the payoff in youngsters' online verbal hostilities is just one more obvious answer that's equally wrong; maybe it's a red herring. I'd very much like to know what you think.
Thank you for all your comments on today's post -- you've given me an astonishing amount of useful information, and in a very short time. When I write the dedication for the book it will have to read, "To the readers of my LiveJournal blog, without whom this book could never have been written."