Two weekends ago, after Beyoncé released a mythologically forceful visual album that attached the most significant art of her career to the narrative of her husband Jay Z cheating on her with a woman she called “Becky with the good hair,” the fashion designer Rachel Roy—presumably operating of her own volition—inserted herself in that narrative by posting an Instagram with a caption that read, in part, “Good hair don’t care.” When the typically extra Beyhive spammed her with comments and bright yellow emojis, Roy deleted the post. Afterward, she called the response to her caption “bullying.”
“Bullying” describes a situation in which powerful people intimidate a less powerful person about something that the person in question cannot control. Properly used, the word does not apply to Rachel Roy’s situation at all. She might have expected the response her caption elicited, and not just the part where public ire fell harder on her, the presumed other woman who talked about it, than on Jay, the man who cheated on his wife and did not. Specifically, she’d already experienced the scrutiny of these exact circumstances before: Roy had been made out as the woman for whom the dog would step out on Beyoncé, in “Elevatorgate,” in 2014.
This of course was the incident when Solange roundhouse-kicked Jay Z on camera in an elevator after the Met Ball, allegedly because Roy—a former Rocawear designer and the ex-wife of Dame Dash, Jay’s former best friend—was “hovering” too near Jay Z at the afterparty. In the story reported to the press, Solange confronted Roy first; Roy gave it back to Solange, then left to go to the club Up & Down; Jay Z said he would follow, though Beyoncé was going home. Then the grainy footage, the purse swinging, the impervious queen, the sister’s wild-eyed video-game kick.
Afterwards, Roy’s name was all over the place; the story stayed in the news for months. Having even vague knowledge of the incident—let alone being at the center of it—meant that you could not possibly thereafter underestimate how intensely the public responds to any glimpse of irregularity in the life of a pop star like Beyoncé, whose image is fascistically controlled. Roy may not have thought through what she was doing (or the racial implications of asserting “good hair” in this context). But I wouldn’t demean her by suggesting she’d have been surprised by what came next, which was the Beyhive—a slightly more benign version of any name-brand online mob—swarming her comments, editing her Wikipedia, calling her messy and attention-hungry (the lie is nowhere)—but mostly, as trolls do, performing for and entertaining themselves.
The day after she put up the Instagram, Roy tweeted, “I respect love, marriages, families and strength. What shouldn’t be tolerated by anyone, no matter what, is bullying, of any kind.” Her use of the word “bullying” was reinforced and repeated by most outlets that wrote about the developing gossip, including Jezebel, and the term was used interchangeably—as it is very often these days—with “harassment” as well as “abuse.” Last Tuesday, People published a statement from Roy saying, again, that the “real issue” was cyberbullying:
Online haters have targeted me and my daughters in a hurtful and scary manner, including physical threats. As a mother – and I know many mothers would agree – I feel that bullying in any form is harmful and unacceptable. I would hope that the media sees the real issue here – the issue of cyber bullying – and how it should not be tolerated by anyone.
But I know from online haters, and it seems to me that the “real issue” is never “cyberbullying” as much as it is the specific (and more interesting) circumstances of every case at hand. For example, when my colleague Julianne had a horde of Gamergaters in her mentions two weeks ago because the feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian had linked to her article about Prince, the issue was not “cyberbullying” but reactionary gender politics, the video game industry, the ongoing campaign against Sarkeesian, and the fragile psyches of men. When Jewish journalist Julia Ioffe profiled Melania Trump for GQ last week and subsequently found herself with Trump trolls tweeting Holocaust jokes and imagery at her—something that my colleague Anna has been experiencing for months—the issue wasn’t cyberbullying as much as it was sexism and anti-Semitism and the way Trump has encouraged bald discrimination at every turn.
If there’s ever a general issue at play in these instances, it’s deeper than cyberbullying, and it’s more than either half of that word. Rachel Roy getting called a “dusty side hoe” after she tried to come for Beyoncé is no more about online platforms than a fight in a schoolyard is about that school; it’s not ultimately about “bullying,” either, particularly not in this case, as you cannot be bullied by someone less powerful than you. But Rachel Roy did something canny, something a lot of people are learning to do these days: she identified her opposition incorrectly, by a word that everyone feels automatically obligated to oppose. If you are against bullying, which, of course you are—then you must be for Rachel Roy.
Luckily, this particular misuse of the word is blatant enough that the underlying truth becomes clearer: that the real issue is much more complicated than bullying—that, as always, the problem is people, a group that includes you and me and all our bad behavior. The problem is the way we learn to assert our interests over one another, the way we cheat on our partners, or gossip about that cheating, or gang up on someone for the fun of it, or make people believe that everything personal needs to be worked out in public when probably not much needs to be that way at all.
In March of this year, a blogger named Ella Dawson who writes most frequently about having herpes and working to de-stigmatize it (her three-sentence professional bio on her website reads, in part, “She got genital herpes and just kind of ran with it, professionally speaking”) drew widespread media attention after a journalist trying out the platform Genius annotated one of her blog posts.
In a follow-up post called “How News Genius Silences Writers,” Dawson acknowledged that the annotation itself did not contain abusive content. (Though, as Dawson is not a major public figure, Sara Morrison’s decision to annotate her personal writing about herpes did qualify as punching down.) She then called the platform “worse than Twitter,” because it lacked a block button, and spoke up against its “high potential for abuse.”
Since then, Genius has added a “report abuse” button to all of its annotations, which is smart and necessary; otherwise, the annotation technology remains the same. It’s still relatively new. The company’s core technology, originally intended for crowdsourcing annotations to rap lyrics, now allows any Genius user to put a prefix before an existing page that will then make that website annotatable; the result is a portable, standardized, line-by-line comments section on most any website, which some have compared to graffiti, others to footnoting.
Comments sections (as Rachel Roy or any individual who has ever been on the internet can tell you) are unlawful. They are open for people to respond essentially however they want to, and people (as Rachel Roy or any individual who has ever been on the internet can tell you) tend to be bad. For a prolonged and then publicized period, Jezebel writers were once inundated by rape gifs at their digital workplace; we are all still well-acquainted with the major bad-comment genres, the ones that are virulently racist or aggressively sexist, that comment on our faces, our ethnicities, our subhuman intelligence levels, our personal lives as cobbled together by our writing, our likelihood to be assaulted, etc.
However, those conditions aren’t comments-section-specific. They hold (if to a blessedly lesser degree) in my inbox, and on social media, too. In other words, the Genius tool is not a revolutionary intrusion. It is notable mainly because it is visually startling upon first encounter, laying commentary directly onto your piece. It is, also, crucially, opt-in. You have to click a Genius-prefixed link to see an annotation, the same way that I would have to make myself a Google alert to see what some conservative blogger thinks of my writing, or read Get Off My Internets to see what some barnacle thinks about my personality, or read Ripfork, an annotation site of sorts, to see what some bitter man thinks when I write a Pitchfork review.
Essentially, what Dawson wrote about the platform’s abuse potential was equally applicable to the Internet itself:
When you create a tool that pastes commentary directly on top of my work without letting me opt-in and without providing a way for people to turn off the annotation on their pages, you are being irresponsible. You are ignoring the potential your tool has to be abused, and you are not anticipating the real harm your tool can do. News Genius adds one more way for people on the Internet to be made unsafe. The potential it has to intimidate and silence marginalized voices needs to be recognized.
She continued: “A tool that allows my abusive ex-boyfriend to interact with me and my content is a tool that should not exist.”
That is true, in a sort of abstractly ideal-moral sense. But in practice, it’s fatalistic and mostly impossible. (And here’s what always bothers me about extreme attention to the granular symptom: it often lets the cause, which here is the ex-boyfriend and the system that produced him, off the sharpest point of the hook.) By that definition, if we want to ban any tool that allows my abusive ex-boyfriend to interact with me and my content, we would also ban email, social media, working in an outward-facing industry, and being physically present in public spaces in the world.
What we’re dealing with, in this new rhetoric about bullying and abuse, is a good, generous and necessary moral impulse: the impulse to account for power, and to understand and compensate for the fact that life in America has been so terrible, for so many people, for so long. But when a word enters the public conversation, its meaning gets inevitably diluted. “Bullying” and “abuse” still denote things of life-and-death importance, but that fact is obscured by our growing practice of looking at points on the same spectrum and then collapsing that spectrum—of effectively using these words to mean whatever we want.
Last week, Heather Havrilesky, at the New York Times Magazine, wrote about how objectively powerful people have now begun to deploy the term “bully.” For one example, last month, lawmakers in discrimination-forward North Carolina said last month that Bruce Springsteen’s boycott was a bullying tactic, and:
A few days later, a (white) North Charleston, S.C., police chief refused to attend a community meeting on the one-year anniversary of the death of Walter Scott because of what he called the “bullying tactics” of its (black) members at previous meetings. Last September, Kylie Jenner, a reality star worth millions, claimed that she was being cyberbullied by commenters on social media. In 2009, the blogger Heather Armstrong tweeted that no one should buy a Maytag washer because of what she called the company’s inadequate response to her broken appliance, and onlookers on Twitter accused her of bullying Whirlpool, the company’s $19 billion parent corporation.
So, people think you can bully a corporation. And in fact, the only example I can think of—of a corporation being anything close to bullied—deployed the fake weight of the word “bullying” itself.
The wild dilution of the idea of bullying is an example of what Australian psychology professor named Nick Haslam calls “concept creep.” In April, Conor Friedersdorf wrote about concept creep at The Atlantic, going into detail about the ways that social progress has made us, for both good and ill, increasingly sensitized to the ways bad things are done to people. He quotes Haslam: concept creep is a phenomenon that exists in the interest of equality, “align[ing ]with a liberal social agenda by defining new kinds of experience as harming and new classes of people as harmed.”
And so “bullying” gets expanded as a concept, and we get the overdue and very correct idea that (for example) when a high school starts widely sharing nude photos taken of a girl while she was unconscious, it is bullying, properly, rather than just the way things are. This is “an entirely beneficial sign of moral progress,” writes Haslam. “It defines previously tolerated forms of abusive, domineering, and discriminatory behavior as problematic, and extends professional care to people who experience adversity.”
But, then, there’s a flip side: Concept creep, in “applying concepts of abuse, bullying, and trauma to less severe and clearly defined actions and events, and by increasingly including subjective elements into them,” may lead to a “flood of unjustified accusations” (one example here may be hot teenage millionaire Kylie Jenner earnestly saying she’s been a victim of bullying all her life) or “excessive and disproportionate enforcement regimes” (another, milder example being, say, a blogger writing 1,600 words about how Genius silences bloggers, or a Congresswoman requesting action against abuse that was already prohibited and had not yet even occurred).
“Concept creep,” Haslam wrote, “can produce a kind of semantic dilution.”
If a concept expands to encompass less extreme phenomena... then its prototypical meaning is likely to shift... If trauma, for example, ceases to refer exclusively to terrifying events that are outside normal human experience, and is applied to less severe and more prevalent stresses, it will come to be seen in a more benign light.
This is one of the most dangerous political powers we hold in language—that of misusing a word that’s meant to identify a vitally important phenomenon, and obscuring the true nature of that phenomenon as a result. If we believe that violence is important—if we believe that bullying, harassment, and abuse refer to harmful things that are important to identify clearly—it is within our best interest to watch these definitions, to be careful not to think of them as words that, because of our concern for other people and their unknowable experiences, simply cannot be misused.
And yes, we’re talking about fine distinctions. Harm is personal, and so it’s subjective; it’s in the eye, the body, the heart and the mind of the harmed. But this doesn’t mean that the best option is to regress to the point of maximum fear and caution, as Dawson seemed to say to Slate. “The lines between annotating and questioning, questioning and invalidating, invalidating and silencing are unclear in the best of circumstances,” she told them. Even taking that as true—which I don’t personally—wouldn’t the goal be to make these lines clearer? Don’t the terms of every case, of every power relationship, clarify the difference between criticism and silencing? Isn’t protection an abstract idea unless harm is understood concretely?
It is more interesting and more helpful, I think, to consider any case specifically, than to speak in broad categories: to look at what’s actually happening, as the Guardian is doing, rather than what hypothetically might. On her blog, Ella Dawson’s comment moderation policy reads: “Comments that are disrespectful, hostile, or have the potential to harm readers will not be posted. Ask yourself this: would my comment be dangerous to a newly diagnosed, potentially suicidal teenager? Then it won’t appear here.”
This is the ideal standard for some people. (My ideal comment moderation policy/mode of online discourse would be to say anything you want to me as long as you’d have the guts to say it to my face.) But to me, when we’re talking about danger, there’s too much “is” for a “would” to be so prominent. Remove all the hypothetical harm and there’s still plenty to be dealt with, and it probably should be dealt with first.
In a new piece at Harper’s, Rebecca Solnit writes about an attitude she calls “naive cynicism,” a style of engagement that “bleeds the sense of possibility and maybe the sense of responsibility out of people,” that relies on the “heavy artillery of grim confidence.” She’s not writing about speech in that essay—she’s writing about the type of liberal ideology that dismisses Occupy for being imperfect, for example—but see if the motion is recognizable here:
[Naïve cynicism] is a relentless pursuit of certainty and clarity in a world that generally offers neither, a desire to shove nuances and complexities into clear-cut binaries. Naïve cynicism concerns me because it flattens out the past and the future, and because it reduces the motivation to participate in public life, public discourse, and even intelligent conversation that distinguishes shades of gray, ambiguities and ambivalences, uncertainties, unknowns, and opportunities. Instead, we conduct our conversations like wars, and the heavy artillery of grim confidence is the weapon many reach for.
[...] Naïve cynicism is absolutist; its practitioners assume that anything you don’t deplore you wholeheartedly endorse. But denouncing anything less than perfection as morally compromising means pursuing aggrandizement of the self, not engagement with a place or system or community, as the highest priority.
In other words, there’s a type of conviction that makes a person avoidant—and there’s nothing we love to feel convicted about more than the idea that everything we’ve done is right. It is tempting to oversimplify reality in the interest of a stance against which everything else will necessarily fall short, leaving us victorious. And there, suddenly, is the temptation to think that if people criticize us sharply, they are abusing us; that if they call us names, we are being bullied, no matter the material circumstances, no matter what.
I’m not saying we have an obligation to take the shit, either. Just that we shouldn’t kid ourselves about why. When I block someone on Twitter, I’m reacting to a large, flawed system that made anonymous men feel like I’d care what they think of me. What I’m doing, though, is not laudable in itself. We cannot be avoidant on first principle; we are not, on principle, above the effort, the knowledge, the fight.
And anyway, back to the fun of comment moderation: if we rule out what has potential to be dangerous, we rule out everything. It’s like we’ve wandered into a forest and deduced that some growth within it is poisonous. If we were practical, if we really did care about community, we’d retrace our steps, look at patterns, concern ourselves with identification and prevention, burning and regrowth. If we were impractical, or primarily concerned with ourselves, however—we’d call up People and say “the real issue is poison,” or else we’d sit in the forest feeling put-upon and then burn down all the trees.
At this moment there are two contradictory, devilish trends in play. First, there’s the aforementioned expanding definition of words like violence and bullying, which has done a lot of good on the one hand and on the other made a victim out of the very important concept of victimhood. Imagine a circle of people who understand that something quite bad has been done to them; imagine the boundaries of that circle going out to contain sexual assault victims, and overweight teenagers who get told every day that they’re garbage, and people in minority groups who can’t get a good mortgage—good, we’re on track—and then, horribly, to contain Kylie Jenner, the lawmakers who fear trans people in bathrooms, the publicly charged rapists that email Jezebel asking that we remove their names from our blog posts, and Donald Trump.
Second, and just as troubling, is the contracting definition of what it means to be a shithead. This is enabled by the growing acceptance that success in a creative field is inextricable from a flood of commentary that you didn’t ask for, as well as by the new types of micro-focused mob behavior that is possible online. If you believe very strongly in what you are doing—stanning for Beyoncé, “setting the record straight” on some candidate, sending death threats, telling some woman writer exactly how stupid feminism really is—then you will find out there a community to support you, to echo you, to reinforce you, to tell you to find someone on their own territory and stick a megaphone up your asshole and fart in their ear. Many people who would never, ever do this in the real world—who would never have the indecent courage to approach someone in their physical space and verbally threaten them—have been encouraged to engage in some version of this on the internet. And so the goalposts of egregiousness get moved, and moved again.
The result is a mutual escalation that has erased proportionality—that has put the same word in the mouths of both Rachel Roy, who has a bad Instagram now, and the three girls in Norman, Oklahoma, who were raped by the same teenage monster and taunted about it, over and over, at school. The result is a situation that has made me and my colleagues nearly completely numb, because we know about the woman who got dragged out of a bathroom because police didn’t think she was a woman; the State Department employee who’s used his position to phish, stalk and blackmail hundreds of women; the classical violinist who received thousands of messages filled with racial slurs and calls for her to abort her unborn children; the art curator who receives hundreds and hundreds of death threats and tit-obsessed letters from her stalker and can’t get the police case going; the Ellen Pao case; the sexual harassment problem at Berkeley; the death threats against abortion providers; the absolute inability of police departments to take online threats seriously; the teenagers who used the Ice Bucket challenge to dump feces on an autistic child’s head; the teen who committed suicide after a video of him masturbating became public; and on and on and on. And because we know, because of our jobs, what it really looks like when the powerful abuse the powerless, what it really looks like to be bullied, to be abused—we barely notice when we get death threats for criticizing Star Wars, when we get comments suggesting we should quit our jobs and start giving out bathroom handjobs for quarters, when we have dedicated trolls that make new accounts just to tell us we’re pieces of shit, when we get emails saying we’ll swing from the trees with the rest of the niggers, when someone @s us on Twitter and calls us a stupid cunt rag or suggests the “Trump Train” will take us straight to the ovens.
And maybe it’s not right, it’s not good for us, that we just mute them or block them and we don’t call it bullying, because we know bullying is what powerful people do to less powerful people in order to get those people to do what they want, and we know we are more powerful than these anonymous commenters, and we know we are never going to do what they want. We don’t call it abuse, either, because we’re numb, mostly, and we’re so accustomed to cruelty that we barely register it anymore. And it’s not fair and not good for us, but we know that if we want to do this job well, if we want to keep writing about real bullying, which is not what happened to Rachel Roy, and real abuse, which is not a hypothetical annotation of a personal blog post, we have to decide to meet the world where it receives us. We have to save these words by using them carefully, by remembering what they really mean.
Illustration by Jim Cooke