I met a friend of mine while walking in a public park on Monday. She had with her a number of her own friends whom I'd never met. Hayden seemed to be itching for a fight: "Let's debate! People who wear glasses are really the smartest people out there and should get the best jobs. Anyone who says otherwise should wear a sign that says: 'I am afraid of four-eyed smarties.'”
Her friend Margie nodded. "I agree!"
Mike jumped in: "I think 20/20 people hate four-eyes."
David dripped arrogance: "Nice sentiment, Haydyn! But it doesn’t go far enough. I think people who don't wear glasses should polish our glasses for us, since we're so smart and have been downtrodden all this time!"
My day had suddenly taken on a twilight zone twist but I kept thinking that these good people just needed a bit of logical rewiring and said: "Look, if you start off by saying that everyone who has a different viewpoint than yourself is hateful or afraid then there is no room for intelligent discussion."
David snapped back. "No, Rebecca, it IS hate. You don’t think I’m smart! Or human! You think I’m just an interesting freakish puzzle and that others should be able to tell me what to do!" His words ended in sobs.
I shook my head and patted his shoulder. "Hey, I'm not saying that! That's silly! However, I haven’t expressed my real concerns yet! So, what are the accusations for?"
David was sincerely angry. "Let's not fool ourselves into thinking that both sides of this debate are in any way equally valid viewpoints! If you don't agree with us, you've got nothing intelligent to say!"
"Wait a minute!" I protested, "If we ARE to have a debate, then it is bad form to start off by saying I don't have a valid or intelligent viewpoint."
Another friend, Colton, grinned: "Ooh! This is gonna be interesting! Fight! Fight!"
David turned up his nose and (ignoring Colton) told me: "Rebecca, I'm afraid that you're a tad confused. I'm not really debating you. I was correcting you."
Now Margie entered the conversation: "You’re being discriminatory, Rebecca! And you’re afraid. Because you don't wear glasses."
"There is no discussion to be had,” said Mike. “You’re going to use biased and religious sources to try and prove your point, and that’s irrational, Rebecca."
"How can you assume that! What is this? A glass-wearing, back-patting convention? Why did Haydyn make her statement if she didn't want a reply? Don't I deserve the same freedom of speech and respect the rest of you do?"
Mike shook his head: "Nope! Besides, all I hear is you whining that no one is listening to you…And you don't have anything legit to say anyway."
At this point, the reader has perhaps concluded that the scene is a fiction and he would be partially correct. A verbatim exchange took place last week on Facebook, except that it concerned a current, controversial topic.
"Ah!" think those of you who frequent Facebook, "this makes more sense!"
Why? Because it is quite normal to see all sorts of bizarre comments on Facebook, from the mundane status of "eating!" to expletives and personal information that one never wanted to know.
In the midst of all that, there’s cyber bullying, which is by no means uncommon. In my case, I was victim to a group of young people who felt so passionately about their topic that they were going to beat down any semblance of opposition. They would win their argument for the world by intimidating me. I'd never met Haydyn's friends but, since I was the first to make the slightest disagreeing remark (i.e. "you can't start a debate by denying that the opposition has no right to speak") I was called names, told I was stupid, hateful, afraid, and point blank that I was wrong and therefore would not be allowed to express my opinion. All this bullying BEFORE I made a single attempt at the actual topic!
Now, I'm a grown woman. Not quite 30, but a mother of three and wife to an incredible husband. I'm educated, traveled, and therefore, about as secure as one can be. Yet there were about 5 days where I dreaded checking my email (Facebook automatically sends notifications to email) for fear of another hateful comment about something I hadn't even said. But I could put it aside 95% of the time because I have a loving family – and small children are quite distracting. And I have the self-control not to check my email….most of the time.
However, imagine this same scenario played out with a teen or young adult as its target – someone insecure, someone still thinking things out, someone with a cell-phone permanently attached to their hip. A mother recently told me that her college-age daughter was being pressured to vote a certain way in November and that she had been told she wasn’t “cool” if she voted otherwise. Peer pressure is old as the hills.
But cyber bullying is something new with those insecure young ones of ours as its primary target, simply because technology IS such a part of their lives.
It was worth being attacked by wolves if my experience can help someone else rethink how they treat others. Times are hard right now. There is great moral controversy, political and economic unrest. I DO think that most of our world's problems could be solved with charity toward all of our fellow human beings, played out in mind, gestures and speech. But I’m not talking about the charity of rolling over and baaing at the wolves’ command. We must call out bullying for what it is, and speak out for the truth firmly and respectfully, because whether we are wolves or sheep, we are all here to make this world a better place.
As I read on Facebook recently, we must become “sheep that are well-armed.”
Spero columnist Rebecca O'Loughlin is a freelance writer and native of New Mexico.