Monday, June 29, 2009
Friends of mine in the literary community are embroiled in a harsh, long-standing battle of words with a bully, who I will call Mr. X. (I will keep real names out of this discussion in order to avoid fanning the flames of this imbroglio. It is the underlying psychological nature of this conflict that interests me, so names are unnecessary.) Mr. X is a man who demonstrates many of the traits of megalomaniac paranoia. The community has been unable to develop a successful strategy for defusing the conflict, so the question is: What does one do to thwart an online bully?
Mr. X runs an influential website, which he uses to publicize events and to publish gossip and his brand of literary criticism. Both in person and in his voluminous writing, Mr. X engages in a variety of malevolent behaviors, including: the distortion of facts and outright lying, ad hominem attacks and verbal abuse of numerous individuals, procuring web domains for the express purpose of diverting traffic from other legitimate literary sites, scheduling live reading events to conlict with events run by his perceived "adversaries" and organizing boycotts of events or journals that he has disagreements with.
In short, Mr. X does everything in his power to control, exclude and divide members of the local literary community. I hesitate to refer to him as being a member of that community, because the people he abuses are not his peers. He writes lies and injurious gossip about people who are actually writing and publishing their work, while he is essentially a hobbyist. He dabbles in the art form but spends a lot of his time slamming people whose work is far more successful than his own.
According to Random House Dictionary, paranoia is a "mental disorder characterized by systematized delusions and the projection of personal conflicts, which are ascribed to the supposed hostility of others, sometimes progressing to disturbances of consciousness and aggressive acts believed to be performed in self-defense or as a mission."
American Heritage puts it this way: Paranoia is a "psychotic disorder characterized by delusions of persecution with or without grandeur, often strenuously defended with apparent logic and reason." Colloquially, it is an "extreme, irrational distrust of others."
Wikipedia's entry is: "(T)he term paranoid addresses a range of mental conditions...in which the subject is seen to generalize or project fears and anxieties onto the external world, particularly in the form of organized behavior focused on them".
If one reads the content of Mr. X's websites or his comments on other people's blogs, his paranoia is obvious. One after another, he chooses individual writers to be the focus of his delusional attention. He accuses people of excluding him from readings or of sabotaging his efforts to promote his events. He personally attacks people based on their gender, political persuasion and body size, while claiming that other performance events are racist or elitist. All of these behaviors are the result of his projections, for the reality is that no one has done him any harm. He regularly accuses others of perpetrating the deeds he acts out against them.
When people respond to his accusations directly Mr X exhibits a level of violent defensiveness that is overly exaggerated and dramatic. He can reduce a rational complaint or criticism to an imagined personal affront in the turn of a phrase. When folks ignore his gossip mongering he progressively ups the ante by finding a new target, stealing a domain name, urging people to boycott an event or a publishing house and generally finding new ways to alienate members of the creative community from one another. The guy is relentless, and very accomplished as a disseminator of deception.
While Mr. X's actions may not rise to the level of libel, his words and deeds have certainly created an atmosphere of distrust, anger and divisiveness in the community he purports to serve. But the quandary persists: how should the rest of the creative folks protect themselves so that they might get on with their work without fear of a sneak attack from this online bully? This is no playground conflict that can be resolved by parents and teachers; this is real life, where there is no "authority" available to adjudicate, and people's personal and professional reputations are at stake.
I am not directly involved in this "scene", so it may be far too easy for me to offer some possible solutions. Nevertheless, and at the risk of sounding glib or patronizing, here are my ideas:
1) Become non-resistant. Do not pay Mr. X any attention. Let him do or say whatever he wants without responding. Bullies need victims, so take a lesson from Gandhi and don't give him anything to push against. In the words of the Borg, resistance is futile.
2) Kill him with kindness. Invite him with open arms to every event. Cheerfully attend the readings he organizes. If he invites you to read your work at his venue, graciously accept. Write nice things about him, his events, and his website. If he does something offensive, bite your tongue and smile.
3) Court him as your new best friend. Buy him dinner, take him to a ballgame, get him laid (if you can). After you have gained his trust, tactfully suggest that he seek therapeutic help.
4) If all else fails, take him to court. If you can find a lawyer who will take the case, sue him for libel and try shutting down his website. Murder isn't a viable option, but seeking censure is possible.
I believe that finding a way to be in relationship with truly vexing individuals is one of life's huge challenges. Every fiber of one's being wants to resist, to strike back when attacked and to defend oneself in every way possible. Unfortunately, those emotional responses nearly always backfire. I will grant that there are times when one must stand one's ground and fight like hell for what one believes or to protect the safety of loved ones. But when there are long-term consequences and when the options for escape are limited, more sophisticated strategies are called for. Sometimes the situation demands that we act out of our compassion and rationality rather than out of our animal instincts.
Addendum: This post is not specifically about the phenomenon known as "cyberbullying" but there are some good suggestions on strategies for dealing with online bullies HERE.