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[personal profile] rayjwinteraven
I wore purple yesterday, in solidarity for those who are fighting for their lives against the bullying that's happening to them because they are perceived as being gay. For everyone who did wear purple, or at least thought positively about someone who's gay, thank you. I challenge you now, though, to do something more. I challenged myself, and created this essay which I am hoping to share. It is relevant to our gay members of society, yes - but it is also relevant to people with intellectual disabilities, physical disabilities, weight issues, etc. It should be expanded to include group situations, since I just noticed that a young man killed himself after having to listen to a community's leaders speak of being gay in a very disparaging manner. As a society, WE ARE NOT VERY NICE. And this must change.




In school, if a person is different, they will be noticed and pointed out. Kids don't always have enough theory of mind** to know that their target is being singled out for something that may not be in their control to change, such as skin colour, clothing preference, neurological issues, or gender preference. We've been hearing about the results of bullying in the news. Our kids are killing themselves, but not just those who were harrassed directly. One young man was "outed" over the internet, and he jumped off a bridge - it's entirely possible that his roommate had never bullied him directly. Instead, the attack was held in a different kind of venue.

** Theory of Mind is the ability to recognize that someone else doesn't know the same things you do and may know things that you don't - their mind is not identical to yours.

The global internet community is like a schoolground, with a difference that we must learn and understand. Our words are going out to everyone, including those we disparage, whether they were the ones we're talking to or not, and they don't necessarily know us enough to understand if we were joking, if we just had a bad day, or even if we have all the facts. Further, anyone is capable of accessing what we publish and viewing it as if it were expressed to them directly. However, authors do not have the theory of mind to understand that we are addressing everyone with every post, and readers do not recognize that the authors are not intentionally addressing us. Instead, we experience opinions as slights against us personally, and can feel persecuted.

Hopefully, people are aware of how pervasive their published works can become. Privacy settings leave words as only as private as the weakest link, because it is easy to copy and paste urls and text and it is easy to reword a thought and publish it as your own. Between movement of ideas through social circles, dissemination of information through search engines, and copies made by mirror sites, what we say can rapidly become common knowledge. With that as a given, we absolutely must understand that these words which we have published are going to go to people whom we may have insulted, even if we have no understanding that they exist. We also have to understand that people will receive our words, even if they do not know that we exist - anonymity is not complete on the Internet, and it will not keep the message away. When we publish an opinion, we are not simply speaking to a collection of people we have mentally collected; we are addressing every one.

The reader also has a theory of mind concept to grasp. In general, anything published is not directed to you. An author has a limited scope of understanding of their audience. I cannot know each person in a country remote from me, or even in my own country, and I cannot know their awarenesses and understandings. No person can. The words written by any person are limited in scope by the author's world view and their awareness of others. In most cases, the reader is not known to the author, the author's words are not deliberately shaped for the reader, and thus they can be dismissed as irrelevant. This depends upon the reader understanding that most authors don't know they exist, and this aspect of theory of mind is difficult to attain - "Of course we exist, we're right here!"

This is why the burden of bullying through published works on the Internet is upon the author. We are all real, and we all have varying levels of theory of mind. I cannot expect that everyone who receives my text can know my intentions and is in a position where they can gain the message I tried to convey. I cannot expect that any slight expressed and posted will not be relayed to someone who will receive it directly and personally. I know it is difficult to accept responsibility for complete strangers who are reading published opinions and feeling persecuted, and this is why internet bullying of non-specific people persists. We didn't know that person, we didn't know they were vulnerable in this way or that, and all because our theory of mind is too limited.

Our anti-bullying programs must be expanded to include a broader theory of mind. It is not enough to teach our children and ourselves that we must not attack specific people; we must learn that any attacks through the internet are globally received, and we must learn that the opinions we encounter are quite likely from someone who simply has no idea about our reality.
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