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Heisenberg, “Harmless Torture,” and Cyberbullying

September 25th, 2011 · 6 Comments

A typically insightful post from danah boyd examines why campaigns against “bullying” and, perhaps especially, “cyberbullying” so seldom manage to accomplish much. Part of the trouble, boyd argues, is that teens are reluctant to see themselves either as victims or aggressors, and therefore define as mere “drama” much behavior that adults are prone to class as “bullying.”

On the victim’s side, even a teen who is conscious of being the victim of bullying might feel ashamed to admit it. But it’s actually more complicated than that, because once we move out of the realm of bullying as simple physical assault, the difference between psychological bullying and more innocuous types of ribbing or reciprocal verbal aggression ultimately comes down to how the teens themselves feel about it. So a teen who denies being “bullied” and appears to shrug off various kinds of social animosity as just “drama” is not necessarily in denial about the independent, objective fact that they really are being bullied. Rather, insisting on adopting the attitude that they’re on equal footing with their aggressors (and so not bullied) may be a primary determinant of whether or not this is, in fact, the case. We all know, of course, that there’s often a sharp disconnect between internal feeling and external performance: We pretend to be unruffled by remarks that, in reality, cut deep. But we also know that these are hardly totally separate domains: Telling yourself that you don’t care what those jerks say about you is often part of the process of actually ceasing to care what those jerks say about you—or at least, ceasing to care much. On the victim’s side, then, psychological bullying is hard to quantify, because “bullying” is not always an observer-independent natural fact: Denying that you are being bullied is sometimes a means of making it true that you are not (successfully) bullied—though when that gambit fails, it may prevent some students from seeking necessary help from adults. Call this the Bullying Heisenberg Effect.

On the aggressor side, as boyd observes, part of the problem is that nobody likes to think of themselves as a bully, and so the teens who are dishing it out find other descriptions that minimize the harm they do. More than that, however, because bullying is so often a social phenomenon, it may literally be impossible to evaluate whether “bullying” is happening at the level of the individual agent—even for the bullies themselves!

As regular readers know, I’m fond of invoking a thought experiment from philosopher Derek Parfit called “The Harmless Torturers.” Parfit imagines one scenario in which 10,000 torturers each torture one of 10,000 victims using an electrocution machine. Each torturer clearly inflicts terrible agony on an individual victim. In Parfit’s second scenario, each torturer’s machine is configured so as to deliver one-ten-thousandth of the same voltage—a quantity so small as to be utterly imperceptible to the victim by itself—to all of the victims who were individually electrified in the first scenario. In the aggregate, the torturers inflict exactly the same amount of pain on exactly the same number of people. But in this second scenario, each torturer can—with some justice—claim that his actions are “harmless.” Each, in other words, can claim: “If I stayed home, there is not one of those 10,000 victims who would feel any difference.”

As applied to physical torture, the scenario is fanciful. As applied to psychological torture, it describes the norm. Only a few really horrid people commit themselves to relentlessly harassing and abusing a single individual. But many teens—and not a few nominal adults—will make a handful of snarky and cutting remarks to numerous different individuals over the course of an ordinary day. It would often be overblown to characterize any particular remark as bullying: In isolation, all but the most fragile of us would shrug it off. In the aggregate, they may be intolerable to even the most self-assured.

One reason “cyberbullying” may present special problems is that the Internet and social networks dramatically increase the realistic number of people who can pile on a single victim in a short period of time. Each aggressor might rationalize their own part in the distributed bullying as just one or two comments, though the victim perceives an overwhelming assault when these are all combined. For an analogy in the physical world, we can look to street harassment, which is enabled by the high volume of anonymous, brief public interactions characteristic of urban environments. Some men, of course, engage in vulgar and intimidating speech that anyone would consider harassing in itself. But often, the harassment is a distributed phenomenon. Many of us would not particularly mind a single stranger yelling out “Hi, gorgeous” or “You look good today!” once every other month—and I’ve seen men (inexcusably obtuse, to be sure, but not obviously malicious) react with genuine surprise when such remarks are not welcomed as compliments, not realizing they’re the tenth person in as many blocks to volunteer a similar comment to the same woman.

It may be hard to stamp out bullying, then, not just because victims are often unwilling apply the label to their own experience, but because individual aggressors can plausibly—even if somewhat disingenuously—deny that their individual actions qualify. Insofar as it may be counterproductive to encourage the victims of psychological bullying—cyber or otherwise—to consciously identify themselves as such, the more fruitful strategy may be encouraging teens on the aggressor side to be better Kantians, as it were—to imagine whether each mean offhand remark would qualify as “bullying” if it were multiplied by a dozen daily interactions, day after day, week after week.

Tags: Moral Philosophy · Sociology



6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 J.A. Paulos // Sep 25, 2011 at 9:40 pm

    I’ve always liked that universally applicable thought experiment of Parfit’s. Nice use of it here.

  • 2 Gil // Sep 26, 2011 at 10:12 am

    Very good observation. This difficulty with aggregation crops up in many places.

    By the way, I think your first sentence says (literally) the opposite of what you intended (“seldom fail to accomplish much”). The aggregation of negatives can be problematic, too.

  • 3 Gil // Sep 26, 2011 at 10:12 am

    Damn. You already fixed it!

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