Are Some Humans Born to Bully? Born to Be Victims? Can It Be Changed?
One of the reasons I am SO HAPPY you guys take the time to comment and share your thoughts is your insights often highlight areas I might not have thought to address. A commenter Mr. Dandylion replied to my publishing predictions for 2014 with darker thoughts, which included this phrase:
“A new author will commit suicide after a sustained online bullying campaign, most likely stemming from Goodreads; it will cause major headlines and public anger.”
Those words hit home and made me think. Granted, as a writer, I’ve experienced my share of trolls and (gratefully) only two LOONIES. But I have too many author friends (including NYTBSAs) who’ve been victimized by flash mobs of cyber-bullies. I’ve also had blogger friends who wrote on very innocent topics randomly victimized by gangs of trolls for seemingly no reason.
Oddly, when I tried to research bullying and bullying resources for yesterday’s post, I was taken aback at how most of the tips were for kids, teens and parents. The problem is that (as MANY commenters shared yesterday) bullies don’t go away. They grow older and often more vicious.
Often these creeps are on-line, in church, in critique groups, clubs and in the workplace. After six years in Rotary, I left because of bullies. They had stolen all my joy for public service…so I took my passion for helps elsewhere.
Another commenter, Lloyd Lofthousel was thoughtful enough to share this link in the comments; a NY Times article about the study of aggression and how the actual makeup of the brains of aggressive teens is vastly different from those of non-aggressive teens. Aggressive teens demonstrated heightened activity in the pleasure centers of the brain when shown images/films of acts of violence and cruelty (images that would have repulsed the rest of us).
Granted, this is a very small study but it, again gave me food for thought. This study made me think of a recent article in Discover by Dan Hurley; Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes (which I highly recommend you read in full).
Is DNA REALLY at Fault?
Before we go too far, I am not in the camp of “Blame DNA or Blame Mom.” We are humans not holly bushes and we have the power of choice. But neuroscience and genetics might offer insights and tools for how we as a culture can feed the good and starve the bad, so to speak.
According to the article, Moshe Szyf, a molecular biologist and geneticist at McGill University in Montreal and Michael Meaney, a McGill neurobiologist married their theories and work and pioneered a new area of study, which came to be known as epigenics.
These two scientists posited that nature and nurture were highly integrated and also that humans might carry genetic memory through generations. I confess I am no scientist and this is a Spark’s Notes for discussion, but it is fascinating. As a blog, this IS immensely reductive, so forgive me. But the theory is interesting for debate.
According to this new research, we all have DNA (duh), but what Szyf and McGill noticed was our spools of DNA required something “extra” to activate certain genes. One of these extra elements is the methyl group, which, “works like a placeholder in a cookbook, attaching to the DNA within each cell to select only those recipes — er, genes — necessary for that particular cell’s proteins. Because methyl groups are attached to the genes, residing beside but separate from the double-helix DNA code, the field was dubbed epigenetics, from the prefix epi (Greek for over, outer, above).” Discover, Hurley
In English, right?
Originally, epigenetic changes were assumed to happen only during fetal development. But Szyf and McGill wanted to probe further. Could grandad’s experience as a POW during Vietnam affect a grandson’s DNA?
“According to the new insights of behavioral epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA. Jews whose great-grandparents were chased from their Russian shtetls; Chinese whose grandparents lived through the ravages of the Cultural Revolution; young immigrants from Africa whose parents survived massacres; adults of every ethnicity who grew up with alcoholic or abusive parents — all carry with them more than just memories.” Discover, Hurley
Of course, what was really interesting about this article is it gives us good reasons to believe we aren’t at the mercy of DNA or methyl groups. Methylation apparently can be changed. Just like a diet of fried Twinkies can activate cancer genes, growing up in a stressful, neglectful household can similarly activate traits for suicide, depression, aggression, etc. by methylating those parts of the DNA.
This, I feel, is how we can see either generational traits continue or cease. In my own experience, I grew up in a Jerry Springer household. Fighting, yelling, abuse was the norm. I remember visiting friends’ houses and being blown away that there wasn’t non-stop crackling tension and arguing.
Thus, when I grew up to become a parent, I made it a point to maintain peace and consistency.
Whereas I was a high-strung, neurotic, fearful child, who suffered night terrors and sleep issues for years, The Spawn is happy, calm, gentle and can sleep anywhere. Yet, as parents, we have ZERO tolerance for people who want to infuse stress and chaos into our lives. This has meant terminating old friendships and even avoiding contact with certain family members.
Is Our Society Birthing Bullies by Tolerating and Ignoring Them?
I probably love watching Discovery ID more than is healthy (hey, I AM a writer). But one common theme does emerge when studying criminals and, specifically, serial rapists and killers. They often begin small. If they aren’t caught or properly counseled/punished early in the cycle, they grow increasingly emboldened.
This lack of consequences fuels a growing narcissism that “they can get away with anything” (generally until they are finally apprehended or grow bored and turn themselves in so they can write books from prison and be rewarded for being psychos).
I feel when we don’t stand up to bullies, when we give children advice like “ignore them and they will go away” this feeds the rush bullies so enjoy (and crave). The rush then only bathes the DNA in more of these methyl groups because the bully has been able to create chaos and upset and get away with it.
***NOTE: I feel we aren’t teaching children how to properly ignore bullies. We need to guide children how to remain peaceful, happy and continue life, not hide in a library and stop participating in school out of terror. This only FEEDS more intense bullying.***
I am making this arm-chair assertion based off the article, but according to this research, those who have a proclivity for violence—when subjected to (or allowed to create) stressful, chaotic and aggressive atmospheres—only get worse. The negative environment increases the methyl bath that continues to activate certain negative genetic traits.
To extend the logic, when major blogs allow trolls to rant and throw furniture in the comments without censure, it’s gasoline on the fire of what’s fueling them to begin with. When bullies can make someone retreat from the Internet, stop blogging, hide, they WIN…and grow even MORE emboldened and continue searching out even more targets to terrorize to feed the rush.
When the office bully can attack someone at the copy machine and not be fired? This emboldens the bully and, like any addiction, it generally requires larger doses for the same high.
I think this is why ignoring trolls in the comments, deleting them and refusing to feed them does often work. They aren’t getting the desired response that gives them the dopamine rush of “winning.” It’s also why I believe they disappear when faced with a wall of loving, caring people who support the victim. Their positive energy disrupts the chaos and fear the bully craves.
It is also why arguing or fighting with an on-line bully generates the opposite effect—it makes trolls CRAZIER, because we’ve chosen the wrong form of confrontation. When we “fight back” we give them the negativity they need.
Not all confrontation has to be aggressive ;).
The Counterpoint—Can Victims Be Healed?
Methy groups (according to the research) don’t only affect those who are aggressive. Methylation can also activate depression, anxiety, codependency, etc. Often dysfunctional families are made up of aggressors and victims (I know that was my case growing up).
For every family bully, there are passive members dancing around trying to appease The Great Volcano from erupting. Clean the house a certain way, don’t have an opinion, be invisible and cater to every need Mt. Volcano has and he/she won’t blow.
Which is crap, btw, and for another blog.
Yet, one of the interesting observations I’ve made as the WANA Mama is that many shy, frightened, even victimized writers have found tremendous healing by being part of a large group that focuses on love, support and service. They’ve become brave enough to blog, to post, to write, to publish, to *gasp* have FUN because there is a different kind of family offering a very different type of energy.
When authors have life beating them up? They have a safe place. When an author’s family, spouse or friends are being cruel or critical? They can come to us. When a troll mob is on the attack? The WANAs can step in and diffuse the hate. Darkness can’t help but retreat when faced with light. Love is more powerful than fear.
What Can We DO?
Regarding this discussion on neuroscience, I believe we can change behaviors. Deny the hateful the chaos they seek and provide the love and tranquility for those who need it. Changes in environment can make the aggressive more empathetic and the cowed more confident.
I feel there are many areas of life where certain behaviors are simply NOT tolerated. As I mentioned on Facebook yesterday, Amazon, Goodreads, Huffington, Yahoo, etc. are on-line, but they ARE places of business—not a free-for-all-forum where anything is permitted.
Amazon sells, well…everything. But major blogs count on ads to thrive and grow. If people grow fearful or weary of trolls? They’ll move on to blogs where they aren’t afraid to comment. This means the site will have lower hits and no one will want to advertise…and then the site goes away.
We all have rights. But my RIGHT to swing my fist STOPS where your nose begins.
I have the right to complain. I DO NOT have the right to scream, yell, shout obscenities, and stalk and abuse the staff. If I went to a restaurant, I have the right to complain about the food or the service. But, if I screamed obscenities and attacked everyone in range verbally, do you guys think the manager would say, “Oh just ignore her”? NO. He’d toss me out on my butt and call the cops if I refused to behave or leave.
And if I gathered all my hateful friends to mob-attack the restaurant, would I be allowed to continue with this behavior? NO. I’d be sitting with my jerk friends in jail.
Take Charge of Our Blogs—Moderation is Paramount
I think as bloggers, we can be diligent to not allow abuse on our blogs. I guest-posted for a big author one time and a commenter was just INSANE and going for my throat…and the author allowed it because of “freedom of speech.” I never blogged there again.
Big blogs like Huffington, etc. need to increase moderation and have a Code of Conduct for commenting AND STICK TO IT. People can disagree, but they cannot act in any way that would land them a ticket or in JAIL if this was in person. If these blogs don’t take moderation more seriously, businesses won’t want to advertise there because the clientele (readers/commenters) has been sacred off.
Strength in Loving Community
Those of us who want to enjoy the Internet need to find a community of friends and support. WANA is of course an option, but there are surely others. Start your own. Be the light ;).
Boundaries are crucial for any healthy relationship. Refuse to tolerate hateful comments on social media. I delete people who are offensive or out of control. I then politely message them and tell them I am happy to leave their comment if they can rephrase respectfully. If they refuse to stop peeing on the digital furniture? I report and block them or unfriend.
We cannot please everyone. Art is very subjective. We can never write a book everyone loves. Bad reviews happen, and, as professionals, we need to put on our Big Writer Pants. We cannot endure, let alone succeed in this business if we have the skin of a grape.
Yes, writers need to feel safe to publish, but reviewers also need to feel safe to review. Just because they don’t like a book doesn’t automatically make them a bully or troll. If we get too many bad (but thoughtful and respectful) reviews? We might have jumped the gun and published too soon. Maybe we need to pull the book and rerelease with better editing. Or try again.
I know as an editor I’ve had writers go NUTS because I didn’t say every word was unicorn glitter. This is a profession not a playpen. When I was a neophyte, I got a lot of bloody noses in critique (but they were right). Honest feedback is what helped me get rhino-skin and become a better writer. It happens. We grow.
We can’t grow if we aren’t open to critique. Also, there comes a point when we have to brush things off. People have the right to an opinion (and they aren’t always correct). We don’t have to listen to and follow every opinion or we will end up with crappy books-by-committee.
So what are your thoughts? I don’t think we are at the mercy of nature or nurture. I believe we still have choice. But do you think we can change the future, no matter our genetic predispositions? Do you think we as a society or greater community could help drive that positive change? That maybe we could deflate bullies and rehabilitate the abused? What are for thoughts on nature-nurture? Were you from a crazy family too and yet managed to break free with your own kids? I like to think we can change the world, but blind optimism is my superpower :D…
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of January, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Will announce December’s winners Monday. I have a lot to go through. Good problem :D.
I hope you guys will check out my latest book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World and get prepared for 2014!!!!