The dangers of lurking online

Recently I’ve been following what happened with Kathleen Hale, the rewiever who supposedly harassed her and her stalking in response, with some fascination. The article in the Guardian is surreal (I get that people would be neurotic about their books, but come on… *that* neurotic?), and the dozens of responses and comments from blogs all over the place are a bit dizzying. Right now there are two things that strike me about this story.

One is, I’m coming to wonder if people actually know what harassment and stalking are. We all have our definitions, it seems. But in this particular case, it seems that definitions are getting stretched beyond recognition. Let’s recap: the reviewer Hale tried to track down was supposed to be a ‘known harasser’, having bullied a 14-year-old over a Goodreads review. Naturally, I had a look at the review and comments in question in a moment of procrastination. Funnily enough, the ‘harassment’ in question starts with Hale’s ‘number one critic’ commenting that she now had ‘her very own stalker’, on the basis (I assume) that the teenager she confronted directly addressed her in a review, mentioning details about her job (apparently she’s supposed to be an English teacher) that were publicly available in the reviewer’s profile.

To clarify one thing: when someone says they have been harassed, my default position is to believe them. But in cases like this it’s hard not to wonder. I mean, accusing someone of stalking you because they’ve read information you disclosed in your public profile? Seriously? The fun thing is that this subsequently degenerated into a comment war, which got truly obnoxious, and which made me glad I didn’t have a ‘number one critic’ among my colleagues. But again, bullying? One degenerating comment thread, complete with insults and general stupidity (in my definition at least, rudely taking a teenager to task because she told you your rude language might hurt some people is fairly stupid), is not enough in my mind to classify someone as a serial bully and harasser. And yes, that was the only accusation of harassment that was levelled against this person.

I’m aware that this is a super uncomfortable conversation right now, what with the recent scandals in fandom, which I won’t discuss here. All I can say is, education about harassment seems all the more necessary. You don’t go around accusing a polite (if naive) 14-year-old of stalking when all she’s done was read the public profile of a grown woman, anymore than you deny someone’s claims of harassment when they tell you they have been repeatedly attacked by the same person on social media. A big conversation about this is needed, and quick.

There is one other thing this made me think about. Reading Hale’s essay in the Guardian, I felt sorry for her even though her actions were clearly not acceptable. Because what I read in her story was not the desire to hurt her reviewer or get her to admit she was wrong, but a desperate yearning for her approval. At some point, she even states that she wished they could end this by becoming friends. And this, in my experience, is by no means uncommon. Arrogant, harsh or derogatory behaviour can have the curious effect of making target want to erase the insult, not through revenge or indifference, but through desperate pleas for approval and appreciation. This is, perhaps, what makes bullies most dangerous. It’s one thing when you can simply feel hurt, possibly start a social media feud or forget it after a while. It is quite another when you find yourself drawn in the sort of logic when you’re going to feel like rubbish for as long as the person who insulted you won’t acknowledge that you’re really a good person. This is what I read in Hale’s essay. This is what I read in the account of a blogger who was harassed for months by a controversial Internet personality: she stated, perfectly explicitly, that what had made her vulnerable at first was her admiration for the personality in question, and her desire to please her. I don’t think it takes apologies, or a honeymoon phase, for some harassers to acquire that sort of influence over people. Sometimes the contempt and insult themselves are enough. And this is something we rarely talk about. Instead we focus on the distress, the perceived threats or danger. The underlying mechanisms of what makes aggressive behaviour so dangerous at times, how people can end up bound in a vicious circle where more abuse makes them even more desperate for approval, almost seem forgotten.

I don’t excuse stalking, nor do I believe that we should send signals to authors saying that they have every right to engage in inexcusable behaviour if they’re upset over a bad review. I still feel sorry for Kathleen Hale. And I’ll just try to keep in mind from now on that the mechanisms of harassment are more complex than they seem.

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