In 1948, Mohandas Gandhi was assassinated, silencing one of the iconic 20th cenury voices for non-violence. Today will be commemorated around the world – Martyr’s Day in India, the School Day of Non-Violence and Peace in Spain – and used as a time to honour the concept of non-violence. And while that goal is a long, long way away, the respect the world has for people like Ghandi and Martin Luther King will hopefully make those with grievances think twice before taking up arms.
And yet violence isn’t always physical, and in a connected world, it becomes incrediby easy for abuse to take place without consequence. Today saw a Twitter-storm as an online commentator made comments about strangling the journalist Laurie Penny (aka Penny Red). This would be bad enough if it was an isolated incident, but the fact is, the internet is a hotbed of misogynist abuse – take, for instance, some of the comments aimed at the DC Women Kicking Ass blog. It appears that, if you stick some men in front of a keyboard and give them a measure of anonymity, they’ll come out with some of the most vile, women hating dreck imaginable.
Meanwhile cyberbullying is a growing problem, leading young people to self-harm and suicide. On the one hand you can argue that bullying has always taken place and that this is nothing new; on the other, we return to the idea that, if some people are anonymous, the darker side of their personalities will be given free rein.
Of course, Anonymous is also the name of a group campaigning for net freedom and online privacy, both good things even if you disagree with the group’s methods. The ability to conceal our identity online is important – sure, I publish this blog under my own name, but I’m not writing stuff that’s likely to get me arrested or tortured. It’s not a nice world out there.
But this isn’t (just) a case of non-violently responding to attacks. The internet is what we make of it, and with that power comes, well, responsibility – the responsibility for each one of us to participate in online communities without lashing out, mocking, threatening and threatening violence, even if it’s not ‘serious’. Situations like those faced by many female bloggers, or teengers experiencing cyberbullying aren’t victimless crimes. Whatever the alleged reasons for this sort of behaviour – ‘jokes’, hyperbole, irony, excitement – look painfully pathetic when seen against the consequences of such actions. Maybe in some ways it’s accepted because it’s been going on for so long – that’s sickening enough in itself.
Non-Violence isn’t just about actions, it’s a state of mind, and the importance of that is heightened when that state of mind is expressed online, with no physical barriers to support or restrain it. By all means tell someone you disagree with them, and that their argument is full of holes, but talking of killing someone over a blog post is nuts, and should lead us to the realisation that it’s not the internet that’s the problem here; it’s the hearts and minds of those making the comments. Some commenters need to change their attitudes; others need to challenge abuse when they see it. And each one of us, as Ghandi said, must be the change we want to see in the world. Even in a world of 1s and 0s.