The Problem with Political Cyberbullying

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Have you Googled “Santorum”? You will see descriptions of the byproducts of anal sex. This was funny to its creators because former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is not a big fan of sodomy. It’s a kind of political protest. It’s also a form of bullying.

Have you been to Rick Perry’s Facebook page lately? Women have been bombarding it with all sorts of explicit questions about their sexual habits, their sexual health and even Perry’s own contraceptive use to protest a recent Texas decision on Planned Parenthood funding. This is funny to them, because it’s hard to imagine Perry answering a question like this:

It’s a kind of political protest. It’s also the appropriation of a cyberbullying tactic.

This sort of thing happens all the time now. Protest groups will inundate the social network pages, or fiddle with the web searches, or create R-rated Twitter tags, in efforts to embarrass public figures in ways that make a political point. It is totally fair game under the First Amendment, and the politicians are big enough to deal with it. But one fact cannot be escaped: The tactics are the same sort of personal harassment that would be widely and properly condemned were they directed at a teenager.

Political cyberbullies say there is no equivalence between the two types of bullying, and they are right to a point. Dan Savage, the sex columnist for the The Stranger who created the anal sex version of “Santorum,” has maintained that Santorum’s opposition to equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians, and his condemnation of homosexuality as abnormal, is so abhorrent as to easily justify some Google stalking:

[T]aking the piss out of a middle-aged bigot who has repeatedly and viciously attacked a tiny minority for personal and political gain—a man surrounded by people who support him personally, politically, and financially—is not the moral equivalent of beating the sh*t out of a vulnerable and isolated 13-year-old queer kid in rural Texas who is a member of the tiny minority that this powerful bigot has repeatedly and viciously attacked.

Savage is right. Bully a teenager, and you can put his life in danger or severely distort his sense of self worth. Santorum is an adult who has chosen to become a willing combatant in the public debate. He will be fine.

But just because the victims can handle the torment, should the torment tactics be acceptable? Savage, who ironically started a powerfully moving anti-bullying campaign on YouTube for gay high school students with which Time Inc. has participated, would say that this is just a case of tit for tat. “Santorum equated consensual gay sex with child rape and dog f*******, he stated that birth control should be illegal, he argued that states should be able to arrest, prosecute, and imprison people—gay and straight—for private, consensual sex acts,” Savage writes. In other words, if Santorum colors outside the lines–and he did it first–then it’s okay for his opponents to color outside the lines too.

This line of reasoning ignores the fact that every successful society has needed to rise above such impulses. An eye for an eye works great, as they say, but it leaves everyone blind.

In the case of Perry, the issue is not what he said, but what he did as a matter of policy. Texas recently cut off Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood clinics on the grounds that the state should not help to fund an organization that is involved in abortion. Many women have objected to this on the grounds that defunding Planned Parenthood does huge collateral damage by denying coverage to women for non-abortion health services. This is a policy debate, and it is a heated one. And explicit messages about health issues like sexually transmitted diseases have a crafty dual impact: They highlight the underlying medical harm that can be done by denying funding for an organization that provides such coverage, and they aim to embarrass Perry by being graphic in ways usually not found on a political website.

But as I read through screen shots of the page, which has since been scrubbed, I can’t help but think about a scene I witnessed in middle school. In seventh grade, one student, as a prank, glued some pornography inside another student’s locker. The other student was humiliated, not just because the images were there, but because he had to explain what had happened both to his parents and the teachers, who needed to scrape the images out. I don’t know why he was being picked on, but I knew who had done it. The bully was a student who had been picked on himself. As experts will tell you, the cycle of bullying in grade schools is rarely one that has simple heroes and villains. Kids are mean because someone has been mean to them. Left unchecked, it can spread.

The solution, at least on the grade school level, has been to educate students that the tactics and practices of bullying are inherently wrong. The idea is that everyone, even those we don’t like, even those who treat us poorly, deserve a certain level of respect, and that there are basic standards for  communication. That is the best practice for ensuring that as many students as possible grow into adulthood with a basic level of mental health.

There is, it seems to me, a similar lesson for adults interacting in a democratic society. Rick Santorum’s beliefs are understandably abhorrent to large numbers of people, whose happiness and freedoms could be directly impacted by his policy ideas, but responding by comparing Santorum to a fluid containing feces is not the only option. His beliefs can be countered with testimonials, with science, with policy briefs, with substantive argumentation. He can even be protested in ways that maintain a basic level of respect, if not for Santorum in particular, then at least for the idea that a heterogeneous free society needs a set of basic standards by which we hash out our disagreements.

Perhaps, the best argument against the sort of online harassment that now passes for accepted political protest is that we are all models for our children. And these sort of tactics do really get innocent kids killed, while leaving thousands of others scarred for life. Perhaps one can make the case that it is wrong to plaster the locker of a fellow student with pornography, or to deface her Facebook page with comments about her slutiness, but okay to plaster a politician’s Facebook page with questions of a sexual nature that are aimed to embarrass, or to wear a t-shirt that equates a political opponents name with feces.

But it would be better if we didn’t have to make the case at all.