Paula Todd (Signal/McClelland & Stewart 2014, Hardcover) 329 pages inc. Glossary and Notes, $27.95 cover price
This book is not for the faint of heart or easily offended. Such are the opening words of Extreme Mean, a masterly examination of internet bullying, as written by the esteemed Canadian journalist and broadcaster Paula Todd. That opening caveat is well-deserved. Extreme Mean equally provokes, revolts, saddens and yet by the end, it inspires. Incidentally, in order to give you the reader an accurate sense of what this book is about, reading this review isn't going to be any picnic in halcyon fields either.
The narrative anchor of Extreme Mean's investigation centers around Amanda Todd (no relation). Amanda, then fifteen, committed suicide because she had been the victim of intense bullying based around a momentary flash of her breasts when she was twelve year old. Even when she had moved to another community, to another school, the bullies who called her a slut and a whore and suggested she kill herself still found her and made sure the world knew where to find her. Amanda made a YouTube video before she died, explaining how she felt victimized. And after she was dead, the following is typical of the comforting messages received by her grieving mother, Carol:
It's all your fault your daughter died. You are personally responsible for her death with your blatant negligence. Why the fuck didn't you take away your whore daughters webcam. Answer: because you're relieved that she's dead, and that you no longer have to compete for your ex-hubby's romantic attention. Can you really blame him, fatty? Go kill yourself ...
I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that your reactions to that quote will be a mix of three things. One, why is this polite book review magazine using such filthy language in its pages? Two, who would ever say such things? And three, perhaps you somewhat agree with the crude writer's point of, why didn't Carol Todd prevent this from happening? Let's look at those in order, for those three reactions are very much the definition of Extreme Mean's quality.
The slight degree of discomfort you may have felt in reading that quote is absolutely nothing, a guppy's bathwater, compared to the drowning tide that the target of such invective must feel. Then multiply that reaction by twelve-fold the messages, a hundred-fold, a thousand-fold, a million-fold as abuse becomes just as viral as the Spanish Influenza of 1919. The only way of making a reader at all empathize with the situation is to state it baldly, in cold type.
So who on earth would ever say that sort of thing in the first place? Surely they are just freaks who can be dismissed and ignored? First, I'll give you my personal answer. When I lived in Toronto, which had at the time a population of two million or so, I came up with an observation disguised as a bon mot. If we take the notion that every village of 1,000 has at least one – broadly stated – village idiot, I think we can generally agree that one out of a thousand people aren't quite right in the head and could be a danger to themselves or others. Now, in a village, one can identify who that person is and cross to the other side of streets accordingly. Toronto though would have 2,000 such aberrants. Well, that makes avoidance a bit more difficult. Now hook them all up to a computer and multiply them times Canada, times North America, and finally times the world. When someone like the singer Rebecca Black is literally getting bombed by millions of messages by foul-mouthed people who hated her song Fridays (a song! They just didn't like a song!), imagine if you can what that might do to one's mental health. As my late friend Tom Snyder used to say, 'Call me paranoid if you want, but sometimes they really all are against you.'
Paula Todd's answer to, 'Why would someone do this?,' is the meat of Extreme Mean. For one thing, my old guesstimate of one in a thousand is way too low a number according to Todd's impeccably sourced research. I quote:
Among American adults, an estimated 14.8 million live with depression, 42 million with anxiety disorders, and more than 9 million have co-occurring mental health and addiction disorders.
There are lots of un-well people out there. Add in economic problems, add in the depersonalization of contact through the internet, add in the hyper-sexualization of young female celebrities, add in the desire to be an accepted member of a community and that is why we have an internet crawling with abusers, stalkers, blackmailers and pedophiles.
And yet, it is altogether too simplistic to blame the internet, akin to blaming a window if someone is tossed out of it. Walt Kelly's Pogo Possum had it right when he said, 'We have met the enemy and he is us.' This is not so much a technology problem as it is a people problem, and Paula Todd makes a strong and well-reasoned argument that internet abuse needs to be seen as a mental health issue.
And then, there was that third reaction to the vile message sent to Carol Todd: Shouldn't the policing be up to the parent? Well, for one thing not all the abuse in Extreme Mean is perpetrated by or against adolescents. That would be a little too easy. Take a look at the Comments section under any on-line review, sports story, or political news. I've said on more than one occasion that if reincarnation exists, I want a choice in the matter of form, as the human species is a not particularly pleasant one.
Besides, can any parent ever really monitor and block everything their child can be exposed to? No. And so long as a hacker – and hacking is as easy as guessing the combination of a two-digit lock – can Photoshop a picture, create a meme, invent a fake Facebook account; no child is safe from slander and mass mockery.
No, Extreme Mean was not an easy read at all. I found myself questioning my own pre-supposed opinions on the issue with every chapter. That is what investigative journalism is supposed to do: The journalist asks questions so the reader asks the same questions of his or herself.
But you're thinking, 'Oh I don't really want to read all about that nasty stuff. I know bullying and abuse are bad, so I'll never do it.' So you'll click away from this review and go and look at that latest link you saw on Facebook or Twitter about the latest outrageous thing Miley Cyrus did on-stage and ... oh. That's the point now, isn't it?
Be seeing you.