I’m pleased to say that I am in no physical pain my friends. This last surgery has lived up to its reputation as being easy and quicker to recover from. My troubles for this week have not been caused by someone slicing me open with a very sharp knife. That was a walk in the park compared to some serious emotional distress I’ve been exposed to in the past few days. I was bullied online in a breast cancer support group. Sharp intake of breath. A place where I had opened myself up to strangers in a way I haven’t ever done, turned into a very unsafe space very quickly. I’m not going to go into details because it’s very long and tedious, she said this, she said that. The context was organising for a Christmas gathering for the region which I had helped out with. A disgruntled group wanted a different kind of event and were very vocal until the event changed to their liking. When others wanted to be included they rounded on them aggressively and then seemingly gloated of their victory with in jokes and ridiculing statements. Eventually the admins stepped in and sorted it all out but it got very ugly for 24 hours. Things move so fast on the internet.
I decided to leave the group. Recovering from surgery and being terrified to check my phone were becoming mutually exclusive. I chose my health. But it has not left my mind for long which is why my friends, I find myself writing this out because my coping strategies aren’t cutting it so far. I’ve moved through lots of different reactions and emotions: fear, anger, guilt, rage, sadness, despair. I’ve tried thinking my way through it, could it have gone down differently? Could I have intervened earlier and with more skill? Was I the bad guy? So far none of this has stuck. I haven’t moved forward much at all.
Today I began to think well perhaps this is just the product of standing up to bullies. An unpleasant side effect for defending yourself or others. Something to be endured. I felt better for a little while, confident in my self righteousness. But it didn’t fit, like socks that slip down into your shoes and make you feel slightly uncomfortable all day. It has forced me to come at this in a very different way. What does Heidi the social scientist think of all this? I think the bullies felt like the oppressed group. At first they probably were. They weren’t getting what they wanted and they were fighting for it. They perceived themselves as powerless. They quickly formed an in-group of similarly perceived powerless people. Once there was an in-group, favouritism was inevitable. People in an in-group will see more similarities between the members of their in-group than the people they perceive to be outside the group. After that the dynamics were fixed and it would have been almost impossible to steer it differently. We became the out-group, other. Their self-identity as a group was also imbued with justice and righteousness so any criticism or attempt to include more people was treated as a threat.
However once they had achieved their goal. See I’m even doing it as a write. Seeing them as a out-group, a ‘they’. In actual fact ‘they’ were a group of individual women coming to this conflict with an entire narrative of their own, loosely thrown together by a fast moving and random sense of togetherness. I also suffered from the oh-so tempting action of forming an in-group when threatened. Anyway, at some point the event was changed and at this moment, power shifted to their advantage. Their self-identity changed without them consciously realising or acknowledging it. Their statements and comments became more overtly and clearly bullying.
When I drew attention to this behaviour, the commenters were defensive of the bullies. They made excuses for them. They explained that it was my interpretation of the comments that was the problem, not their intention. The in-group was still in full effect and becoming entrenched. I find this very interesting how a self-identity formed so quickly and got made rigid by perceived challenges to the group. But it made me feel depressed that this could happen in such a normally supportive space. But then humans are humans, even if they have a deadly disease. The self-identity of us all as breast cancer sufferers got splintered. The larger in-group shattered.
I do think this all could have played out differently though. If we had remembered we are all special little butterflies and not formed an identity as a group, then it would have been much easier to resolve potential conflict. Conflict is normal. Conflict can be sorted through if people show empathy, compassion then listen and compromise. Sadly, forming groups is normal too. It is one of humanity’s strengths but can sometimes be one of our deepest failings. The original conflict can become fixed into a story of justification for bad behaviour, its ‘heroes’ defended and canonised. I’m not saying folk songs will be written of the Battle for the Breast Cancer Xmas Party but remembering we’re all human beings with differing needs and wants is a better way than ‘us’ against ‘them’. Because there’s one big thing that makes us all one big in-group. We’re all going to die, some sooner than others. But our time is limited and I for one don’t want to waste another moment of it fighting some fake enemy for imaginary power. There it is. There’s that feeling I’ve been striving for all week. Peace.