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Online vs.‭ ‬Real:‭ Distinction Without Difference

The final barrier between the virtual world and the real world was erased last week when a‭ ‬12-year-old girl,‭ ‬after being mercilessly harassed and bullied online,‭ ‬climbed a platform at an abandoned cement plant in Florida and jumped to her death. ‭ ‬Cyber-world and tangible world are now distinctions without a difference.

Rebecca Ann SedwickNothing exemplifies the underlying toxicity,‭ ‬lifelessness and malice in this culture more than this tragic incident.‭ ‬It was reported on the national news without comment or feeling.‭ ‬Americans have come to expect such wickedness and have adapted to it.‭ ‬People can adapt to anything.

‭”‬I’m dead.‭ ‬I’m jumping.‭ ‬I can’t take it anymore,‭” ‬Rebecca Ann Sedwick texted a friend just before she jumped,‭ ‬after changing her handle on Kik Messenger to‭ “‬That Dead Girl.‭”

‭“‬If you haven’t killed yourself yet,‭ ‬would you please just die‭?” ‬That’s an example of the kind of evil messages she received over months from‭ ‬7th‭ –‬grade girls.‭ “‬They got what they wanted,‭” ‬said her mother through tears.‭ ‬Seventh grade girls‭!

School officials knew about the bullying,‭ ‬which had extended to the schoolyard and included pushing and hitting.‭ ‬But there’s so much of it now,‭ ‬and the division between real and virtual is such that they were incapable of meeting it.‭ ‬

Predictably,‭ ‬there’s talk about bringing criminal charges against the girls who harassed Becca to death.‭ ‬But their sentence has already been imposed—they’ll have to live with what they did for the rest of their lives.‭ ‬If you don’t feel sorrow and compassion about that as well as Becca’s suicide,‭ ‬then you’re part of the problem,‭ ‬not the solution.

This one girl’s suicide signifies so much more than one girl’s tragic end that it would be impossible to explain in a‭ ‬500-page book,‭ ‬much less a‭ ‬1000-word column.‭ ‬But pause for a minute from your busy life and reflect on the fact:‭ ‬A gang of‭ ‬15‭ ‬junior-high girls systematically and relentlessly prodded a beautiful girl,‭ ‬one of their own kind and class,‭ ‬to kill herself.‭ ‬What does that say about this culture,‭ ‬and about the neglect of the adults who are completely out of their depth in dealing with such evil‭?

Teenagers absorb and express the essence of a culture‭; ‬they don’t live in a world unto themselves.‭ ‬In previous generations,‭ ‬revolt against the social order‭ (‬or disorder‭) ‬was the norm in young people,‭ ‬almost a rite of passage. In recent years however,‭ ‬teens have been adapting and amplifying the darkness that most adults refuse to face and meet.

Heaping injury upon injury,‭ ‬such evil is either exploited for entertainment purposes,‭ ‬or sentimentalized.‭ ‬Both trends make its perpetrators in the adult world complicit in the slaughter of innocents,‭ ‬and innocence.

The site of Becca’s death has already has already become a memorial,‭ ‬with teddy bears,‭ ‬candles and balloons.‭ ‬Sentimentality is to genuine feeling as plastic fruit is to real apples.‭ ‬It allows‭ ‘‬Breaking Bad‭’ ‬to be glorified,‭ ‬givencyberbullying 1 a wink and nod,‭ ‬rather than the opprobrium that previous generations and intact societies gave it.

The problem is not‭ ‘‬cyberbullying,‭’ ‬nor even teenagers‭’ “‬online social lives.‭” ‘‬Cyberbullying‭’ ‬is a catchall term that allows adults to distance themselves from the overriding underbelly of social relations in this country,‭ ‬which cellphones and social media merely exacerbate,‭ ‬through psychological and emotional distancing.

There’s a general perception,‭ ‬by both teens and most adults,‭ ‬that online communications aren’t real,‭ ‬and that anything goes,‭ ‬or at least that the normal limits on behavior don’t apply.‭ ‬For example,‭ ‬ever since the Net became a feature of everyday life,‭ ‬people have been having‭ ‘‬virtual affairs‭’ ‬that they believe won’t affect their flesh and blood marriages.

The root meaning of the word‭ ‘‬cyber‭’ ‬is instructive.‭ ‬It doesn’t mean less real than tangible reality,‭ ‬but just the opposite.‭ ‘‬Cyber‭’ ‬comes from the Greek‭ ‘‬kybernetes,‭’ ‬which means‭ ‘‬steersman‭’ ‬or‭ ‘‬governor.‭’ ‬That fits,‭ ‬since the online reality has come to govern the tangible world,‭ ‬and for many people,‭ ‬including vulnerable teens,‭ ‬it is dominating and steering it into darker and darker realms.

‭“‬It’s a whole new culture,‭ ‬and the thing is that as adults,‭ ‬we don’t know anything about it because it’s changing every single day,‭” ‬said Denise Marzullo,‭ ‬the chief executive of Mental Health America of Northeast Florida,‭ ‬who works with the schools on bullying issues.

No,‭ ‬it’s the same old culture,‭ ‬just on steroids,‭ ‬with outmoded ideas like this governing the minds of parents,‭ ‬teachers and professionals charged with dealing with darkness where children are concerned.

Because bullying has shifted from Facebook and Twitter to Kik and Voxer does not mean that‭ “‬it’s a whole new culture,‭’ ‬just that the pathways of evil are changing much faster than its roots are being confronted.‭ ‬Yes,‭ ‬the so-cyberbullyingcalled virtual world of social media has,‭ ‬like fungi growing in dark,‭ ‬dank caves,‭ ‬nurtured bullying,‭ ‬even in young girls.‭ ‬But that too is a symptom and not a cause.

The very notion‭ “‬that it is increasingly difficult for parents to keep pace with their children’s complex digital lives‭” ‬continues to differentiate a completely blurred line between the two supposedly distinct realities,‭ ‬online vs.‭ ‬real-world,‭ ‬making it impossible to deal with the overarching reality confronting everyone.

Both the‭ ‘‬it’s-always-been-like-this‭’ ‬school of thought on societal dysfunction and dystopia,‭ ‬and‭ ‬the‭ ‘‬we-just-hear-more-about-it‭’ ‬school completely miss the mark.‭ ‬The former is untrue,‭ ‬while the latter just means it’s affecting and infecting all of us more.

The truth,‭ ‬which the vast majority of Americans avoid like the plague‭ (‬convincing themselves that there’s only‭ ‘‬my truth‭’ ‬and‭ ‘‬your truth‭’) ‬is that a pervasive darkness rules this land and saturates this culture.‭ ‬And since this culture is no longer limited to the geographical area of the North American culture hearth,‭ ‬but has become global,‭ ‬this phenomenon has enormous implications for human culture and consciousness as a whole.

Psychological/emotional distancing takes same form domestically as it does with foreign horrors like Syria—allowing childish adults to believe it’s‭ ‘‬happening over there,‭’ ‬not connected or related to me and mine.

But now,‭ ‬thanks largely to the World Wide Web,‭ ‬there’s no difference between inside and outside,‭ ‬between domestic and foreign,‭ ‬between terrorists and mass shooters,‭ ‬between jaded adults and jaded children.

Ironically,‭ ‬just before the news of this Florida girl’s suicide last week,‭ ‬the New York Times did an excellent,‭ ‬if also obtuse piece entitled,‭ “‬Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught‭?”

The phrase,‭ ‘‬to children‭’ ‬was‭ ‬left‭ ‬unsaid,‭ ‬though that was the focus of the article.‭ ‬But the‭ ‬question really is:‭ ‬Can adults learn emotional intelligence‭?

Martin LeFevre

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