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“Knock It Off”: Showing Internet Bullies the Line

August 10, 2020


It was hard to miss her. She was sitting in the back of the school bus on my first day of seventh grade. Her hair was a mess of barrettes. Her stonewashed jeans were more torn than whole and her shirt was emblazoned with a seething skeleton straining against shackles and a straitjacket (another genius album cover from Britain’s metal band Iron Maiden). Her eyebrows were arched and her face was a scowl. Her name, I came to learn, was Gina.

And Gina was a bully.

The whole bus was dominated by Gina. She yelled and screamed. She howled at her friends and screeched at her enemies. Gina shrieked at passing cars and muttered angrily to herself. She cursed like a sailor; every other word was the f-bomb.

As Gina lorded over her domain, most of the rest of the bus—myself included—shrank in our seats and stared fixedly ahead, hoping, in vain, that if we pretended not to see the tyrant, she might not see us.

But then something happened. The bus driver—I think his name was Jim—fixed his dark eyes on this rabid high school girl through that impossibly large bus driver’s mirror and barked, “Hey you! Knock it off! Do your parents actually let you eat with a mouth like that?”

Momentarily stunned, Gina fired off some lame, half-cocked response, but then sullenly slouched down into her seat. The bus grew quiet, but was curiously more alive, thanks to a restored sense of safety. A bully succumbed to the mildest of beat-downs. Inwardly—quite inwardly, so as not to risk reawakening the beast—the rest of us smiled.

Bullies have been with us everywhere and forever. They are the stuff of sweeping history and the Christian narrative, grand literature and ‘tween television. Whether the seething Führer or the towering Goliath, the venomous Lady Catherine de Bourgh or the snarky cheerleader, we all recognize bullies when we see them. Classically, bullies are people of enormous appetite and little self-awareness. Loud and opinionated, crude and self-centered, they brook no opposition. They thrive on destruction, or as one thinker observed, “They are the bulls that bring with them their own China shops.”

To be sure, some modern bullies are of this very type: simple and violent. In their inexorable fury, they scream and spit; they gesture wildly and clench their fists. Like a volcanic toddler shaking their crib, they need your attention now.

But other bullies can be more subtle and cunning. They scheme and plan, denigrate and manipulate, only to feign a passive-aggressive innocence of the very plot you may claim. These bullies are good at throwing you off balance; they get you to question your own understanding as they chip away at your soul. While claiming plausible deniability, they leave you feeling disoriented and self-doubting.

Such bullies are in a class by themselves, and they are thriving in the era of social media and instant communication. Their sophistication and calculation is unparalleled. Organized and widespread, the social media toughs turn the dark corner of a high school hallway into a humiliating international forum.

Because of their reach and power, Twitter mobs, comment box harangues, and hashtag campaigns wage vindictive and total war on others. They lie and they slander. They stalk and scold. These bullies are not satisfied with earnestly righting wrongs; they want to throw people away. Their aims are not to debate truth but to destroy opposition. It is ruthless, unforgiving, and utterly devoid of the dignity inherent to the authentic search for truth. What begins as a difference of opinion, ends with utter ruin—ashes turned to ashes. This is bullying without mercy, without a possibility that their victim may ever be “redeemed.”

Those within a bully’s crosshairs find themselves embarrassed and fearful of retaliation. Unbalanced by the chaos the bully unleashes, the unnerved victims grow quiet and uncertain; some might feel personally guilty for the bully’s disruption, and responsible for repairing the gaping breach in social etiquette. Soon, they are apologizing, mollifying, or dejectedly escaping the bully, just hoping to live to fight another day. As the bully preens, the target walks away broken and alone.

That is no way to live.

When I was in seventh grade, I learned several lessons from Jim the bus driver that apply to today’s canceling mobs and the disparaging hecklers, and I learned it all from his three words: “Knock it off!

In a recent video, Bishop Robert Barron used similar words (“Cut it out!”) when he advised Catholics on social media to avoid the sin of calumny. We need to dare to say “knock it off” to the bullies in our lives, whether we find them attacking on wider social media platforms, or fuming on the back of the bus. It’s essential.

Essential, but not easy—and here is why:

First, we must be brave. Most bullies are paper tigers. That doesn’t mean you can’t get licked or take some serious lumps, but most bullies are not used to true opposition. Winston Churchill, no stranger to bullies, once wrote: “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities, because, as has been said, it is the quality which guarantees all others.” Armed with truth and God’s might, we should follow St. Catherine of Siena’s admonition: “Proclaim the truth and do not be silent through fear.”

Second, we must be right. Nothing backs up bravery better than understanding truth and defending it. Anger is not an argument, and as Michel de Montaigne reminds, “He who establishes his argument by noise and command, shows that his reason is weak.” But to know the truth requires humility, prayer, and discernment. In better distinguishing right from wrong and good from evil, you will more faithfully champion justice while keeping sight of mercy.

Finally, we must be faithful. Christ calls us to love and pray for our enemies. But we don’t always have to like them. Christ did remind us not to throw pearls before swine and to, at times, shake the sand off our feet and walk away. Discretion, as they say, is the better part of valor. If a bully can be brought to see the truth, bring him. If he can be open to reason, engage him. But if not, defend yourself, and your brothers and sisters, in truth and charity.

It has been a long time since my ride on the bus with Gina. To be sure, she was unlikeable, and I honestly did enjoy witnessing the verbal smackdown she deserved from Jim. Victor Hugo, knowing that our enemies will always be with us, offered this encouragement: “You have enemies? Why, it is the story of every man who has done a great deed or created a new idea. It is the cloud which thunders around everything that shines. Fame must have enemies, as light must have gnats. Do not bother yourself about it; disdain. Keep your mind serene as you keep your life clear.”

Our enemies will be with us always, and we are indeed called to love them. So I must borrow from St. Josemaria Escriva’s wisdom, which reminds me, “Don’t say: ‘That person gets on my nerves.’ Think: ‘That person sanctifies me.’”

To all of the Ginas in the world (and I’m not talking to the nice Ginas I know), let me say this:

I will try to love you. I will offer a prayer for you.

You don’t get on my nerves. You sanctify me.

But knock it off.