At the end of Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone, the main characters have to fight their way past a series of obstacles to stop Voldemort from getting his hands on the sorcerer’s stone. Most of the obstacles take particular skill sets to defeat. To get past devil’s snare you have to know that it doesn’t like sunlight, to get past the chessboard you have to be good at chess, to get past the potions riddle you have to be good at solving puzzles, etc.
It makes for an engaging story, but there is an interesting implicit assumption in the way the obstacles were chosen: that knowledge, skill, and cleverness are the domain of the great and good. It’s one of the many manifestations of the “Only Smart People May Pass” trope:
This refers to any barrier that requires the heroes to solve some kind of puzzle or Riddle in order to pass. Alternatively, it could be some test of skill … One wonders why this was deemed a better barrier than say, a lock and key carried on someone’s person instead of being in a chest elsewhere in the building.
If the goal was to actually allow smart people to pass, like into Mensa, then this would make sense. But it’s often a defense against smart people who want to take whatever is being guarded. If evil, these smart people will either already be past this puzzle or trick the heroes into solving the puzzle for them.
Emphasis mine. The problem with this idea is that in the real world, intelligence is not solely the domain of good people. People who do harm are not simple, boorish automatons. Bullies and assholes are not just guileless, unsophisticated jerks. Many of them are tremendously intelligent, and are deliberate and strategic in the ways that they cause harm.
For an example, we need only look as far as the recent #EndFathersDay hoax, where people from 4chan started the #EndFathersDay hashtag pretending to be feminists in order to make feminism look like absurd extremism. To an extent, it worked. It was even picked up by a mainstream media outlet or two. People believed it, and in some places the ecosystem of erroneous feminist stereotypes grew a little bit thicker*.
In a way we all already know this. Have you ever heard of a playground bully who did their bullying in front of teachers or admitted to it when accused? I would imagine not, because most of them tended to be smart enough to either do their bullying out of sight of authorities, or in ways that authorities either wouldn’t notice or would ignore. In other words, they were strategic. They worked out as best they could what they could get away with and in what contexts and acted accordingly.
The people I knew of who were playground bullies when I was growing up are full-grown now, and for those who haven’t learned how to be decent human beings, I see no reason to suppose that they have lost all ability to reason and strategize about bullying between then and now.
How do you effectively bully as an adult? The same way you effectively bully as a kid: you either figure out the places you can do it where no one else will see you, or you figure out the ways you can do it that people will either not notice or disregard.
From the perspective of someone who wants to sexually assault someone, people who focus on what victims were wearing or how much they drank are incredibly useful dupes. The strategic predator will find social contexts with high concentrations of people who focus on victims in this way because they know it means that if they assault someone who was drunk or wearing revealing clothing that they probably won’t face consequences. The strategic predator will find social contexts where people often excuse inappropriate behavior with social awkwardness, because they know that means if they harass someone and then claim social awkwardness that they probably won’t face consequences.
As Dr. NerdLove puts it:
Creepers and predators rely on other people insisting that their social awkwardness is a mistake because it gives them cover. When the “socially awkward” exception is in play, other people are less likely to call him out on his creepy behavior. It becomes a way of isolating somebody from potential allies and tricking others – people who might otherwise object to his bad behavior and assist his target – into being complicit in his actions. The Awkward Exception teaches other people to tolerate, even expect creepy behavior… and to forgive it because hey, “he means well.” It gives the creeper cover and allows him to continue being part of the community; he’s not “Johnny the creepy predator”, he’s “Johnny the decent guy, a little weird sometimes but harmless.”
Now let’s move on to the Internet. This post depicting a feminist holding a sign that says “I need feminism because 4chan gave me PTSD”, recently appeared on Reddit. As you might expect, it was posted for the purpose of ridiculing the idea that someone could get PTSD from Internet harassment. The top rated comment reads: “I got PTSD when I couldn’t open the mayonnaise.”
But here’s the thing: the weight of the evidence of actual psychological research is firmly on the side of “Yes, online harassment can cause PTSD.”. Leaving aside the discussion about how this means there’s a very good chance people on the 4chan subreddit are getting their kicks by making fun of PTSD victims, let’s examine the implications of this post for the strategic bully: the strategic, intelligent bully knows that online harassment can be horrible, even to the extent of causing PTSD, and knows that there are communities where people think this is impossible. Ergo, the strategic bully knows that there are communities where they can organize campaigns of harassment extreme enough to cause PTSD, and no one will call them on it or stop them. In fact, not only will people not stop them, they will actively pile their own ridicule on top of the harassment already taking place.
Think about that: if most of your community thinks the idea of people getting PTSD from online harassment is absurd, then your community is a uniquely prime opportunity for bullies to harass people to the point of getting PTSD without any consequences whatsoever.
In a more general way, online communities where the prevailing “wisdom” is that Internet harassment should just be ignored are a fantastic opportunity for bullies. If online harassment actually is an effective bullying tactic (which, again, the overwhelming weight of the evidence suggests that it is), then a community where online harassment is hand waved away as “something you should just ignore” is the perfect place to bully.
Intelligence and strategy are not traits unique to the great and good. Bullies can be just as skillful tactical thinkers as anyone else, and if you fail to realize this – if they know how effective their campaigns of harassment and silencing can be, and you don’t – then you are the perfect strategic asset for a bully.
If you think focusing on victims’ behavior is an appropriate response to sexual assault, you are the perfect strategic asset for a sexual predator. If you think social awkwardness excuses sexual harassment, you are the perfect strategic asset for someone who wants to freely harass people. If you think most rape claims are made-up, you are the perfect strategic asset for a rapist. If you think online harassment should just be ignored, you are the perfect strategic asset for people who want to deliberately drive certain subsets of your community out of being able to participate. If you think someone can’t be a predator, a misogynist, or a bully because they are a valued member of your community (or worse, that being a valued member of your community earns someone the right to be any of those things), then all any horrible person has to do in order to be able to get away with anything in your community is put themselves in a position of providing some sort of value.
You may be a good person (if we’re being simplistic about good and bad, anyway), but I guarantee you that your “goodness” does not mean that you can’t be outsmarted by people who aren’t. If you do any of the things I mentioned in the preceding paragraph routinely, then you are being outsmarted and used by assholes routinely, to the detriment of your community and everyone in it. If you expect “real” bullying to be obvious and easy to spot, then you have no idea how real bullying tends to work, and you are a fantastic strategic asset for a bully.
* Just before posting, became aware of another upcoming planned attack by 4chan, in case you need more reason to believe these things are often strategically planned: a planned “raid” on Tumblr users on this August 4th (see “Operation Wave/Time Bomb” image).
Further examples of the effects organized harassment can have and the forms it can take: No skin thick enough: The daily harassment of women in the game industry, I Stand with Shakesville, This is What Has Been Happening