From a young age at school I have developed a fear of standing out. I learnt much later it can be part of puberty but mine was founded on the shaky ground of not being true to myself but trying to be liked and accepted.
I developed a focus on observing others and learning how to navigate the world from the response others got. As a child, if I saw someone have a negative experience with speaking up, calling someone to account or intervening then it confirmed that I should think twice before doing the same. The internet and cyberbullying now takes that fear of standing out and being in someone's line of sight to a whole new level.
In recent years I have seen cyberbullying take on a life of its own. I have seen story after story of young people targeted for all sorts of reasons: some for their hair colour, their choice of friends, their body shape, the colour of their skin, their sexual orientation, their religious choice, their lifestyle choice. The reasons are varied but the end results are the same. Very often it is hard to take action because either the perpetrators are too cowardly to put their real names to the posts or the platforms they are using to post their vileness does not have the processes in place to deal with such abuse. Rarely are people brought to account before a tragic outcome.
So many foundations and initiatives are set up by those affected by the death of a loved one from bullying and cyberbullying - why do we wait for it to come knocking on our door before we stand up and say it is not right?
Standing out is something a few people thrive on, it even gives them their purpose in life. That doesn't make for sound mental health because we thrive when the news is good, when our family, friends, social media and perhaps even the press like us. Standing out in that picture gives us a sense of self worth and acceptance by the world as well as acceptance by a whole gamut of strangers but by their standards. What happens when the tables turn, what if they disagree with you, or when the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ kicks in and everyone tries to pull you down, even those you have never met, what if, you are on the receiving end of someone’s malicious agenda – do you like standing out then?
Not so much, yet the fear of standing up to say it is wrong is a very real fear in the body. It feels like someone might hunt you down with a loaded pistol and that your life will end once they turn their sights on you. Yes the fear can feel that real, not helped by the life threats and verbal abuse that can be sent via social media. Yet it is also important to see it as a ploy to silence you.
I wonder if we should accept this level of abuse as ‘normal’? Is it like the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, that we have convinced ourselves that this level of abuse is normal for fear of standing out?
But what if my FOSO is contributing to the worrying rise in online abuse? What if my not saying it is not OK allows others to perpetuate their behaviour and confirms that it is not safe to stand out? What if my not speaking up is an abdication of responsibility? Just what if.
The ‘staying hidden’ is not something that just affects me. If I am afraid to speak up when something isn’t right then I might allow corruption, sexual or physical abuse, I might allow workplace bullying or have allowed schoolyard bullying as well as other untold atrocities both large and small. I might also, silently, start beating myself up for my lack of action, start to feel unworthy and develop self-loathing or depression. Could my lack of action and the lack of action by others be contributing to the growing rise of mental health issues in this country, even the world?
I have to think bigger than me. Am I prepared to take responsibility and stand out for something that will make a positive impact on our world not just my own day to day?
I know that I am a kind, decent and caring person and that I wake up and go to sleep with that person every night. I know I need to live in a way that shows my children and others around me that we must not fear speaking up when something isn’t right. That is how we inspire each other to build a world with values of love, honesty, integrity and equality, this is how atrocities stop - by people standing up and saying no.
It is OK to speak up when something isn’t right – it is in fact all our responsibility and essential for a true and accountable society.