The whole issue of online abuse is complicated by the celebration of confrontation as a sort of glorious heroic combat. Being able to sustain aggression and not shy away from conflict are seen as knightly virtues. By hurling insults back at your insulters, you are fighting the good fight.
Where I work, kids occasionally make complaints of text abuse and online bullying. They, or their horrified parents, will take screen shots of texts and emails, containing dreadful messages, to show as proof of their allegations.
However, when confronted, the accused teenager will often produce texts and emails, of equal viciousness, from their accuser. Then the school is left searching for an “Ur text” (ho ho) that began it all, which is rarely possible, and when it is, the sender claims it was in response to an original, unprovoked attack off-line.
If the target isn’t obviously from a marginalised group, texts will often contain a variety of attacks. The students are sounding out each other’s defences, feeling for their vulnerabilities. Expressions of hatred, of racism, of size-ism, of homophobia are made speculatively, at first, to see what wounds the most; they aren’t made because the students sincerely believe them. (Although structural prejudice might be noticeable in which forms of insult the kids have the nerve to use, and which are truly taboo.)
I think you can usually tell who has been more reprehensible, more abusive earlier, more dominant, but the school can’t punish someone on a hunch, so either both students are punished, one of them too harshly, or neither is (adequately.)
So too in society beyond the school gates. Social media is competitive and combative. On-line culture has persuaded victims that it is sassy and spirited to reply to nastiness and disdain with equal unkindness. It is in vain that you tell them that It is to their credit if they are no good at it, that it shows they are kinder, more generous and empathetic people. They’re probably just more intelligent all round.
The digital world is uncaring and neglectful. Its citizens do not really know each other and are not truly invested in their on-line friendships. They can ignore the common humanity and sentience of their opponents.
In this environment, in a trial of cruelty and venom, the cruellest and most venomous, the less imaginative and sensitive, will triumph.
It is a mistake to confuse savagery with strength. That justifies the savagery aimed at you and drives people apart. Resorting to anger, antipathy and cruelty is agreeing to play by the bigots’ rules. It gives them a natural advantage: they’ve always been very comfortable with this behaviour. They seek division, the pre-condition of exclusion.
And if you take a willingness to hurt to its logical conclusion, you reach actual, physical violence and the white racists have always been happy to resort to violence. In America, far more Black Lives Matters activists appear to have been murdered than right-wing protestors. (see The Guardian “At Least 25 Americans Were Killed during Protests and Political Unrest in 2020”, 31/10/20)
I suspect, throughout history, far more violence has been visited on Black people by White Europeans and White Americans than vice versa. Think about the slave trade itself.
On Alex Krotoski’s The Digital Human (BBC Radio 4), Loretta Ross, an academic and activist, gives the following advice to people who are targeted by trolls (online. Not real ones): “George Bernard Shaw says, ‘Don’t wrestle in the mud with pigs, because only the pig enjoys it.’” That is very relevant, here.