Back in 1976 Margaret Thatcher did something extraordinary that defined her political career. She opened a speech to the Finchley Conservatives by responding head-on to a jibe at her made by a Soviet journalist:
I stand before you tonight in my Red Star chiffon evening gown. (Laughter, Applause), my face softly made up and my fair hair gently waved (Laughter), the Iron Lady of the Western world.
A cold war warrior, an Amazon philistine, even a Peking plotter. Well, am I any of these things? (No!) Well yes, if that’s how they… (Laughter)
Yes I am an iron lady. After all, it wasn’t a bad thing to be an Iron Duke. Yes, if that’s how they wish to interpret my defence of values and freedoms fundamental to our way of life.
Here is the clip of this marvellous moment.
What happened here? Mrs. Thatcher did not angrily denounce the intended insult. Instead she ‘owned’ it; she seized it for herself. This had various effects. It neutralised at a stroke the Soviet point. It made her look confident. And it gave her a ready, tough political nickname that she went on to exploit to fine effect.
As in politics, so on the Internet. A new moral panic hullaballoo here in the United Kingdom is all about Internet abuse and cyber-bullying. One tragic British teenage girl was unable to cope with it all and took her own life. Quick, ban or tightly regulate a social media platform run from Latvia cheerily used by millions of people round the world!
Amidst the tsunami of comment about this supposed problem of e-bullying, there is little said about how best to deal with it. My advice: follow Mrs. Thatcher and ‘own’ it. The grosser and more repeated it is, the more likely this tactic is to work.
Think about it. The whole point of bullying is that the bully depends on a negative reaction from her/his victim. It does not matter what that reaction is: fear, hatred, retreat, complaint, hysteria, anger – they all are fine. The key thing is that the bully is on the offensive, setting the terms, controlling and fine-tuning the relationship according to that negative reaction.
The way to regain control of this situation is to use verbal judo. To turn the tables and respond in an unexpected way.
You do this by warmly agreeing with the bully and/or asking for advice on how to improve, ideally with a hint of whimsical condescension:
Thanks for pointing out that I’m so skinny! You’re SOOOOOOO right! Know a shop other than the grocery where spaghetti strings like me can buy nice clothes?
THANKS for saying that my teeth are disgusting!!! I’ll race to the dentist this afternoon and have them all yanked out. I’m really pleased you helped me here!
My goodness. You’re so right to say I’m a piece of trash! May I move in to your smart house for a few months please? It will definitely help me deal with some issues!!!
This sort of retort injects an element of surprise and (if done well) wit. The bully suddenly is on the back foot, scrambling to compete amidst the laughter from your friends. You assert control of the exchange – by redefining it.
The true beauty of this tactic is that it defies any attempt by the bully to escalate the abuse. The more abusive or revolting the bully, the more you simply agree with the insult or politely inquire what it means, escalating your warmth and confident good humour in return.
The bully sooner or later runs out of steam and drifts away to prey on someone less robust and smart. You gain extra points inwardly and outwardly for having seen off this cretin on your terms. Above all, you have not retreated or called in someone else to help you (a signal of fear/weakness). You look and feel like a winner. The bully looks like – and is – a loser.
Does this tactic work in all cases, up to and including the most aggressive and repellent racial and sexual abuse? Yes, in principle. But of course the target of such attacks may well not want to reply and engage in this way, lest the abuser somehow becomes ‘validated’. Replying to the worst insults also drags one down to the level of the insulter: the insulter has framed the relationship successfully.
Here in the United Kingdom the most egregious forms of abusive behaviour carry a criminal sanction, on the Internet as in real life. So it is an option to refer openly threatening Tweets or other social media postings to the police. That said, if the police start poring over every abusive or threatening social media message reported to them, work on all other crimes will grind to a halt.
Nevertheless, sometimes even these most difficult areas can be tackled in this way. It’s safe to say that the Slutwalk women and Ukrainian Femen topless feminist activist phenomena are not to everyone’s taste, but in their different ways they are all about boldly confronting and ‘owning’ language and attitudes they see as oppressive.
No easy answers. But can’t see any better one than the mass of people and especially young people responding to daily petty bullying by being funny and confident. That at least helps create a general climate in which the worst forms of abuse perhaps don’t swim so easily in a sea of generalised unpleasantness.
Charles Crawford served as FCO speechwriter in the 1980s and then as British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw before leaving the UK Foreign Service in 2007 to start a new career as speechwriter, communications consultant and mediator. He can be reached via his website www.charlescrawford.biz or @CharlesCrawford