Posts Tagged ‘Public’

Being as how I’m almost nine months pregnant with my first child, whom I intend to breastfeed, this is not an impersonal topic for me. Though it’s something I’ve felt strongly about for many years, the issue has now gone from being purely academic to immediately personal – which makes it something I’d like to address in depth.

So, to begin with: breast milk is undeniably awesome for babies. It really is the best thing for them, and as such, an enormous amount of pressure is placed on mothers to breastfeed their children for as long as possible (provided it’s not too long, according to the prevailing cultural mores, as Westerners tend to get freaked out by the idea of toddlers and older kids still feeding from mum, despite the fact that this is by no means a universal hangup). At the antenatal classes I attended, for instance, the midwife told us that our bodies were designed to breastfeed, and that very few women failed to produce any milk at all – the clear implication being that, if we found ourselves struggling, it was likely because we were doing it wrong, and not because, as a recent article so eloquently pointed out, our bodies are meant to do lots of things they sometimes simply can’t, like produce insulin or digest lactose. 

What this means is that, despite the many benefits of breastfeeding to both mother and baby, there are myriad circumstances under which it’s either difficult or impossible. For instance: newborns have to be fed every two hours, and can spend up to an hour feeding at any one time – a demanding schedule which, apart from playing merry hob with your sleeping patterns, will likely prove insupportable if you return to work soon after giving birth, if your child wants to ingest more per feeding session than your body can readily produce,  if your nipples are a difficult size or shape for suckling, or if the act of breastfeeding is physically painful.

Similarly, it’s often harder for women who’ve had a C-section to breastfeed afterwards; ditto for anyone suffering from post natal depression, anyone whose child was born prematurely, and anyone lucky-slash-overwhelmed enough to have ended up with a multiple pregnancy. Mothers who take antidepressants or other strong medication that can be passed through breastmilk will either have to abstain or feed only on a very rigid schedule, while anyone endeavoring to cope with transmissable diseases or ongoing substance abuse problems will be likewise restricted. And then, of course, there’s the parents for whom breastfeeding simply isn’t an option: transmen or women without the necessary breast tissue, women who’ve had mastectomies, adoptive parents, gay male couples, parents whose babies can’t latch on, and that apparently rare subset of women whose milk simply never comes in. Add to all this the number of mothers who, for reasons of practicality or personal preference, choose to pump from the outset or go straight to formula, and you have a sizeable number of babies who’ll never be breastfed at all.

And you know what? That’s OK. Because as awesome as breastmilk is, and as lovely as it would be if everyone who wanted to breastfeed was able to do so easily and painlessly, life is far more complex than that, and regardless of the benefits of breastfeeding for babies, feeding them formula either partially or exclusively isn’t the end of the world. Pregnancy, birth and parenting are all monumentally difficult, and given the inaliable fact that no two children, let alone their families, are identical, the idea of tut-tutting people who don’t breastfeed as though from a position of unassailable moral highground is utterly unhelpful.

I say all this as a preface because, far too often, pro-breastfeeding arguments have an ugly tendency to devolve into zealous, moralistic displays of finger-waving, not only at those who object to public breastfeeding, but to any mother who dares not to breastfeed at all. And from the bottom of my heart, I want to say: that is bullshitBreastmilk is awesome for babies, but whatever the scaremongers say, the vast majority of parents are just trying to get by and do their best, usually while sleep-deprived and covered in a thin rime of vomit, week-old cornflakes, talcum powder and crayon. Neither your willingness nor your ability to breastfeed is a magical measure of how good a parent you are, period, and anyone who tries to guilt-trip you to the contrary is probably not a person you should be listening to.

So, with all that out of the way:

I am 100% in favour of public breastfeeding – not just because of the health factor for both mother and baby, and not just because breastfeeding of any stripe is difficult enough to merit constant support and encouragement, but because there is absolutely nothing offensive about it. Which is, for me, the key point, because overwhelmingly, objections to public breastfeeding have everything to do with the potential discomfort of onlookers and nothing to do with what it actually is.

I have, for instance, seen public breastfeeding compared to spitting  or urinating in the street – as though it’s a disgusting bodily function that ought to be kept out of sight, out of mind. Which is, frankly, ludicrous: firstly, because milk, unlike blood, spit, shit or piss, is not a bodily waste product; and secondly, because it’s being delivered into a hungry child, and not spilled wantonly onto the street. Perhaps more importantly, though, the comparison implies that parents either must or should have a level of predictive control over their children that’s simply impossible: an adult who takes a sly piss in an alley is transgressing, not only by dint of polluting the street, but by failing to do the sensible thing and find an actual toilet, whereas it’s utterly unreasonable to expect a mother to predict, with perfect accuracy, when her child will next require feeding, to say nothing of the fact that – as is highlighted by the nature of the debate – she doesn’t have the option of simply finding the nearest public facility built expressly for her needs. (And lest you suggest that toilets, too, are suitable for the purpose: see above re, how long individual feeds can take, which necessitates, at the very least, a place where you can sit for a minimum of fifteen or twenty minutes uninterrupted and in comfort – which is to say, not a public toilet.)

Then there’s the decorum objection: that women should of course be able to breastfeed in public, provided they do it discreetly, or classily, or sensitively, or whatever other word best suits the sensibilities of the observer without recourse to the practical wants and needs of the subject. This argument, while comparatively benign, tends to imbue breastfeeding with an aesthetic imperative above and beyond its actual function – as though the necessity of transmitting milk to a hungry infant somehow magically vanishes if you can’t live up to the sartorial expectations of your hypothetical, voyeuristic, judgmental audience. Carried to its logical conclusion, then, what begins as an offhand plea to ‘just do it nicely’ ends up carrying the implicit rider of ‘or else, don’t’ – an attitude which privileges the moral and/or aesthetic sensibilities of a single disgruntled observer over not only the bodily needs of a child, but also over the ambivalence or approval of every other bystander who rightly deems the spectacle (such as it is) to be none of their business. More practically, and in response to the specific assertion that mums should just be able to cover both breast and child with a handy length of fabric: children squirm, getting a baby comfortably attached to a nipple requires line of sight, and it’s sort of difficult to tell when they need to detach and burp – let alone support their necks and bodies – if you’re simultaneously grappling with a wisp of obscuring linen. So, no: it’s certainly an option, but it’s far from being a panacea, and expecting all mums to adopt it for the sake of a stranger’s sensibilities is wholly unreasonable.

Well, so what about the assertion that breasts don’t belong in public? Surely that has some merit, at least? Only, no, it doesn’t, because as a society, we love boobies. Images of them are everywhere – often portraying more bare skin than actual breastfeeding would necessitate – and whatever moralising some people might get up to about the depredations of bikinis, crop tops, boob tubes and any other form of cleavage-accentuating dress, the idea that they shouldn’t be allowed in public is risible. Because realistically, the objection here isn’t to breasts, per se, but rather to nipples; or, more specifically, to the prospect that a woman might flash one in the seconds before her child latches on and suckles. Which is where I return to the waste products argument; because more than once, I’ve seen it suggested that being able to breastfeed publicly is a nefarious form of female privilege – that somehow, the inability of men to urinate outside (or rather, the illegality of their doing so, as it certainly happens) means that permissible public breastfeeding would be fundamentally unfair, as allowing women to evacuate milk while preventing men from evacuating urine is… an imbalance, somehow? Look: it’s a stupid argument – as I’ve already said, expelling waste into the street is hardly equivalent to expressing milk into a mouth – but for those who want to play the Double Standards card: how fair is it, really, that men can go around topless for the fun of it, while women can’t show so much as a glimpse of nipple while feeding a baby? Is that not a greater and far more gendered imbalance?

Which leads us into the biggest argument against public breastfeeding, and the most frustrating: female sexualisation. Because obviously, lady-boobs are different to man-pecs in that the former can provoke arousal in men, whereas the latter are supposed to be sex-neutral, and therefore exempt from the same rules of cover-uperage. Some men even find breastfeeding itself arousing, lending a pornographic sheen to the public act, and seriously, I cannot even finish this sentence, because you know what? That is your fucking problem, hypothetical observer! I mean, do you know how many men find school uniforms arousing, or nurses’ uniforms, or nuns’ habits, or any other specific form of dress/behaviour/activity you’d care to name? Are you honestly suggesting that, because Person A finds Person B to be sexually appealing in Context C, then Context C ought to be publicly prohibited on the offchance that Person A is present when it happens? Are you seriously contending that a hypothetical voyeur has more of right to abstain from self-control – and, subsequently, to complain about unanticipated arousal – than the subject of their voyeurism does to simply exist in the world without an enforced awareness of the sexual peccadilloes of strangers?

Because, here’s the thing: if you sexualise, feel attracted to or are otherwise aroused by someone? That does not mean they are obligated to care, to reciprocate, or even take steps to make themselves less appealing to you. To paraphrase Elizabeth Bennet’s famous reproach of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, they have every right to act in a manner which will, in their own opinion, constitute their happiness, without reference to you or any other person so wholly unconnected with them. So by all means, be aroused: just don’t expect it to matter to anyone other than yourself, and least of all to strangers. 

Beyond all these objections, however, the debate about public breastfeeding invariably ties into the current angry panic about the presence of parents and small children in public spaces – cafes, planes, theaters, pubs – and the extent to which some areas should be designated child-free zones. And while that’s whole other argument in many respects, I can’t quite shake the suspicion that at least part of the pushback against public breastfeeding can be attributed to the widespread belief that any form of parental exceptionalism is wrong: that, as having a child is neither an outward expression of moral superiority nor a public service, expecting any special treatment or concessions on behalf of said child is nothing more than baseless, greedy entitlement. Parenthood (this argument goes) should more rightly be equated with self-sacrifice, and if that means abstaining from adult pleasures while chaperoning your young’uns, then so be it.

And, look: without wanting to come down irrevocably on one side or the other – this being the sort of issue I’m much more inclined to deal with on a case by case basis – the thing that always bugs me about this attitude is the implied belief that certain public spaces rightly and innately belong to the childless, such that entering them with children is, by itself, a species of invasion. And while there are certainly some specific instances wherein that holds true, in general, public spaces are so named because they belong to the public – which means that it’s just as reasonable for a childless person to expect the parents at table three to shut their toddler up as it is for the parents to expect tolerance from the childless person. It’s all give and take, is what I’m saying, and while I’ll be the first to admit to having eyerolled at a clambering, chattering preschooler in a busy cafe, I also dislike the assumption that parents are alone in feeling unreasonably entitled to the use of public spaces, when clearly, the desire to police their usage is itself a symptom of entitlement. So when it comes to kneejerk reactions to public breastfeeding – or, for that matter, kneejerk reactions to the concerns of childless persons – we could all do much worse than to think about who really owns the space we’re in (if anyone), and why it is we so often assume our own priorities are universally the most important.

Because at the end of the day, while having children is certainly a choice, our insistence on categorising the decision as a mere affectation of lifestyle – as though, if parenthood were to suddenly drop out of vogue like 70s decor or the poodle perm, we’d all just move on to shoulder pads and rollerblading instead – is a blinkered refusal to acknowledge its necessity. It might be an ugly, dirty job as far as some are concerned; but like rubbish collection and sewage maintenance, we still need someone to do it. Allowing for the inevitable, ongoing presence of children in public – and, as a consequence, admitting that their best interests must are also the best interests of society – doesn’t mean you have to worship at the altar of parenthood. Rather, it’s simply an acknowledgement that public spaces are shared spaces, and that sometimes, our personal comfort levels are going to be transgressed or trumped by the rights and needs of others. Public breastfeeding might seem like a comparatively small issue, but it’s one that matters – and one which I wholeheartedly endorse.

Note: this post was originally written in response to a question on tumblr.

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Little more than a week ago, a website aimed at naming and shaming so-called Goodreads ‘bullies’ suddenly appeared online – called, appropriately enough, Stop the GR Bullies. Run by four concerned ‘readers and bloggers’ writing anonymously under the handles Athena, Peter Pan, Johnny Be Good and Stitch, the site thus far seems bent on punishing the creators of snide, snarky and negative book reviews by posting their handles, real names, locations and photos in one place, together with a warning about their supposed ‘level of toxicity’ and some (ironically) snide, snarky and negative commentary about them as people. There’s a lot here to unpack, but before I get started on why this is a horrifically bad idea, let’s start with some basic context.

As a website, Goodreads itself is something of a chimaera, being in roughly equal parts an online literary database, a social networking platform, a book review site, a promotional tool for bloggers, a promotional tool for authors, and a social forum for readers. This complexity is both its primary attraction and the single biggest source of contention among users, as the crowdsourced nature of much of the information available, in conjunction with the fact that the site itself has no in-house moderators – meaning that the majority of alleged violations of the terms of service must be manually referred to and assessed by Goodreads before they can possibly be removed – means that, to all intents and purposes, the site can and does frequently function like any large, unmoderated forum, viz: wildly. As the TOS is at pains to point out, Goodreads considers itself a third party where user content is concerned. To quote:

We are only acting as a passive conduit for your online distribution and publication of your User Content.

Of particular relevance in this case is the specific type of user content deemed inappropriate by the TOS. To quote again:

You agree not to post User Content that… (v) contains any information or content that we deem to be unlawful, harmful, abusive, racially or ethnically offensive, defamatory, infringing, invasive of personal privacy or publicity rights, harassing, humiliating to other people (publicly or otherwise), libelous, threatening, profane, or otherwise objectionable.

However, it’s also relevant to note the following caveats (emphasis mine) – namely, that:

Goodreads reserves the right, but is not obligated, to reject and/or remove any User Content that Goodreads believes, in its sole discretion, violates these provisions… 

You understand and acknowledge that you may be exposed to User Content that is inaccurate, offensive, indecent, or objectionable, and you agree that Goodreads shall not be liable for any damages you allege to incur as a result of such User Content. Goodreads may provide tools for you to remove some User Content, but does not guarantee that all or any User Content will be removable.

In other words: even if you can argue compellingly that another member has violated the TOS with regards to user content, Goodreads is under no obligation to agree, to listen, or in fact do anything at all: their commitment is to passive third party provision of a useful service, not to the active moderation of user content, and while that’s certainly their legal right, in practical terms, it means that the onus for modding conversational threads, forums, reviews and everything else rests squarely with the user in question. To quote again:

You are solely responsible for your interactions with other Goodreads Users. We reserve the right, but have no obligation, to monitor disputes between you and other Users. Goodreads shall have no liability for your interactions with other Users, or for any User’s action or inaction.

In keeping with the universally applicable logic of John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, every online community of sufficient size will inevitably attract trolls, harassment, bullying and all manner of accordant awfulness, with the level of active moderation being literally the only bulwark against anarchy. Not being a regular participant in Goodreads threads or forums – though I am an active user of the site as an author, reviewer and reader – I’m not in a position to comment on how often Goodreads actually steps in to ban abusive members, remove problematic comments or otherwise moderate user content either on demand or of their own volition: all I can note is that legally, they have no obligation to take any action at all. Clearly, though, a number of users feel that the lack of in-house moderation has lead to the creation of a negative, if not actively toxic, environment in some quarters, with the result that some members have now taken it upon themselves to lead a public campaign against those they deem to be the worst offenders.

One more piece of context, before we continue: both within Goodreads itself and throughout the wider book blogging community, the ongoing debate about niceness vs. snark in reviews is intensely relevant to the problem at hand. While the argument itself has many facets – should aspiring writers post negative reviews, or strive to embrace a ‘be nice’ attitude? are authors, editors, agents and publishers within their grounds to reject aspiring writers who’ve written negative reviews of authors they work with or know, or is this a form of discriminatory nepotism? is the primary purpose of book blogging to act as ‘cheerleaders’ for authors, or to give good consumer advice to readers? – what it frequently boils down to is a dispute over judgements of taste. Or, more specifically: at what volume or intensity does the presence of comedic snark in a book review see it go from being a professional opinion to unprofessional abuse?

It’s very much a your mileage may vary question, which is, I suspect, why Goodreads has the policy of passive non-interference that it does. By definition, not everyone is going to agree with a book review, and given that the utility of their service is predicated on people who love (or hate) books being free to discuss them, they’re naturally going to be loathe to police the tone of such conversations too heavily for fear of undermining their own purpose. However, it’s also important to note that, due to the Goodreads site layout, the usual handy metaphors for personal vs public pages – an intensely relevant distinction when it comes to questions of harassment, as it has the effect of dictating which party is the guest/invader, and which the host/native – don’t precisely apply. For instance: on a traditional internet forum, threads are analogous to public spaces, with the default authority resting either exclusively with the in-house moderators or creator/s, or jointly between the two. Abuse is, as elsewhere, defined as either vituperative ad hominem attacks or generic -ism-based slander; however, due to the clear distinction between attacking someone in a public thread and attacking them outside the context of the discussion – which is to say, on their user page, via email or, in instances where it’s not in direct response to something they’ve posted there, on their personal site – we don’t generally upgrade the abuse to bullying or harassment unless it makes that transition. To be clear: this doesn’t excuse abusive behaviour. Nonetheless, there is a relevant and meaningful distinction between saying, ‘I think Author X is a shit writer’ on a public thread, and going to their personal page to say, ‘I think you’re a shit writer’. On Goodreads, however, this distinction is blurred, because while reviews and their attendant conversational threads fall under the governance of the user-reviewer, they’re also attached to the relevant book and its author-governed page; meaning, in essence, that there’s an overlap between the author’s personal space (assuming the author in question is a member of the site) and the reviewer’s.

And, not surprisingly, this can cause major friction, not just between authors and negative reviewers, but between fans of authors and negative reviewers. In some instances, it’s analogous to carrying on a bitchy conversation within earshot of the person you’re talking about, with the added rider that, as this is also a professional space for the author, they’re not allowed to retaliate – or at least, they can do so, but regardless of the provocation, they’ll come off looking the worse. Which leads to fans – and, sometimes, friends – of authors leaping to their defense, often with disastrous results, and sometimes using language that’s on par with anything they’re actually objecting to.

But here’s the thing: any public figure, regardless of whether they’re an author, actor, sportsperson or journalist, must resign themselves to a certain amount of public criticism. Not everyone will like you, your work or even necessarily your profession, and nor will they be under any obligation to protect your sensibilities by being coy about it. A negative review might mean you lose sales, but that’s not a gross unfairness for which the reviewer should be punished, no matter how snarky they are: it is, rather, a legitimate reflection of the fact that, in their personal and professional estimation as a consumer of your work, they don’t believe that other people should buy it. And yes, you’re allowed to feel sad about that, but it’s still going to happen; it’s still going to be legal and normal. At times, your personal and public lives will blur, or else specific criticism will invite others to consider the relationship between your output and your private beliefs – and this will sometimes be relevant to discussions of your work and its themes, as per the fact that Stephanie Meyers’s Mormonism is relevant to the morality used in Twilight (for instance). Sometimes you’ll even be called names or find yourself on the receiving end of ad hominem attacks, where people say you’re a stupid, talentless hack as part of their review, and call into question both your morality and your convictions. And depending on the relevance of those accusations to your work and the problems the reviewer has with it, that can achieve anything from laying bare a deep-seated flaw in your worldview to highlighting nothing so much as the reviewer’s petty, vindictive ignorance.

But it isn’t bullying.

Because bullying is not a synonym for argument, disagreement or pejorative reactions. Bullying is not a synonym for disliking someone, or for thinking their work is rubbish. Bullying is not even a synonym for saying so, publicly and repeatedly, in a place where that person can hear it – although that’s certainly unpleasant. Bullying is when someone with a greater position of power and/or possessed of greater strength repeatedly and purposefully attacks, harasses, belittles and/or otherwise undermines someone in a position of lesser power and/or possessed of lesser strength. In the vast majority of circumstances, bullying trickles down; it does not travel up, and in instances where the author in question is a super-successful megastar, to say they’re being bullied by reviewers is to ignore the fundamental power-dynamics of bullying. Even on the Goodreads system, where authors can see exactly what readers and reviewers think of them, expressing a negative opinion is not the same as bullying, because although the conversation is visible, it’s not directed at the author; they are under no obligation to respond, or even to read it at all. Feeling sad and overwhelmed because people don’t like your book and have said so publicly might constitute a bad day, but it’s not the same as being bullied.

Cyberbullying among teenagers is a real and serious problem characterised by the sending of abusive messages by either single or multiple parties, the spreading of hurtful lies and rumours, the public display of information or images that were intended as private, and the confluence of systematic abuse both in the real world and online. Such attacks are vicious, personal, and often constitute criminal offenses; many have lead to suicide. What recently happened to Anita Sarkeesian was bullying of exactly this kind, where a number of individuals unknown to her engaged in an active attempt to publicly frighten, abuse and slander her – a situation which is demonstrably not the same as some snarky, unpaid reviewers slagging off a book. Similarly, when people leave vile, sexist comments on my blog, that’s not bullying: it’s offensive and abusive, yes, but all the power in the situation belongs to me, because I can delete the comments, ban the commenters, and publicly mock them for their opinions – and just as importantly, my posts are there because I want people to read and react to them. The fact that I’ve invited comment doesn’t mean abusive responses are justified, but it does mean I’m not being attacked or contacted in a vacuum: I have said a thing, and people are responding to it. That is not bullying. Obviously, it’s not impossible for authors to be bullied. An indie or self-published author without the support of an agency/publisher and their attendant legal teams, for instance – or, just as importantly, without hundreds of thousands of supportive fans – could easily be bullied by any sufficiently cruel individual who took it upon themselves to send regular hateful email, spam their site with negative criticism, leave abusive remarks on their personal profiles, and otherwise behave like a grade-A douche. But that’s not what we’re talking about here, because as far as I can make out, everything the Stop the GR Bullies crew objects to has happened either in a review, as part of a public comment thread, in response to a blog post, or in the course of personal conversations on Twitter.

Because – and I cannot stress this enough – simply disliking a book, no matter how publicly or how snarkily, is not the same as bullying. To say that getting a handful of mean reviews is even in the same ballpark as dealing with an ongoing campaign of personal abuse is insulting to everyone involved. If Athena and the Stop the GR Bullies mob had chosen any other word to describe the problem – if they’d stopped at calling it toxic and objected to it on those grounds – then I might be more sympathetic; after all, as stated above, Goodreads is a largely unmoderated site, and that doesn’t always lead to hugs and puppies. But conflating criticism with bullying is a serious problem – not just in this context, but as regards wider issues of social justice. Increasingly, ‘bullying’ is being bastardised into a go-to term to describe the actions of anyone who actively disagrees with you, to the point where some conservative politicians are now describing leftwingers who call them out on sexism and racism as bullies, or else have decided that ‘bully’ is just a meaningless epithet like ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’, which is arguably worse for suggesting that all three concepts are somehow mythical.

Which is why, in short, the Stop the GR Bullies website is an appalling idea on just about every level. Not only does it appropriate some actual bullying tactics – such as attempting to disseminate the real names and locations of its targets to strangers, then implicitly encouraging said strangers to engage in further harassment – while serving to further water down and confuse the actual, meaningful definition of bulling, but as a protest against the perceived abuse of the Goodreads TOS, it’s completely and utterly meaningless, because the whole site constitutes an active violation. Yes, you did read that right – because to quote again from the TOS (emphasis mine):

You agree not to engage in any of the following prohibited activities… (viii) using any information obtained from the Service in order to harass, abuse, or harm another person, or in order to contact, advertise to, solicit, or sell to any Member without their prior explicit consent.

And does Stop the GR Bullies use harassment as a tool? Oh, worse than that: some of what they say is actually libelous. Here’s a screengrab of their description of Kat Kennedy, a GR member and book blogger for Cuddlebuggery:

The inability of the poster, Athena, to distinguish between a reviewer speaking negatively about books in a professional capacity and the outright public slander of a private citizen by another private citizen is breathtaking, to say nothing of the fact that making a hate page is pretty much 101-grade material for how to be an internet bully. The rest of the site is in much the same vein, and where at least the original posters, whatever you think of them, have the excuse of (a) being in personal conversation with friends or (b) acting as reviewers, the site does not: its sole effect, despite its intended purpose, is to be vituperative in terms of language and downright sinister in its commitment to Googlestalking its targets, attempting to put up not only their names and photos, but details of their places of employment and personal circumstances.

I’m never gladdened to hear that some author or other has decided to quit Goodreads because of negative comments, reviews or any other reason. But Goodreads itself is an optional part of the author ecosystem – as, for that matter, is blogging, Tweeting, and every other type of social media. While Goodreads, as far as I know, lacks privacy controls (which is likely another contributing factor to the problem at hand: authors can’t opt out of seeing negative reviews or comments, while reviewers lack the ability to make the comment threads attached to their reviews private, both of which, if introduced as options, might go a long way towards easing the current tensions) other forms of social media do not. A blogger, for instance, has total control over whether or not to allow commenting on particular posts, while Twitter uses can lock their accounts so that only approved individuals can follow them. Anyone fearful of negative comments has the power to screen them out – and if, on the other hand, a reviewer or author blogs publicly with the intention of receiving responses, that doesn’t preclude them from encountering legitimately negative reactions. If someone writes a blog post and asks for comment, it’s not bullying to respond with strong disagreement: in the scientific world, that’s simply known as having an opinion. Similarly, if a comment makes you uncomfortable on your own blog, mod or ban away! It’s why the option exists. But don’t call it bullying when people show up and disagree with you – even if they’ve disagreed with you before – because that’s not what bullying means.

And as for the people who’ve created the website in question: you might want to stop and think about what you’re doing. As much as anyone you’ve taken issue with, you’re in violation of the Goodreads TOS, and hiding behind anonymity while attempting to strip it from others is a hypocrisy that seldom plays well on the internet. If you really want to change the culture at Goodreads, you’d be better off lobbying for the promotion of in-house or site-approved moderators, closed comment threads and a greater delineation of author and reviewer pages rather than engaging in essentially the same behaviour that’s got you so worked up in the first place. This whole situation may well get uglier before it gets better, and under the circumstances, it doesn’t seem like anyone is going to want to play nice.

By way of introduction to what comes next, consider the following articles:

1. An in-depth examination of what makes a great teacher;

2. A renunciation of helicopter parenting;

3. The suspension of students after the online ‘bullying’ of a teacher;

4. A warning to teachers not to ‘friend’ students online for fear of said bullying; and

5. The Rate My Teachers website.

Are we all familiar with the relevant materials?

Good.

But before I begin, a relevant disclaimer:

I hated high school. Not to begin with, certainly, but by the end, I loathed it with a furious vengeance that would cheerfully have seen me set fire to the place. I went to two high schools, since you ask, both of them co-educational. The first was a public school; the second, private. I spent three years at each. It is important to note that my hatred does not stem from these differences, nor from a desire to have studied under a same-sex regime. In both instances, I had access to teachers who were engaged, intelligent, interesting and committed to my education. One school had more money and resources than the other, and when it came time to choose my final year subjects, that was certainly a boon, but it didn’t cancel out my hatred. Neither was I an indifferent student. By choice, I studied 14 units in Year 12, when the normal maximum was 13, and I continued to play school sport on the weekend when it was no longer mandatory. I even won a couple of prizes, at both a school and state level. I had friends, and boyfriends, and kind, loving, intelligent parents. I was bullied early on in school, but not in a way that dominated my life, and it wasn’t an issue after I turned 15. In short, I was a good student, the kind who cared about knowledge and who, despite the necessary teenage resentments and problems, wanted to do well. But I hated high school. I felt trapped there as I have never felt trapped before or since. I cried myself to sleep at night, those nights when I did sleep, because past the age of 15, my insomnia was all-encompassing. I was depressed, melancholy, self-hating, self-destructive, angry, a cutter, frustrated and, at times, near catatonic with helplessness. More than anything, I wanted to get out. And now I have, and there’s not a day goes by that I’m not grateful for having held on. But the outrage has never left me. High school, as is, is not a good place. In six years, I never met a bright student who hadn’t considered suicide at some point or other, an observation which has held true even when recalling those years among new adult acquaintances.  Think about that for a moment: a place supposedly dedicated to education where the majority of smart people end up wanting to kill themselves. The high school system is rotten. I remain convinced of this fact. Yes, it has its virtues. But I cannot bear to make myself their advocate. That is my bias, for now and for the foreseeable future. Be warned of it.

Are you up to speed?

Then let us begin.

*****

Of late, there has been a lot of furore about the problem of how to evaluate teachers. Educational unions are strong, and arguably with good reason, especially when one considers how little high school teachers are actually paid, and how miniscule their prospects of financial advancement. It is not a good status quo, and if it were possible to snap my fingers and eradicate the regrettable social assumption than teaching is a low-prestige job worthy only of a similarly low salary, I would gladly trade the flesh of my left hand to do so. But that is not the case: change is never so easy, particularly when it impinges on politics and tradition, and instead, we are stuck with the slow road. I am deeply sympathetic to the plight of underpaid teachers, harried educaters who work long hours for little recompense, dedicating their holidays to marking and the creation of lesson plans, struggling to earn a higher wage, and who find themselves thwarted by poor resourcing on behalf of their attendent governments. These are all problems which deserve redress, and soon.

But.

There is such a thing as a bad teacher. More to the point, there is such a thing as bad teachers, plural, meaning that they are among us, and many, and largely undetected. This is not a desierable situation. Nor is it easily fixed. I will not pretend that creating league tables to measure the performance of schools will automatically solve all the problems parents face when deciding where to send their children. The difference in resources available between the public and private systems is still mindboggling; and I should know, having been in a position to gauge it from both sides. But there is something obvious to the idea that good teachers make a positive difference in the lives of their students, and – correspondingly – that bad teachers can have the opposite effect. The problem, as in all subjective matters, lies in determining what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the context. Especially when endeavouring to craft new legislation, rather than merely supporting laws which already exist, the desire is to improve, adapt, mend: we see the problem, and therefore strive to fix it. But which person, or what body, has either the right or expertise to draw such a contentious line in the sand – to declare that X breed of teacher is good, while the practices of Y are intolerable?

As painful as it is to admit, there surely comes a point when we must pass such a judgement, not because we believe it to be inviolably true, but because we cannot rightfully function without some sort of acknowledgement that there is a judgement to be made at all, and what’s more, that it is worth making. Some teachers are better than others. In almost every other field of employ, we are willing to concede this point, and yet teaching remains a battleground. Elsewhere, the idea that good results be rewarded with higher pay is a logical sort of system, and one that some teachers, at least, are eager to embrace. But where to start? With all the accepted variances in syllabi, school resources and – though more controversial – the socio/economic data of particular school catchment areas, it seems intuitively wrongheaded to suppose that all teachers are striving towards greatness from a position of equal footing. How, therefore, might one reasonably craft the defining qualities of educational success, if the starting assumption denies that all teachers begin with a common set of resources and an equally well-equipped student populace? It is impossible; but then, if we look at the corporate sphere, nobody has ever claimed that all lawyers begin their careers with the same number and type of cases, or that all doctors must successfully diagnose from an equal pool of patients. In that sense, there is always going to be inequality: the point, however, is in trying to establish standards for success that transcend that fact in a visible majority of instances.

So: how do we go about evaluating the success of teachers? Grades, one assumes, must have something to do with it, although that is possibly the trickiest rubrick to establish, given the above concerns. Is there, then, an easier starting place? Yes, I would contend, and a fairly obvious one, though equally controversial. I can think of only two types of institution in our modern world where those in a position of authority are not noticably subject to the rights of those beneath them: prisons, and schools. In both instances, we believe the governed body to be too deeply invested in the dismantling of the whole system to bother with their opinions, not least because they are, by and large, resentful of being held somewhere against their will. But that does not mean abuses do not take place, and it certainly does not mean, in the case of students, that they are comparable to inmates: that is to say, innately untrustworthy by dint of sitting on the far side of the desk. Yes, there is a worry that students will play favourites; that they will lie about their teachers, and desire only the sort of cheerful mediocrity which allows them to misbehave with the least amount of stress. But one might just as easily say the same of junior employees, resentful of the power of their bosses and wanting only to be paid exhorbitantly for the minimum amount of work. Regardless of age, this is always the dichotomy, and while we might acknowledge that some teenagers will abuse the privilege, or else prove unequal to the task of articulating their discontent in an intelligible and useful manner, I am not convinced that adults are any more noble.

Out of curiosity, I looked up one of my old schools on the Rate My Teachers website. Yes, there were some purely pejorative comments in evidence, but otherwise, I found that my own recollections bore out in the assigned scores: teachers I recalled as outstanding were roundly praised, while those I remembered with less fondness were frowned upon. Given my disclaimer about the extent to which I hated high school, I might well be biased, but it seems as though teenagers aren’t as misguided in their perception of teachers as is commonly made out, no matter how poorly those perceptions might be expressed. Since leaving school, I’ve worked for at least one employer whose neuroses and general unpleasantness made my skin crawl, and nobody I complained to about it ever made me feel as though my powers of observation were somehow deficient. Bad bosses are part of the adult world: we accept their existence almost by default. But bad teachers are a different kettle of fish. Even when reminiscing as adults, with all the powers of hindsight at our disposal, there is often a sense that we are being unjust in our perceptions of former teachers; that somehow, we are letting childish emotions cloud our judgement, clinging on to age-old resentments rather than electing to grow up. Even though the only difference between criticising an employer and a teacher might be a few months – or nothing at all, for those who hold down jobs during school – we are automatically inclined to treat the former complaint with greater gravity.

Why? A simple thing: choice.

Suppose I’m working an awful job. Should things turn really nasty, I have the option of leaving. Any resentment I feel towards my employer may therefore be reasonably viewed in this context, and gauged with a modicum of objectivity, depending on the listener’s knowledge of my personality and quirks. But students do not have such a choice. Their resentment is established as a matter of fact, such that any attempt to increase it – say, by complaning about a teacher – does not seem any different from this perceived background level of discontent. More importantly, the fact remains that, even if the teacher is genuinely bad, there is little to be done about it. Changing schools for the sake of a single person is hardly common, and certainly not smiled upon; never mind the fact that changing schools at all is difficult. The idea that a teacher might be dismissed or even reprimanded because of any one student’s say-so is equally unlikely. But in a situation where there is no established means of acknowledging good teachers or weeding out bad even among the educational hierarchy, what hope does any student have of making a valid complaint?

I am not trying to wrap teenagers in cotton wool. As in the case of teachers, some are better than others, smarter than others, kinder or more enthusiastic or honest than others. That cannot be changed, and I do not want to implement some unrealistic, lovely-dovey system wherein all teachers strive for the approval and popular adoration of their pupils. But surely, there must be some way, some viable genesis, wherein students can evaluate their teachers and be heard within the bounds of a legitimate system, and not just by venting on an unauthorised website. Here’s an idea that plays to biases, and which might work for exactly that reason: what if we took note of the type of student complaining about a particular teacher? If they’re all friends from the same group, or possessed of similar personalities, then it seems reasonable to assume that the teacher is either being directly targeted, or that their method of teaching jars with that teen-type. But if the complaints are coming from diverse corners of the student body, or from the type of pupil who normally refrains from rocking the boat, then perhaps schools should sit up and take notice, if only to be sure that nothing is amiss.

If you consider that a teacher is but one person faced with twenty or thirty rebellious subjects, then the idea of students bullying educators becomes less absurd, no matter the balance of power. I am not saying that students should have carte blanche to make their teachers fear for their jobs, or to ridicule them, or any such thing. But the crucial element of bullying is power, and the effect it has on the injured party. Someone might try and tease me, for instance, but if I do not fear them – if they have no tangible ability to make my life worse, and if I genuinely do not care what they say – then they are not bullying me; they are only failing to do so. And perhaps, for the sake of the attempt, that failure should be met with reprimand. Perhaps. But where there are more concrete examples to be getting on with – people who do fear their persecutors, who care what is said about them, and whose lives can be made worse by those on the attack – then spending breath and effort berating what hasn’t happened seems like a waste of time. Thus, in reference to the current concerns of schools re the bullying of teachers – particularly, as in the case of Leeming SHS, of teachers who are themselves feared by their students – I entreat you: look where the power is. If students have no valid outlet to complain about their teachers, and if those teachers are behaving aggressively, then do not be surprised if the internet takes up your shortfall. Don’t go calling it bullying for the sake of effect, or because you think the students shouldn’t have bad opinions in the first place: be an adult, and maybe wonder whether or not such vociferous complaints have merit.

I’m almost done, here. I’m running out of words. The hour is late. I don’t have an overriding solution; only a few scraps. But, please: the things that are wrong with high school aren’t just due to teenage angst. There is something broken in the system – a deep, treacherous wound that cannot mend itself, and which few enough adults even acknowledge exists. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: teenagers are not stupid. The lower your expectations for any group of people, the less likely they are to try and surprise you – why should they, when it doesn’t get them anywhere? We need to start thinking about how to make our schools better, and evaluating teachers is part of that. But until then, try and imagine what we can change. It’s the only way forward. And sooner or later, it’s where we’ll have to go.