296 – The Mute

It'll break your arm with a beat of its wings.

What’s the best thing about the Internet?

The instantaneous dissemination of news? Social networking? Free porn?

In a way all three answers are correct. The best thing about the Internet is a factor that unites them along with many other services the Internet is both famous and infamous for.

The best thing about the Internet is that it gives everyone who uses it a voice.

Internet users often use that voice to say nothing much in particular–or worse, use it to bully spread hate and make victims of those who’d prefer not to listen. Voices on the Internet can be so loud they carry into the real world–it’s not a matter of simply switching off your phone or computer, not when those around you can still hear what the wankers are saying, and may repeat it to your face.

Some would say the best thing about the Internet is also the worst thing about it–and they’d be right. The question is, would monitoring or outright removing the Internet help to silence the wicked? Or would it hobble us, turning us into a global nation of mutes?

I hate to think how my life might have turned out if it hadn’t been for the Internet.

Equally, I hate wondering what it might have been like if the Internet had reached its current peak two decades early. As soon as I got off the bus at the end of each day I left my school life behind. There were frustrations that crossed over to my home life–there always are–but on that gentle walk downhill I was glad that at least for a night my troubles couldn’t get any worse.

I was bullied. Not a surprise for you long-running readers out there, I’m sure; nor a surprise for you gamers, you geeks, for many of you who weathered the tempest we call school. Bullying’s a fact of life–almost a rite of passage–and there are very few of us who make it to adulthood without suffering a few hard knocks. Some people are even thankful to the bullies for toughening them up: for showing them what a harsh and lonely world this can be when they can still prepare for what’s to come .

Schools are hormonal pressure cookers that house the next generation of thieves, murderers and rapists. Some children have problems so dark even intimidate adults are intimidated by them: one boy in my class was sent to remedial school for a couple years after bringing a bowie knife in to school in his bag, that was only discovered after he’d hacked the wings off a pigeon, and strung the torso up in a tree on the school playing field. While he was seeing the headmaster with his parents, other kids in other classes kicked the wings about the playground, using them as footballs.

And mine was a good school–not a boater hat and cane affair like the public school up the road, but a grammar school with a Reputation, capital R. My year was intermediary between the old school system and the new one replacing it. Teachers stopped wearing capes in class; chemistry lab death traps were uprooted in favour of clean geometric islands that didn’t smell of sulphur and gas. Everything had changed when we moved from primary school to secondary; a year on and everything had changed again. It was as if the school’s proud traditions had been drained down a sink, to be replaced with Windows 3.1 and the future.

But even the best schools harbour dark corners. After an decent early academic showing things started going downhill for me and never really recovered.

I’d always thought of bullying as something physical: a punch, a kick. I was wrong. In my last primary school year, watching Grange Hill and hearing stories about the comprehensive up the road I lived in mortal fear of sixth formers flushing my head down the toilet–as was tradition, or so I was told. As it turned out I suffered more physically during my tenure at primary school than I ever did in secondary. Kids that young seem to communicate just as much through scratching, hitting, pulling hair and pushing each other over as they do talking. While there might be some nascent maliciousness behind their actions, it’s not until puberty kicks in that their malice becomes as precise and as dangerous as a scalpel.

I never had my head kicked in at secondary school but I lived in fear that I would. It was the mind-games that made me fear school: the way certain older kids picked me out as a laughing stock, making fun of me at school, on the bus, even in town if we passed each other by. They yelled unrestrained, marking me out as a figure of ridicule for everyone in the vicinity. When they pointed at me  it felt as if the whole world was pointing with them.

I lost my confidence at an early age–so early I can’t remember a time I was ever confident. You can see it in our family photo albums, read it in the reports my parents wrote in my baby book. Until the age of three-and-half I was perfectly buoyant, but then I started sinking and fast. By the time I started secondary school I didn’t have much in the way of self-esteem at all–if it wasn’t already hatred I’d certainly started to dislike myself–and in those early years in such a cruel environment I felt myself ducked underwater again and again, seldom let up for air.

My friend group thinned out. I found myself alone so often I started seeking solitude, locking myself in the media studies room at lunch where at least I had some control over it.

And maybe I wasn’t a walk in the park. I had anger issues, that I’ve written about before and that I deeply regret. My long stay in hospital had changed me, removed me from the kids who hadn’t seen what I’d seen.

But I needed a friend, and my needs went unmet.

The final straw–the last bubble of air–came when a stupid argument over a broken VHS cassette severed the last tenuous friendships I had. I stood accused of cracking the window on the tape through carelessness; always being careful with other people’s belongings I resented the accusation. In retrospect I should have been a bigger man, bought the cunt a new one and said “This just isn’t fucking worth it.” Instead I was righteous in my cause and it cost me; the few people still talking to me, perhaps tired of this strange and distant loser, took his side.

Bereft of breath I spent the next few months dropping to the bottom of a miasmic lake of depression before dropping out of school completely. I needn’t go into the circumstances surrounding my leaving but if you want to imagine the worse, please, go ahead and do so.

At this point I’d lost my voice. While I lived at home with my parents and not a friend in the world, my sister was going through her own hard times which would see her engaged to a monster, unable to tell her family she needed help. We would have been there for her if we’d known; not knowing we weren’t, and though she thankfully escaped that relationship we still ended up losing her, in a way. Like her big brother, she’d seen things other people wouldn’t understand.

It’s difficult to talk to people who can’t comprehend what you’re saying.

If the Internet had been popular during those dark and difficult times, who knows what would have happened? Would the cold-shouldered campaign that nearly saw my eradication from the living have persisted to my home life? Would I have been as bullied away from the school bus as I was when riding it? It happens to kids today, those unlucky souls. Too many of them have succeeded in silencing the voices that taunt them, by taking the most drastic measures at their disposal.

Too many of them will never be heard from again.

But if modern life has granted any of them a slim sense of survival, it’s because the Internet has given them a voice. Where once they would have been completely alone they can now speak out and find sympathetic ears across the world.

“It gets better”–the slogan’s aimed at gay teens struggling with adversity but it could be equally applicable to any of us who’ve struggled to be heard in a world that refuses to listen.

Which isn’t to say I agree with it. I find the sentiment that people will mature become magically more tolerant insulting. If I were to give any struggling kid advice it would be that the world’s full of shitty people doing their best to bring you down, that you have to be stronger, to show them they’re wrong.

For what it’s worth though I don’t agree that life gets better, I’m glad there are people willing to tell tomorrow’s generation that it will. The last thing this planet needs is six billion self-loathing cynics driven by pride and vengeance.

Though it came late into my life, during a period of utmost despair, the Internet saved me. For the first time in my life people heard me speak and responded with kind words. I found someone who gave me hope, for whom I’ve turned the world upside down. I can’t imagine what my life will be like five, ten. even a year, from now. It’s been so long since I could say that and mean it.

I don’t agree with Internet censorship. There are parts of the Internet we could certainly do without but I worry what might happen if these are excised, and where these excisions might end. To want bad meat trimmed is understandable, but so long as there’s a chance someone’s vocal cords might be cut, that’s a risk we should never be willing to take.

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