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I Was An Online Bully Before It Had a Name

My senior year in college, the honors program required us to create and present a research project. My advisor compared it to a master’s level thesis. I put a lot of work into my project, but I’m not sure it would qualify as a master’s level. I spent many hours outside of class and on the weekends in the library studying old newspaper design on microfilm.

Now that I’ve bemoaned how hard I labored and how much Saturday television I sacrificed to complete this project, you’ll appreciate the rest of the story more. You will probably also think less of me when you finish reading, so if you don’t want to know how imperfect I am, just stop reading right here.

All Honor’s College seniors presented their projects for the final grade. Following the presentations, a couple of other students and I rehashed the projects. One didn’t feel quite up to par with everyone else. The idea wasn’t bad, it just appeared that her entire presentation was on what she was going to do not anything she actually did.

Remember all that time I sacrificed? Now imagine how upset we were for another student to earn the same grade without having actually done the work. Unfair, right? We thought so too.

We also did more than just complain about it among ourselves. We took to the honor’s college listserve (i.e. email loop) and blasted this student for not actually doing the project work. These were the days before social media (thank goodness for that!), but this email still went out to all the Honor’s College participants.

Not our finest hour for sure.

The problem is I was the editor of our student newspaper. One of the other students was also a campus leader. Which meant we were held to higher standards. Or so the professor who dragged us into his office two days later told us. He offered us two options: apologize publically on the listserve or don’t walk at graduation.

I’d like to use youth as our excuse but we were 22 and about to graduate from college. We should have known to keep our comments to ourselves. I will say we were navigating an entirely new digital world. No one had gone before us to warn us of the pitfalls. We hadn’t read any articles about how the anonymity of the internet made people braver and dumber. And we were just learning of people who were taking their own life after being bullied online.

We both had family making plans to attend graduation so apologizing and eating our big slice of humble pie seemed the only real choice. With heavy hands, we sat down at our computer and crafted a very careful apology.

You see, we were not sorry that we did not appreciate this project presentation. Our views had not changed. We were somewhat sorry for calling it out online and very sorry for having being chastised by a professor. I no longer have the text of that apology but if I remember correctly it was something along the lines of being sorry for calling this student out publically and admitting we were wrong for our actions.

Now that you’ve endured my long and winding story, I’ll get to my point: not all apologies are created equal. It’s semantics, yes, but it’s also about the heart behind an apology.

I’m sorry it hurt when I hit you.

I’m sorry you cried when I hit you.

I’m sorry I got in trouble when I hit you.

I’m sorry I hit you.

All apologies, but they aren’t the same.

Why does it matter?

When we’ve hurt someone, or when we’ve been wronged, what we most want to see is someone repent for what they did not for how it made us feel. Politicians are really good at this. They’ll apologize for offending people all day long but never actually apologize for what they did that offended someone.

Real mending of relationships and growth comes when we apologize for what we did, not how it made someone feel.

I can’t control how what I say makes you feel. I can, however, control what I say and what I do.

Want to go a step further in your growth after an apology? Take steps to learn something that keeps you from making the same mistake again.

Truly want to not hit your sibling again? Learn about anger management.

Want to understand what’s hurtful to a specific group of people? Read a book, go to a museum, listen to a podcast, have lunch with someone in the demographic.

Want to know what online bullying is so you can not be the bully? Find resources. Volunteer with an organization focused on bullying prevention.

It’s been 19 years, and some days I still struggle with the concept of a real apology. Sometimes it takes longer than a few hours, or even a few days, to come around to true remorse. Sometimes true remorse never comes, and scripture calls us to forgive those folks anyway. That may be harder for me than asking for forgiveness.


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