Pushed Over the Edge

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Em Carpenter

Em was one of those argumentative children who was sarcastically encouraged to become a lawyer, so she did. She is a proud life-long West Virginian, and, paradoxically, a liberal. In addition to writing about society, politics and culture, she enjoys cooking, podcasts, reading, and pretending to be a runner. She will correct your grammar. You can find her on Twitter.

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68 Responses

  1. Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    My wife and I have both witnessed people being threatened with doxing and worse in the comment sections of Facebook over local political and non-political issues lately, with alarming frequency. Page owners are usually good about deleting problem comments, but the damage is done. The newest place where we have seen the type of bullying described in the OP is on the Nextdoor app. The comments on a proposed Section 8 development in an affluent area of town created multiple threats and reports of abuse to Nextdoor.

    All of this is to say that the problem continues to be one of the old ways of social interaction breaking down. Digital communication is a lousy way of talking to someone in general. My brother and I have had dozens of ugly exchanges via email in the last 10 years but not one argument face-to-face.

    I don’t see how this gets better until we start figuring out how to reconnect people in the real world. I think the woman’s death is so much more tragic than a lone gunman because it was a group effort. I also hope our courts can figure out a way to deal with the people that behave this way, because IMO the people that harassed her are just as guilty as if they had pushed her off that bridge.Report

  2. Avatar InMD says:

    I think intentional infliction and various invasion of privacy laws are sufficient for this. It’s always terrible when someone takes their own life but I don’t think prosecution is the right way to handle it, especially when the reasons someone does it can be pretty nebulous to everyone but the one who did it.

    This seems like a pretty weird scenario with the woman’s own biker gang turning on her. I’m fine with them being accountable for what they did with the pictures. Maybe WVa has some false light defamation tort or something similar that might be applicable. But they didn’t kill her. She did that.Report

    • Avatar PD Shaw in reply to InMD says:

      I agree, the people who did this can be awful people, at the same time the victim did an awful thing. It’s probably not a good idea to give someone with suicidal thoughts the incentive of believing their tormentors will go to prison if they kill themselves.

      This scenario comes close to falling under my state’s crime of stalking, which has expanded to include electronic communications as a potential means of meeting the criteria. But I’m not sure, scanning the definitions, that a physical presence component is still required; it can’t simply be harassment through the internet. I suspect that this might be because the real goal (lowest level felony) is to make it easier to get a restraining order of some sort.Report

      • Avatar InMD in reply to PD Shaw says:

        Agreed. Other than the 1st Amendment issues part of me worries that there could be some serious hazard in seeming to vindicate suicide. We certainly don’t want to incentivize it.

        We have a misdemeanor in Maryland for harassment that some of this conduct might fall under.Report

  3. Avatar pillsy says:

    A few days later, the photo landed on the desk of her boss, the judge. Suffice to say he is not known as a kind or sympathetic judge, and his treatment of Denise was no departure from his normal demeanor. He shoved the picture in her face and called her a disgrace. She was fired, and died the next day.

    Sounds like this guy bears significant moral responsibility for her death, legalities aside.

    Why would you fire someone over a photo she sent privately to her husband, which other people made public? It’s just stupid even if you’re a prudish asshole.Report

    • Avatar PD Shaw in reply to pillsy says:

      Em writes that she sent the photo to her husband and a friend. The link seems to be unclear how the photo got out.Report

      • Avatar pillsy in reply to PD Shaw says:

        Hmm. Still seems like a deranged thing to fire someone over.

        As well as being the proverbial straw that broke this particular metaphorical camel’s back.Report

        • Avatar PD Shaw in reply to pillsy says:

          That a friend had the pictures seemed to be important for a few reasons, so I thought it worth pointing out. On the one hand, that’s how the pictures got public, but more importantly, it points to the underlying emotional trauma being inflicted by people who once were her friends, or at least fellow club members. Also, how “suggestive” were the photographs? A little less if they’re shared with a friend?Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to pillsy says:

      He may bear moral responsibility, but given no mortal power will sanction him, and it’s unlikely his own conscious will, that responsibility will never be answered.Report

    • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to pillsy says:

      What an absolutely horrible thing for the judge to do – to fire her because she’s the victim of a campaign of harassment.

      If a case of harassment came before his court, would he send the victim to jail? What an awful man.Report

  4. Avatar Kazzy says:

    ““[I] will make the silly blonde with a head injury want to kill her self because u fuck with me my family or my friends it’s over””

    That seems to offer some insight into this:

    “It is difficult to imagine the mindset of a person who would set out to cause an unassuming woman in a small town to be so distraught she no longer wants to live.”

    It seems clear that those who targeted Denise did not see her as an unassuming women. At least one of them feels she “fuck[ed] with” her, her family, or her friends. That in no way justifies the action these women took and the intentions behind it. But it does point towards there being more to the story as these situations are almost always more complicated than they first seem. What transpired between Denise and these other women? I’d want to know more about all the folks involved and the various dynamics at play before saying we need new laws to stop evil people from being evil.Report

    • Avatar wvesquiress in reply to Kazzy says:

      I don’t know the other women, but I did know Denise. She was very timid and quiet, and I got the impression some of those people thought she was uppity or snobbish, which is why they took such offense at her reprimand to the person on FB about the drug reference. In certain circles, people interpret that kind of thing as “you think you’re better than me?”
      Obviously there could be more to it. I can’t say I knew her well, but I just can’t imagine her hurting a fly.Report

  5. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    I have been river rafting down the New River. The trip ended under the New River Bridge. People were jumping off it that day – while wearing parachutes. Perhaps also with bungees.

    The story is upsetting. If we can’t prosecute these people, can we at least name and shame them? Make them pay, in cold, hard cash?Report

  6. Avatar Pinky says:

    And a word of gratitude to our Ordinary Times hosts and participants, who generally keep this site a place for civil discussion of heated issues. We’ve all seen it go bad elsewhere.Report

  7. The notion that small towns are idyllic communities worth striving for is entirely undermined by the realities of those communities for those who aren’t members of the in-group.Report

    • Avatar JoeSal in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

      At least for a small town in/near Fayette County, West Virginia.

      Geography…Report

      • Avatar Em Carpenter in reply to JoeSal says:

        What is implied here?Report

        • Avatar JoeSal in reply to Em Carpenter says:

          Why do you consider a implication where this is the actual location you wrote about? Sam is the one making the blanket statement about small towns.

          My implications is that all small towns aren’t like this one, for whatever measure of likeness is, and the premise that in-grouping and out-grouping does happen just as much if not more within high population centers.Report

          • Avatar Em Carpenter in reply to JoeSal says:

            I was wondering what you meant by “geography”, which seemed like you think this town, or WV in particular, are especially prone to this type of behavior. Just asking.Report

          • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to JoeSal says:

            I’m sure it does happen in big cities as well. It’s just easier there to ignore it and find new peers.Report

            • Avatar JoeSal in reply to Mike Schilling says:

              It’s not like people would in-group out-group to the point of forming Chinatowns or little Italy or something along those lines.Report

            • Avatar Doctor Jay in reply to Mike Schilling says:

              I grew up in a small town. It is certainly different than urban living. One of the big differences is that nobody knows who you are, so if compromising pictures of you get posted around town, nobody cares, and they just get pulled down because they aren’t that interesting.

              One of the things I’ve discovered about my small town is that you always remain whomever you were when you graduated high school. I personally find this stultifying, but I can imagine others would find it comforting. And there is an upside to being known, which comes when they know you and care about you. Of course, this makes social maneuvers like the freeze-out much more powerful.

              They aren’t the same.Report

            • “I’m sure it does happen in big cities as well. It’s just easier there to ignore it and find new peers.”

              You’re right, and that’s an advantage to living in a bigger city. But it doesn’t make bigger cities morally better.

              You weren’t saying they were morally better. But I make the point because the subtext of this conversation is that we’re judging cities and small towns in moral and moralistic terms. A terrible thing that happens somewhere becomes justification for our priors and a proxy for other arguments about how horrible “those people” are.

              By “we” and “our,” I include myself, by the way. Perhaps that’s not true for you and I’m misrepresenting your vision of this conversation’s subtext. But I do believe the subtext is there.Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

      Was this story actually a symptom of small towns? I live in a pretty good-sized city and the same kinds of things happen here. Seems like the size of the town is irrelevant.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        Most cultures like to depict the village or small town as the repository of all virtues and humanities where people love and support each other in a miniature commonwealth. The city is filled with vanity and mean people who only use you for their purposes. However, small towns can also be ostracizing places where the entire community gangs up against the town weirdo or outsiders.Report

        • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to LeeEsq says:

          This sounds a bit like a persecution complex for city-dwellers. I mean, sure, there are terrible people everywhere. The fetishization of small towns is not because they are places of virtue, it’s a recognition that humans do better in smaller groups. I find that it’s easy enough to find smaller communities within a city (neighborhoods, congregations, sports fans, etc) but some people also like the idea that their town IS the smaller community. I don’t think one is better than the other and at the end of the day I think Sam’s observation was entirely irrelevant to what happened to the woman in the OP.Report

          • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

            I find that it’s easy enough to find smaller communities within a city (neighborhoods, congregations, sports fans, etc) but some people also like the idea that their town IS the smaller community.

            That’s just fine, as long as the smaller community doesn’t turn against you. If the town is the community, moving on with your life when they’ve shunned you requires major life upheaval.

            In a bigger city, you can keep your same home and probably stay at the same job and keep your kids at the same school, and just turn your back on the community that’s turned its back on you – there will be another community for you.

            Whether this was relevant to the woman in this incident is – well, we’ll never know will we? In a city with multiple motorcycle clubs accepting new members, would she have just switched clubs? We’ll never know.Report

    • “The notion that small towns are idyllic communities worth striving for is entirely undermined by the realities of those communities for those who aren’t members of the in-group.”

      I readily admit there are people who portray small towns as “idyllic communities.” Even so, I disagree with other parts of this comment.

      This situation is obviously a piece of evidence that undermines that portrayal, but I don’t believe it “entirely” undermines that portrayal. Second, it’s possible to strive for an idyll while realizing that that idyll doesn’t work in practice. Liberals of a certain stripe strive for something like that all the time, a country or a world where all take care of each other and no one is left behind. When that vision is sometimes put into practice, there are often false steps or unintended/unwanted consequences, but those don’t “entirely” undermine that vision/idyll.

      I’d much, much prefer to live in a medium to large city than a small town. One reason is the inter-peer mobility that Mike Schilling describes elsewhere in this thread. Even so, I don’t believe I’ve found the true and only heaven in such localities.Report

  8. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    I’m going to join InMD and argue no. We have a problem with mass incarceration because we want to treat every social ill as a criminal problem. You can’t prosecute the entire world even for despicable conduct. Most social ills should not be treated as crimes even when the results are horrific like in this case. Plus the numbers can be staggering? Should dozens or hundreds get prosecuted?Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to LeeEsq says:

      So you’re saying that just because a few incidents end in terrible tragedy, we shouldn’t create elaborate laws to address the problem due to the logistics of implementing said law…?Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        I think Em was talking about using existing criminal law rather than writing new law.Report

        • Avatar Em Carpenter in reply to LeeEsq says:

          I did mention that the family is working with a state legislator to craft a new law, but intended to express my skepticism that such could be done in a way that fairly protects free speech.Report

        • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to LeeEsq says:

          Old law or new law, I took your point to mean that laws are not always the best way to address every human misdeed, especially when thousands engage in the same behavior and it doesn’t end in a death. Is that correct?

          I do think social media greatly amplifies the ability of bullies to harm people. It seems like we could eliminate certain features. Un-moderated comment sections seems like a good place to start.Report

          • Avatar pillsy in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

            Facebook, Twitter, et c. are all at least nominally moderated, but the actual degree of moderation you’d need to bring this kind of behavior under control is much more expensive than the owners are willing to pay (and probably more than they could afford even if they wanted to).

            And I’m always open to the possibility that it’s not the bullying that’s new, but our awareness of it. Prior to the social media-oriented Internet, how many people would have ever heard of a campaign of bullying that resulted in death in a small town far from any major media?Report

            • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to pillsy says:

              I understand that the owners wouldn’t want to pay for this, but why give them an option if it’s in the interest of public safety?

              Sure, bullying has existed since the first cave men gave someone hell for their crappy hunting skills. But when I was a kid in the 80s most bullying took place at school and you went home and at least it turned off for a while. Nowadays it follows kids everywhere. It’s 24/7. And they are also much more adept at using social media to subtlety attack one another.Report

      • Sure. Guns being the obvious exception.Report

  9. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    I think most cities have “small towns” within them- just because it’s hard for humans to feel connection with large demographics. For instance, music scenes tend to function a lot like small towns with the same sort of gossip networks. A year after listening to it, I find myself still thinking about this NPR podcast about a young woman who was drummed out of the Richmond, Virginia punk scene over “hypocrisy”- she was an outspoken feminist singer who had been a somewhat sexist bully back in high school- something like a decade before! But that sort of “shaming” is frequent in all sorts of “tribes”.

    https://www.npr.org/2018/04/13/601971617/the-calloutReport

    • Avatar Aaron David in reply to Rufus F. says:

      In any group, whether it is a music scene, book club, high school, or whatever, there is going to be a pecking order. Sometimes that is OK, but other times its not.

      Right now I live in a smallish town, but when I lived in cities, there were definite neighborhoods or close-in suburbs that lived and died by this. The less transitory, the less likely to happen, but it is still there.Report

  10. Avatar DW Dalrymple says:

    I live in a medium sized town in WV. There are a few notorious families with names that get the eye roll when they come up in conversation. Some of it is deserved, some not. EVERY small/medium sized town has this. I remember a son from one of those families trying to get on with my previous employer. I was talking to him one day and he came out and told me that he wished he had a different name. He couldn’t catch a break and he blamed his name. I tried to tell him to let his work ethic speak for him, not the name. He ended up not making the cut. I wondered if it was because of the stigma of having a certain last name in my hometown or if it just didn’t work out for some other reason. He would’ve blended in if he lived in a larger community, I’m sure of it.

    It’s a damn dirty shame what happened to that poor woman and her family. I hope they can find closure soon.

    Good piece EM..Report

  11. Like others here, I don’t know what the right policy solution is, but I share the skepticism about whether we can use criminal laws.

    This horrible situation, though, gives me pause about my own actions. I’ve never cyber-bullied anyone, but I have been much more confrontational and aggressive on line with some people than I would ever be in person. That aggression doesn’t amount to bullying, but it takes me closer to whatever threshold there is. The same is probably true of my fellow commenters here, if they’re hones.Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      “This horrible situation, though, gives me pause about my own actions. I’ve never cyber-bullied anyone, but I have been much more confrontational and aggressive on line with some people than I would ever be in person. That aggression doesn’t amount to bullying, but it takes me closer to whatever threshold there is. The same is probably true of my fellow commenters here, if they’re hones.”

      Agreed.Report

  12. When something horrible like what the OP describes happens, the victim becomes a symbol.

    Someone to whom some commenters wouldn’t have given the time of day, or who some commenters would assume to be one of “those people” who are not to be trusted, etc. (because they’re all like that), is now an object of concern and someone to care about because caring about that person makes a larger point that the commenters wanted to make all along.

    We all do that, depending on the tragedy and depending on our priors. Or if not all, then I do that (example: some of my comments above in this thread). But when I do that, I lose sight of the individual involved.Report

    • Avatar JoeSal in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      Excellent comments. I do admit I have become considerably callous of victim stories over the last 20 years. They are typically a lead in to some justification of ‘what is to be done?’.

      It worries me that somewhere along the way the old gods were replaced with government. When we used to shout at the sky with our ‘whys?’ and ‘how could this have been allowed to happened’, that there was a unknown ‘gods will’ that we could never know, but would allow us to continue on with the uncertainty of life.

      Without the old gods, the people are shouting at government, all the ‘whys?’ and ‘how could this be allowed to happen’, and what we get is millions of laws, attempting to prevent bad events from happening. The demand that government be on over watch every where all the time. Attempting to make a omniscient construct to replace what we used to assume god was. The constant banning of the uncomfortable realities.

      All the cameras, the slow infiltrating into every corner of peoples lives, this isn’t a accident, or just random increase of what the government does. The prisons filled to the max, attempting to punish imperfect people into being a little more closer to what god should have made them to be in the first place.

      I guess in this way I will never be a atheist. I will always believe god made us this way, enough free will that we can choose to be good or bad. Our destiny within our own chosen paths, may the skies fall or shine accordingly.Report

      • Avatar InMD in reply to JoeSal says:

        I think what’s really lacking is humility and perspective about the capabilities of the state. This isn’t to say we don’t need laws and regulations and the fact that some such laws will have adverse consequences of their own is not in itself an argument against them, provided that the adverse consequence is clearly outweighed by the addressing of the ill, and doesn’t infringe on something more important. We also need a basic framework of rules and consistency for modern society and economies to function.

        The challenge I think is the lack of dispassionate, critical thought going into policy making. Instead there’s a naive faith in the efficacy of well intended legislation. Of course that’s one of the biggest flaws in our mass media drunk democracy. The emotional appeal carries the day, and sad anecdotes and histrionics are deemed more persuasive that sober-minded reason.Report

        • Avatar JoeSal in reply to InMD says:

          While I agree with much of this comment, I would say the path that led this lady to her death was not the difficulty in navigating what policies were or were not in place, the difficulty was in navigating the terrain of real humans.

          The veneer that there is a omniscient construct that will shield against reality should be avoided IMO, and replaced with a healthy capacity for peer level conflict. Even in the awareness of knowing how uncomfortable that proposal may be, I think it is a hard truth that must be mentioned, constantly.Report

      • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to JoeSal says:

        Thanks, JoeSal.

        I’m probably more willing to endorse and sign on to “social constructs” than you are, but I can certainly see where you’re coming from.Report

  13. Avatar DavidTC says:

    It’s all about whether people have other choices. When we think about bullying and harassment, whether or not someone can leave and go elsewhere is a _huge_ distinction.

    Like…this place is voluntary. If someone harasses someone here, (and the admin didn’t do anything about), we’d think it was absurd to try to sue the harrasser or the site or even have them charged criminally. No one _has_ to be here. If it’s not comfortable for them, they can leave. Same with, for example, reddit….you’re being harassed? Create a new user account, go find a better subreddit to talk. Or go somewhere else entirely.

    Note this assumption assumes that people can actually make new social groups, which means it ignores harms to people who…can’t. People have a different amount of social skills, and it might have taken _years_ for people to get comfortable with a certain environment, it could be a huge investment. OTOH…nothing is actually requiring those spaces to continue to exist at all, so there’s sorta a problem there to start with.

    This is why bullying is such a large problem with kids: Kids almost never allowed to just leave their environment, or not come back.

    They can’t leave school situations, and even if in a technically ‘voluntary’ social activity, their parents are generally in control of that, which means even if their parents will let them leave, they have to at minimum explain why they no longer want to be there, which they often are unwilling to do. (Often because harassment is about embarrassing things…which they don’t particularly want to tell their parents.)

    Meanwhile, where we tend to care about harassment with adults is situations where they ‘can’t’ leave, like work, or situations where they simply can’t ‘not be somewhere’, like walking down the street. Or the example here, where someone can’t actually leave their entire town.

    And we’re really lagging behind in online. We still tend to assume _all_ of online is ‘leavable’. But…that’s not really true for Facebook. Or other social media stuff…I mean, I’m an old guy, I don’t know what kids are using these days, but I’m fairly sure having a social existence _requires_ those things for kids.Report

  14. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    Something that occurs to me is that places that offer online discussion forums really trade a lot on the whole CDA Section 230. And people are fighting like hell to keep it. I did see someone say that the modern web depended entirely on CDA S230 protections, and I’m all “yes, this modern web that we love so much, that we all agree is functioning well, that is definitely improved by the providers-have-absolutely-no-responsibility paradigm it works under.”Report

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