Published on Thursday October 18, 2012, Toronto Star

Amanda Todd, 15, took her own life after years of intense online bullying.
Judith Timson

Two very different videos went viral recently.

The first was of a grown woman, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, vigorously attacking an opponent on his alleged sexism.

Gillard’s prolonged fusillade in Parliament against Tony Abbott, the leader of the opposition, had jaws dropping all over the world. “You’ve got to see this!” was one message I got, while on Twitter her speech was described as “scathing” “passionate” and “incandescent.”

The second video, posted on YouTube, was the now sadly famous one of B.C. teenagerAmanda Todd silently recounting, using only flash cards, her horrific “never-ending” experience of being bullied both online and in person, and her subsequent depression.

Because the 15-year-old killed herself last week, it is utterly wrenching to watch. It has provoked national anguish, countless talk show conversations, an RCMP investigation, and a renewed parliamentary debate on how to stop bullying.

Both videos tapped into an important question: How do you stand up for yourself in a tear-down culture?

With her hand pointing in the direction of Abbott, whose facial expression went from an arrogant smirk to supreme discomfort, Gillard, 51, delivered impassioned detail after detail of what she called his “repulsive” behaviour, including standing next to a sign that said, “Ditch the witch.”

If her opponent really wanted to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, thundered Gillard, “he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror.”

Some people harshly criticized her rant as hypocritical (she was trying to contain a sexism scandal involving a member of her own government) but no one could deny it was riveting, almost a crash course in how a powerful woman stands up for herself.

Nobody messaged me that I “had to see” Todd’s video, which only achieved prominence after her death — you don’t urge that kind of pain on anyone else. But it’s a must see, too: it speaks viscerally, not just to the horrors of what the CBC’s Internet expert Jesse Hirsh describes as “a virtual lynch mob,” but about equally elusive issues of vulnerability, true self-confidence, and how to help our kids stand up for themselves in a brutal smackdown culture.

While we don’t know all the details of her final days, watching it has led to a deep sense of public frustration about why this obviously spirited young woman seemed so alone and why she didn’t get the help she needed to beat back bullies intent on destroying her self-esteem and reputation (and who disgustingly continue, even after her death, to savage her online).

As the agonizing goes on about how to combat online bullying, we as adults also need to come clean about the ways we participate in this culture. (I even wondered whether, in loving Gillard’s speech, I was just enjoying the fact that she ripped into that guy with the smirk.)

We give ourselves permission to judge just about everyone, from red carpet celebrities in ill-chosen designer gowns — “what was she thinking?”— to public figures who have the misfortune to look or act silly even for a second.

We, the jury, lie in wait, and we now have the technological tools to spread our contempt, sarcasm or ridicule far and wide. We don’t like to admit we fuel this culture because then we’d have to stop Facebook “liking” or forwarding those milder put downs ourselves.

All this mocking and hissing we now accept as part of our cultural landscape is lethal for some teenagers. It breaks their spirits and their hearts.

Toronto family therapist Diane Moody suggests a mandatory “sensitivity training credit course” in schools in which drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, physical disabilities and other challenges are discussed and in which compassion is actually taught.

She also says students need to learn “the difference between aggression and assertion.” The Gillard speech would work well in that discussion.

Todd’s video will live on as a haunting act of both bravery and desperation. If only she had survived her horrific experience. If only she could have eventually grown up.

Who knows what she would have become? A singer, as she dreamed? Or maybe even someone who fiercely takes on an opponent in parliament.

Judith Timson’s column runs every Thursday. Email her at [email protected]

See more Amanda Todd coverage here

See more Judith Timson here