Everybody needs a punchbag, be it literally or metaphorically. I recently purchased one, literally. I saw it on Facebook marketplace, made an offer and two hours later it took pride of place in my back garden. My wife had a shock when she arrived home to find the torso of six-pack ‘Steve slammer’ glaring at her through the kitchen window. Suffice to say it does not fit in with her carefully cultured geranium set up and Steve faces causing another domestic after I begrudgingly eBay him to another budding middle-aged Anthony Joshua.

In lieu of a punchbag, we would, as kids, expel frustrations on ‘easy’ targets, either directly or indirectly. I was never a big one on using verbal insults as a way to expel frustration and would prefer physical exercise. Others weren’t so kind: there was always that kid at school, the loner, looking petrified, but in reality, the braveheart, knowing they would face a torrent of abuse yet still showing up for more of the same day after day after day. It was the kid with the glass eye, the fatty boom-boom, the ‘ginger’ or the boy suffering from a painful looking skin condition who would be mercilessly taunted and bullied by pupils (and sometimes teachers alike). Thankfully similar incidents are, in the main, now dealt with much more robustly, and swiftly, which leaves the attacker searching for another arena in which to expel their ire.

Body shaming, hate crimes (no matter how they are categorised) and targeting those with various afflictions are now all off limits. Some, including those frequenting the comedy circuit, may say this has gone a little too far leaving them to go all ‘new age’ and steer clear of anything that would, could or should cause offence.

So, we have spleen to vent and the only safe haven, pretty much free from any kind of meaningful retribution, is online. This is the 21st century version of the stocks where we semi anonymously harangue, harass, bully and taunt. If you have ever written a derogative comment about Trump, you are guilty, if you have criticised Corbyn, May or even your local newspaper columnist then you are also one of the new wave bullies. And yes: I count myself in that number having written some disparaging comments about people whom I just do not like, and, for some unknown reason, I feel the need to inform the cyber world of my opinion.

It’s a peculiar thing when you are on the receiving end. Some face national coverage as targets of venom such as Hopkins, Morgan and Khan. On a lesser scale, I have found myself lying in bed on a Saturday morning reading comments from UK keyboard warriors who have read this column in whichever edition is local to them.

Last week I was directed to ‘stick to the day job’ which I found curious as maybe I’m better at writing columns than teaching. I have been called a ‘modern day virtue signaller’ of having ‘too much to say’ of being ‘stupid’, as a ‘local newspaper hack writing provocative nonsense to appear edgy’ and my writings being the ‘work of a harmless crank’. One reader, who goes by the online name of 'Burt' called called me a ‘bit of a knob’ (which my wife found hilarious), another called me a ‘bigot’, and eloquently described my writing style as 'rubbish’.

Now, all of that may or may not be true, but, to counter balance, I receive as many complimentary comments about my amateur writings as I do negative, but it is the disparaging on which we dwell. I am also aware I get off lightly in relation to the Hopkinses of this world, although she receives the sado-masochistic attention her comments so desperately crave.

Granted, there are different levels of abuse. Criticism can be justified yet masquerade as ‘abuse’ or ‘hate’. Some is venomous and nasty, yet it is impossible to draw a line in the sand with internet and media companies who could do more to tame the beast on which they feed. It is a thin line when gagging the free speech, so I guess their approach is to get splinters, take the fifth amendment and hope it will never go away. On the plus side, trolling diminishes personal, face-to-face abuse. The downside to that is that memories may fade when you have been bullied as a youngster yet online there is a permanent indelible stain that, like oil on your favourite jacket, never really goes away.

So really, there is no cure. If you don’t want to be embarrassed or abused online, then don’t go online. As for me, I can still hear my wife chuckling at the online comment I mentioned earlier and leaves me thinking that her online pseudonym may be Burt….

  • Brett Ellis is a teacher who lives in London Colney