Active and Passive Cyberspace Intimidation

Aletha S. Hendrickson
University of Maryland, College Park

The nature of cyberspace technology affords examples of both active intimidation caused by the intimidating rhetors exemplified in the alleged Microsoft incident, class policies, and United Charity Campaign discussed above, and what I term "passive" intimidation caused by difficulty in performing electronic procedures. In the latter, just as in active intimidation, "[p]articipant's alignment, or set, or stance, or posture, or projected self is somehow at issue," to use Goffman's terms (128) [emphasis mine]. To illustrate, the intimidatee projects herself as being powerless and inadequate in negotiating E-mail, and is thus electronically intimidated.

The Rhetorical Dimensions of Cyberspace
Aletha's Stuff:
Intimidation of Cyberspace | Types of Intimidation
Psychological Causes | Technological Causes | Textual Features of
Benign and Destructive | Works Cited | Notes

How do rhetors project, construct, imagine themselves in roles relative to readers? By imagining themselves and their audiences into roles preparatory to establishing footing. Consider the Teaching Assistant who casts himself in an authoritative role while formulating class policies, and who simultaneously casts his students into subordinate roles (active top-down intimidation). Consider, though, the E-mail participant who caves in to this piece of intimidatory cybertext in an act of passive intimidation:

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Casting can thus be said to anticipate footing between a rhetor and reader, creating situational roles and relationships, and likewise to allow a reader to "cast" herself into the role of intimidatee in an act of social imagination, to recall Dillon's phrase.

Critical to casting and footing in intimidatory text is the role of "face wants" (as in "saving face"). Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson in Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage describe face as "the public self-image that every member wants to claim for himself" (61). Face, like footing, "can be lost, maintained, or enhanced, and must be constantly attended to in interaction" (61). Brown and Levinson contend that "it is in general in every participants' self interest to maintain each others' face" (61). Nevertheless, when face is ignored, or even worse, threatened, both active and passive intimidatory discourse can result. For example, negative face (wanting your actions to be unimpeded by others) can be threatened by orders, requests, suggestions, advice, threats, and warnings (Brown 66)--in other words, the stuff of the intimidatory discourse we have detailed above. Casting footings and manipulating face by committing a face threatening act are devices that rhetors employ to instill fear in those vulnerable to epistemological intimidation, to assert power (both examples of "destructive" intimidation), and to induce friendly cooperation ("benign" intimidation).

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The Rhetorical Dimensions of Cyberspace

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