Trigger warning: this post contains discussion and links regarding bullying, homophobia, racism, and suicide.
I didn’t know the phrase “bullycide” before yesterday, but reading the stories of Asher Brown and Tyler Clementi I immediately understood what such a word meant. And I had never heard the phrase “ching-chonged” either but immediately “got it” while reading the Disgrasian piece on Asher Brown (and resultant comments) (h/t to Jim for sharing this via Twitter).
It is not easy nor trite for me to read and then write on these stories. They are devastating for me to consume. I feel such sorrow for these suicide victims and their families; I feel such sorrow for the other children who victimized these young people and now have to live with their role (if they even know enough to feel it); I feel such sorrow for the adults who could have done something to help and did not, figuring the problems were not that bad or not a big deal or just the typical stuff that happens amongst kids, or even thinking it is funny after all to make fun of a gay man for being, you know, gay, c’mon, admit it.
I feel some anger but mostly – a deep sadness. I think of my own children when I read stories like this.
Today Lesley at Fatshionista published a moving, at-times graphic personal account of bullying: “Sometimes we fight back by merely surviving: A missive for the bullied”. In fact if you’re pressed for time you should read this piece instead of mine as it’s probably better than anything I’ll have to say.
But if you’re here reading, still, and you do care what I think, I do have some ideas.
I am fortunate in that growing up I was not routinely or regularly bullied by adults and children. This is not to say people were not occasionally unkind, destructive, abusive, or wished me harm; this happened and some of these incidents are quite specific in my mind. And perhaps more relevant to my relatively privileged life, it isn’t so much that incidents felt isolated but that bully culture affected me very much; of course it did. It’s one thing to not be the target of focused or endemic efforts (like Asher was), but to know exactly the many behaviors or traits that might be used as fodder for violent or social reprisal, to also know the randomness in some bullying choices, to live in the fear of slipping up or being exposed or just being turned against by the alpha-whomever of the group?
Yeah. It affected me.
Bully culture changes those who don’t remember being afraid, although sometimes we’ve grown a nice thick skin over our past instead of coming to terms with it. Those of us who followed the influence of the ringleaders, or those who did not speak up when we saw it happening (I think we all have membership in this club) – this hurt us, too. We have the shame and sorrow and confusion of having participated – having made the jokes or written the cruel note or laughed into our hand in gym class while throwing glances and smirks at one another. We tell ourselves we just ignorant, or we didn’t really mean it, or the intended victim laughed it off. But we know deep down we committed wrongs.
All of this leaves a mark, sometimes an indelible one.
Most people reading here would claim and believe they are past all this. They do not support bullying behavior; they would never stick their head out of a car and yell at an Asian youth nor spit on a fat high school girl’s jacket. A denunciation of cruelty with a claim we are outside the Game is simply not good enough. We need to speak up, and we never know when we’ll see it next, and we will at times fail to do the right thing. Yeah, it is often not easy to speak up, not for most of us. Sorry, we don’t get a “pass” just because we don’t like to feel Awkward.
We need to grow our compassionate space. We need to re-gain touch with our empathy and understand many victims and perpetrators are damaged, hurt. We need to quit thinking – let alone saying – victims are “whining”. We need to stop reflexively giving them adjuncts to “get over it” or grandly offering our Smiley-Face Stories of the things we’ve gotten over. This is so profoundly wrong-headed and illogical and harmful in aggregate it almost fills me with despair to type it out, as I’ve seen it so much.
Bullying and abuse are not solved by our loud proselytizing of victim-charging stratagems like “turning the other cheek” or “walking away”. While I have employed both tactics successfully – and if you have too, good for you! – that cannot be our primary response and prescriptive to victims. Victims need to be heard, to be listened to; they need our presence and witness and compassion. We can do more active, loud, vocal work elsewhere. There’s lots of that to do out there, too.
It is our job, those who can do the work, to protect other people. It is our job to stand up for those who lack the strength or the resources to, or those who have internalized the messages already (as these two young men who eliminated themselves did), or those who tried to fight back once, or twice, and were beaten down so severely they have been traumatized (big or small, for five minutes or fifty years). It is our job – those who can – to protect these people even if they aren’t in the room in that moment. It is our job to address the bullies; starting with ourselves.
None of this is easy; if it were, we would not have these problems because (I do believe) most people want very much to do right. It’s hard to make change because we do-gooders, even we, are scared and unsure. Yet bullying and xenophobia are not problems relegated to small towns and they are not always coupled with overt, Afterschool Special music scores nor will we be guaranteed that “plucky” hero that sticks up for him/herself and then lives a life free of tormentors.
We need to stop thinking of bullying and aggression as outside our world, our families – as living somewhere else.
Have you apologized to those you bullied?
Have you apologized to those you did not protect?
Have you confessed to someone your mistakes, or admitted them to yourself, that you might move on instead of defending your past?
Have you made terms with your own fears, if you can?
Have you asked for help if you don’t feel strong, or safe?
Have you asked someone else if you can help them, if they seem scared, or unsure?
It’s rough out there sometimes. Like Warren Zevon said, “Life’ll kill ya.” But I don’t like thinking about death and destruction and torture all the time. I like to live, even joyfully when I can. Maybe we can help someone who needs us.
Maybe we can provide for them even a little bit more than we did yesterday.
Damn, that’s fucked up. So sad.
“Have you confessed to someone your mistakes, or admitted them to yourself, that you might move on instead of defending your past?”
I think this bit needs to be conquered before any of the others can be expected to succeed. Without it, the rest will always be less than genuine (with yourself and others), whether you realize it or not.
I sure don’t have any solutions to bullying. I was bullied, though mostly not until junior high and high school, and even then it was not generally physical. And yes, I have gossiped and joked about other people who I thought were boring or weird. So being on the receiving end didn’t change that.
There’s nothing like that feeling of constant fear and dread of others to make life difficult. I was lucky though, that when things got their worst for me I was able to (magically fly from the last person on the waiting list to being able to) go to the public alternative high school in my area (where the bullying was much reduced, and when it did happen the staff were able to help me with the issue without making it worse – let me have access to a teachers room at any time during the day rather than trying to talk about it with the people who were constantly harassing me).
And then college, where I somehow never had that problem (going to a very liberal school all the way across the country). I was counseled by my mom, my teachers, therapists, on what to say or do or not say or do to change things (because obviously I was at fault, right?), and nothing I was ever able to try worked. Why was I singled out? Who knows. Weird hair, absolutely terrified of everyone, the wrong clothes? Or maybe being emotionally abused at home?
And even if the teachers/staff/parents had a ‘zero tolerance for bullying’ policy, which they didn’t, how would that have helped? Because I also had to leave school and walk home. Or I got phone calls or people pretended they were going to hit me with cars in the parking lot. Or whatever. In high school I was tortured for being a lesbian, though I wasn’t one (I mention this because at least in my case, and in my midwestern early 1990’s brain the fact that I wasn’t a lesbian actually helped me feel better that at least the reason they were harassing me wasn’t true, so I could feel self-righteous rather than additionally ashamed or something, though I did spend time wondering if they were right and I just didn’t know that I was a lesbian – luckily in college I met actual lesbians and my mind changed about them being weird or different or scary, what I had always learned in school).
On the other hand, there was a girl in junior high who I was friends with, and then we weren’t friends anymore and my new “friend” (who was trying to rise in popularity and so never spoke to me if a higher-tier person was available) would make fun of this girl at lunch every day, and girl 1 thought I was putting her up to it. And I did have the opportunity to apologize to girl 1 thanks to social networking or whatever, because even though I didn’t do the teasing, girl 2 would never have focused on her without my link to both of them. Ugh.
And there’s no happy ending, and also no horrible terrible end to any of it. I think a lot of the problem is the way schools are set up and the way they divide kids by exact ages and then put them under enormous pressure to compete and yield to the power of teachers and staff, plus the group-think that goes on with very little ventilation. The only way to get along and be ok is often to go along with the ideas of the group.
Sorry this is so long.
How do we teach our kids to be ok with people they think are different when we aren’t or their peers aren’t? And do we stand up for people when others start to gossip about them or shun them? People die inside (from being bullied or teased), kill themselves or are killed for being different-in-a-bad-way, but when I see that person who registers as different-in-a-bad-way what do I do? avoid them, shun them, include them?
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences.
I listened the other day to my neighbor go on and on about the “pecking order”, and how it’s a natural thing, and adults should stay out of it. Given how much his kid is at my house I can say the kid is not faring too well in this environ, altho’ his dad (and possibly his mom) counsel him to hit back and he either employs this strategy, pack strategy (in other words doing whatever the alpha-male in the group does for safety-in-obeisance) and duplicity. So this child thought at first he’d be able to order my (younger) children around but, of course, this doesn’t work on my kids. In fact the “pecking order” model really, really doesn’t work on so many levels and I’m not sure how many other kids literally need to die for more grownups to take the task of dismantling such structures seriously.
Here’s (more of) what I think. The “pecking order” is not a biological imperative or if it is for chickens, or whatever, we literally as a species have evolved past ONLY having this tool to utilize (note differences between reptilian, mammalian, and human brains, etc) and in fact are a whole animal with reasoning and social structure that makes these hierarchies personally and inter-personally devastating. I also notice people who defend “rule of the jungle” are quite selective about when this is something HANDS-OFF and awesome, and when it is something horrible and corrosive. So they’ll tell their child to defer to the alpha-whomever no matter what, or suck up and get in their graces or whatever – and then complain of the stress and medications they need to take to handle their boss’s abusive leadership (true real life example).
Lots of people have good ideas about (what I call, in my vague way) social justice. Zoe Weil and Wendy Priesnitz are two who come to mind immediately. I haven’t looked into bullying and bully culture extensively enough to write more on the subject. I am becoming increasingly interested though. For instance I just got back from a soccer game and observing the other parents and kids… WHOOOOOooo. *so* *fascinating*.
Thank you for writing and I’m sorry you were bullied. As adults I think it’s hard to break from the harmful bits of “education” we get from such experiences.
It’s hard to break away from how you are treated for most of your waking hours as a kid – at least it is if it’s bad. “Harmful bits”…I don’t think it tends to be bits – sure bullying is often a thing or two said here, a thing or two said there, laughter and maybe some pushing, shoving or outright beating, but the pressure of it, of the glances, the feel of being completely shut out and other is constant. At least it was for me, and after adapting to it for a while it was pretty much something that I dreaded and wanted to avoid from the time I woke up until the time I made it home after school. So an hour or two of relief and then my mom would come home and bring her load of hate and I would want to escape from that but I’d also realize I had to go back to school the next day. Meanwhile, spending all of that time in school trying to not stick out, trying to find a safe path to walk in to avoid the worst people, praying to some lame non-god version of god that you won’t get called on in class or have the teacher say your name and initiate scoffing. And sure, it all sounds weird and hypersensitive, but at a certain point the only goal of life seemed to be to become invisible. Because there was no “standing up” to twenty or thirty peers, nor any avoiding trouble once it started. And for me, being told how awful I was and what a failure I was all the time at home, and what a burden and so on fit seamlessly with that attitude from my peers. They hate my hair, my clothes, my body, my “sexuality” is gross, I’m stupid and slow and fat, when bad things happen to me others like it (school). If I am happy someone will make sure it doesn’t last, if people at school mistreat me I am told it’s my fault, if my parent has a bad day, it’s my fault, if my parent is worried about money it’s my fault, my parent never wanted to have me but didn’t believe in abortion thank god she was ok with getting her tubes tied (messages from home).
sorry to go off on a tangent in such a big way, by the way.
It’s funny to think about this stuff because I rarely do (though I am sure it sounds like all I think about).
I think bullying is a part of the system -either the culture or the schools. we have a big teasing culture, and teasing is usually mean, even when it’s presented as fun or funny.
I’m glad you wrote this. I tweeted that article because of all the hardships I have gone through my life, I’ve come out stronger on the other side when all was said and done. All except for the bullying. All that ching chong stuff happened when I was in the 4th grade. I get it. Kids are cruel. But that emotional trauma runs deep. And you can’t shake it. Being bullied fundamentally changes your emotional foundations. Mostly because most bullying happens at an age where kids are most impressionable. Those chunks of of your self worth torn apart never grow back. You cope because you pretend you don’t care anymore. And that’s the best you can do.
“â€œHarmful bitsâ€â€¦I donâ€™t think it tends to be bits â€“ sure bullying is often a thing or two said here, a thing or two said there, laughter and maybe some pushing, shoving or outright beating, but the pressure of it, of the glances, the feel of being completely shut out and other is constant.”
You are right about that. I’m sorry to read about your school and home life. You are providing B. with such a better home and school life. It is staggering to think about it. I wish you’d had the mom that you are today.
Thank you. I truly believe it takes courage for the bullied to write about their experiences. They run the risk of being told to Be Quiet, or they’re being too sensitive, there’s an element of truth to all racial/sex/gender humor so just get over yourself, etc etc.
Thank you for admitting you care and admitting it mattered and posting the article. I am glad to have read it. I hope many who read here, read on.