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.