Uniquely Okay to Mistreat

“Bullying” is such a weak word, isn’t it? The word itself (not the act) always evokes silly images for me, either of cartoon schoolyard lunkheads or anthropomorphized bovines. The word “bully” doesn’t really do justice to what it can mean to the victim of bullying, particularly if the victim is a child, and experiences it day in and day out as I did. Maybe bullying would be taken more seriously if we used more specific and accurate words to define the behavior: abuse, harassment, assault, persecution, dehumanization.

We usually reserve words like this for crimes or significant social ills, and it’s understandable that it can be hard to comprehend them as applying to, say, 6th-graders in gym class. But if anything, the impact on the 6th-grader is potentially far more severe and pernicious than on the adult who is treated similarly.

I recently saw this Reddit thread on bullying, in which the original poster argues in favor of all-out legal prosecution for bullying (which I am not advocating here). “Aquareon” writes:

[One rationale against prosecution was that] they were “just having fun” (at my expense) and that if I could successfully have them sent to juvie or some similarly severe consequence, it would be a disproportionate retaliation.

I reject that reasoning as an adult because of the lasting scars bullying left. Knowing that those responsible got away with it scott free and are now forever beyond my reach has been the source of more suffering by far than the stuff they actually said and did at the time. It has undermined my belief in justice and left me feeling like I am uniquely okay to mistreat, where others are not.

Never getting “justice” for the abuse I endured as a kid is not the the greatest source of suffering for me, but it certainly sticks in my craw all these years after the fact. It’s really that last sentence that truly strikes a chord:

It has undermined my belief in justice and left me feeling like I am uniquely okay to mistreat, where others are not.

That’s the damage. In part because there is no meaningful recourse for victims of bullying (informing teachers and other authority figures usually only makes things worse for the victim), and because the perpetrators rarely face meaningful consequences (and when they do, again, the bullying only increases as a result), and because those peers who are not engaged in the bullying show a tacit approval of it by either enjoying the spectacle or staying silent, the message to the young, impressionable victim is, “you deserve this.”

How could it be otherwise? The school and its surrounding outcroppings (buses, extracurriculars, etc.), and the people who inhabit it, are a kid’s entire world. When a bullying victim’s entire known universe conspires to convince them that they are “uniquely okay to mistreat,” they will be easily convinced. I certainly was.

And I still feel that way. Of course I know intellectually that this isn’t true, but I’m fighting against years of memorized thought patterns, conditioned responses, impressions of myself that were baked into my brain just when I was at the age of figuring myself out. For all the work I’ve done on correcting this wrong thinking over the years, it may always be that my instinct will be to consider myself subhuman, of all things considered last, with only my higher reasoning to throw my sense of self-worth a rope and hoist it up to firmer ground.

So while I’m not here endorsing prosecution, I do think this aspect of bullying is worth taking very seriously as we figure out what the best response to bullying actually is. “Just get over it,” as I’ve been told innumerable times even by those who love me, just isn’t it.

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Righteous Irritation and the License to Bully

Yesterday, I tweeted:

Get really mad. Together.

Twitter.

Ha ha I’m so witty. Anyway, it’s an expression of my feeling of alienation from the mob-attacks that pass for “debate” on Twitter and other online outlets. Last year I put it this way:

There is plenty of argument online. But actually relatively little open disagreement. [It’s] really just agreement on the position that those other people (or that one poor dumb bastard) on the other side are wrong.

It’s people, astride very tall horses, agreeing at other people.

At Big Think, Jason Gots traces this phenomenon to annoyance, the power that being irritated by a person or an idea can have on us emotionally. And where do we go to vent our emotions? Twitter! Gots writes:

Irritation is a powerful force. It has the whiff of righteousness.

Think about how you feel when (if) you’re annoyed at a smoker, or the way someone drives, or how they dress, or how they parent. Admit it, you feel bothered by their wrongness, that a moral principle has been broken. Ugh, look at that person just lighting up like it doesn’t even matter. Ugh, look at that mother letting her kid behave that way. Most of the time, these things don’t even effect you. You just feel like they’ve violated something sacred rule even though it has nothing to do with you.

More Gots:

[Irritation] inspires dread in the meek. If you read old accounts of any society that eventually erupted in some form of ethnic cleansing or witch-hunting, you’ll hear people gossiping and commiserating about the annoying habits of the marginalized group, nodding their heads in agreement about the ways in which these people obviously don’t “get” the rules of society that are perfectly obvious to anyone with common sense.

Have you ever known that a romantic relationship was more or less over, as far as you were concerned, but couldn’t really justify a breakup with any ironclad offenses? They haven’t wronged you or cheated on you, you’re just done. So (and I know I’ve done this in my stupider days) you unconsciously begin to invent things that bother you about them, or the small annoyances that never mattered before suddenly become deal-breakers. Now apply that to one cultural, ethnic, political, religious, or any other identity group’s feelings toward another. (Android people can’t stand how snooty Apple people are. Apple people can’t stand how crass and tasteless Android people are. They are so annoying.)

Gots doesn’t just shrug it off, though. He wants us to stop it. And it’s harder than it seems to stop.

Words have power, and the line between opinion and fact is not nearly so clearly demarcated as it once was. So when your rhetoric suggests that something you’re saying should be completely obvious to anyone who isn’t an idiot, you’re basically bullying people into agreeing with you.

Remember bullies in the classic middle and high school sense? Well I sure do! And they were always so annoyed by my existence. The fact that I was, well, the way I was, way over there, away from them, really irritated them. That feeling justified their ruining several years of my life. What I looked like, what I was into, the way I stood or sat or walked, it wasn’t right, so I had it coming.

This happens all the easier if you, the hearer of a given annoyance, don’t know any better. If I’m an Apple fan, and I hear all this irritation with Android people, I’ll be pretty likely to share that opinion and that annoyance, even if I have no experience with Android or its users. If I know nothing about feminism, and a bunch of dudebros I follow go on about how annoying they are, what with their always asking for equality and whatnot, I will likely share this opinion of them whether I intend to or not.

Because you see I probably don’t know any better, and I certainly don’t want to be on the outs of my group, right? I can’t be sticking up for Android or feminism or whatever, because then I’m the one my group gets annoyed at. Then it’s open season on me.

Oh hey, it’s open season on Rachel Dolezal, isn’t it? We’re so annoyed and irritated that she thought it would be okay to just pretend to be black. She’s fair game. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know why she does it, or what might have happened to her, or been done to her, to make her want to escape her identity, to turn away from her other life. Let’s make her feel even worse because we’re annoyed.

Arthur Cohen had an op-ed in the Times a few days ago about political hating, but it applies to all of these things. His advice:

Declare your independence by not consuming, celebrating or sharing the overheated outrage and negative punditry — even if it comes from those with whom you agree. Avoid indulging in snarky, contemptuous dismissals of Americans on the other side. And always own up to your views.

Imagine that.

Beautiful, Beautiful Alienation: Walkmen, Phones, and (Not) Watches

Photo credit: Viewminder / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

I was relatively late to the whole Walkman thing. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I got ahold of my own portable cassette player, partly because I didn’t discover a love of contemporary music until I was 12 or so, and partly because I never thought to ask for one. (I had pretty much exhausted my enthusiasm for my Weird Al tapes, they being pretty much the only thing I ever listened to.) I don’t remember how I finally got one (a spare of my dad’s? a gift from grandma?), but when I did acquire one, and armed it with Thomas Dolby’s The Golden Age of Wireless, my life was changed.

Suddenly, I could remove myself from the world around me, something I as a bullied, nervous, self-loathing teen was desperate to do. In place of the hurtful, disapproving world, I could immerse myself sensorially in a rich world of melody, pathos, cleverness, and imaginativeness. It’s a cliché to say that “music saved my life,” but it’s no exaggeration to say that I was able to get through some of my most miserable years because I discovered the joys and the escape of music, enjoyed alone.

The Web and the larger online world have in many ways been the Walkman of my social existence. There was no Web to speak of when I was a teenager, but I did have Prodigy and later America Online (which I hear goes by another, shorter name now). These technologies — which included things like chat rooms, message boards, email, and later social networks — facilitated communication and interaction, yes, but from a much safer remove. There were layers of abstraction that conveniently hid most of who I was, and only let out the things I specifically authorized. I could speak, joke, argue, play, and even flirt, and never have to worry that I was being disqualified for my appearance, my clothes, or even how I simply held my body, all things that invited open mockery in meatspace. Like a personal cassette player, the online world let me enter a rich new world while also being blissfully alone.

Last month at The Awl, John Herrman wrote about “the asshole theory of technology,” which I’ll get into in a bit. He writes about the dawn of the Walkman:

Sony was worried that its portable stereo would be alienating. This turned out to be true. But the impulse to correct it was wrong: the thing that made it alienating was precisely the thing that made it good. The more compelling a gadget is, the more you use it, the more the people around you resent you for using it, the more they are pressured to use it themselves. (The fact that these devices are now all connected to each other only accelerates the effect.)

For me, I was already alienated. I needed someplace to be while alienated, a way to make use of my alienation. Music helped, and the advent of the online world was a significant leap (and iPods too). And then we got smartphones, and all of that and more became instantly available wherever I was, from a small rectangle in my pocket.

So back to this asshole theory. Herrman means to apply it to the likely success of the Apple Watch, as a new gadget for users to alienate themselves with, while simultaneously wooing the would-be-alienated:

This is the closest thing we have to a law of portable gadgetry: the more annoying it is to the people around you, the “better” the concept. The more that using it makes you seem like an asshole to people who aren’t using it, the brighter its commercial prospects. [ . . . ] It will succeed if it can create new rude exclusionary worlds for its wearers (this is why I wouldn’t underrate the weird “Taptic” communications stuff). It will succeed, in other words, to whatever extent it allows people to be assholes.

Maybe this is true for the Apple Watch, that the air of exclusiveness and elitism that it projects, and the in-crowd-only communications aspect of it, will drive its success. But the theory doesn’t work for me in terms of personal stereos, iPods, the Internet, and smartphones. I don’t care if they make me seem like an asshole (perhaps they do). I care that they get me away from all the other assholes, everywhere.

And a watch can’t do that.

Patrick Stewart and the Shame of Bullying

Image by Shutterstock.
I was rather moved when I saw this tweet yesterday.

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It’s already heartening to me to see celebrities that I highly respect stand up for a cause that feels so personal to me, to see smart and powerful people acknowledge that the torment that so many kids endure at the hands of their peers is genuinely damaging, and a crisis worth mustering resources to stop.

But he didn’t just support the cause. He owned up to his own culpability. I’ve done some Googling around, and not found any instances of Stewart elaborating on his tweet (“at times I was a bully”), so I can’t say just how much of a bully he was or wasn’t. Did he tease once in a while? Join in when others started taunting someone else? Or a prime source of harassment? I don’t know. But that doesn’t really matter.

Listen, ever since I got out of that environment, I cannot recall a single instance of anyone – anyone – admitting they were a bully, to any degree. I may have heard from people I didn’t go to school with some minor variation on “Yeah, I teased some kids, but that’s just kids being kids.” But I’ve never heard of anyone saying, “I was a bully and I am ashamed of it.”

And I’ve certainly never heard it from any of the people who tormented me. And there were lots of them, but not a one has ever said anything. I do not expect and never have expected them to.

But here we have Sir Patrick Stewart, one of my heroes, as both an artist and an activist, actively working to combat bullying, and saying flat out, “When I was a child at times I was a bully – and I’m ashamed.” He’s saying I did it and it’s not okay. It’s not just kids being kids. And he didn’t just say he regretted it, or that it was a mistake. He feels “ashamed,” he carries the feeling with him today.

Maybe it’s silly that it means so much to me that he’s said this. But it really does.

Thank you, captain.

Being a Bully is Good for You

The old trope has it that while bullies make your life hell during your years in school, once you’re all grown up and in the world, the bullies’ targets all become successful and self-assured while the bullies themselves wind up in crappy, dead-end jobs, miserable and full of regret and self-loathing.

No.

Researchers at Duke say, “Enhanced social status seems to have a biological advantage.” You don’t say. Apparently it has something to do with inflammation:

In adults, a high social status, including income or education level, is associated with lower levels of inflammatory markers, the researchers wrote.

“The finding of lower increases in [c-reactive protein] levels for pure bullies into adulthood is novel,” the researchers said, adding that previous work tended to focus on the those who struggled through adversity.

Meanwhile, we bullying targets, the future-Bill-Gateses of the world, have a different fate.

I had always been skeptical of the bullies-are-doomed myth, which I know is uttered primarily to give the bullied a small sense of hope or justice, but rings incredibly hollow. Whatever the ugly motivations for bullying, the results are pretty much the same: the asshole gets to feel even better about himself than he did before. They get a little burst of confidence, validation, and a sense of superiority. Presuming they are not also getting bullied themselves (by peers, parents, what have you), it’s hard to see how bullying wouldn’t help them with their well-being into adulthood.

Goddamn it.

I Am a Winner *Because* You Are a Loser

Psychotherapist Joseph Burgo writes in The Atlantic about research linking bullying to narcissism. (For some reason this is news.) Looking back at the near-constant bullying to which I was subjected in school, the description of this connection rings true:

[T]he actual bully deliberately sets out to make his victim feel inferior. It helps to view the bully as a kind of competitor on the social playing field, one who strives not only to win but to triumph over the social losers and destroy their sense of self. As in competitive sport, where winners and losers exist in a binary relation to one another, the bully is yoked in identity to his victims. To a significant degree, his self-image depends upon having those losers to persecute: I am a winner because you are a loser.

I absolutely recognize this from my tormentors. Often when one talks of bullying one may have experienced in school, it’s presumed that the threat, or the source of the anxiety, was over one’s physical safety, as in, oh no I’m afraid these guys are going to beat me up. While that was certainly a factor, the real threat was to one’s sense of self, and it was always clear that this was the bully’s intended target. If he took your lunch money, or if he socked you in the gut, it wasn’t really to get your money or mete out a punishment. It was to make you feel like a shitty, worthless person. And on me, it really worked.

I also recognize this, a hint of it anyway, in myself. I wrote about this earlier this year, so let me just blockquote myself:

As the lowest kid on the totem pole, I at times managed to befriend some less-reviled kids in middle and high school. But I also remember feeling so terrified of being socially demoted back to the bottom, that I’d single out those few kids who I perceived to be a notch under me, even if they had at one point been my friends, and haplessly find ways to lift myself up by singling them out. I never “bullied” per se, but I did make a handful of bungled attempts at teasing, which always backfired and wound up making me look worst of all. Which, in those cases, was just.

I wasn’t trying to hurt anyone, but I perceived that one’s status was always relative to other people’s, and that I couldn’t join the “normals” unless I made clear that there were other kids beneath me. I failed at this, of course, and still beat myself up for the one or two occasions I made some laughable attempt at the aforementioned teasing, which at least tells me that my narcissism isn’t all that severe.

Anyway, this passage from the article seemed a little contradictory to me:

Recent studies suggest that bullies may actually have normal or above-average self-esteem, at least in terms of their physical attractiveness and popularity, but they also tend to be more “shame-prone.” Clinical psychologist Mary C. Lama describes the dynamic in this way: “Shame is what a bully attempts to hide. … [T]hey are anxious about the exposure of their failures or shortcomings. [T]he bully gives away his shame by denigrating you and, as a result, a bully will make you experience shame about your own inadequacies.” In other words, the bully makes himself a winner at your expense, forcing you to become the shame-ridden loser.

That sounds to me like self-esteem is a problem, at least as far as the research finds. I think to better word it, I might say that despite recognizing attributes of themselves that are clearly highly-valued in middle and high school social climbing (athleticism, looks, wealth), the narcissistic bullies nonetheless feel a deeper hole in themselves, something below the surface of mere day-to-day schoolyard acceptance. They can be fully aware of what makes them “better” than, well, a kid like me, but also be subconsciously driven by the more meaningful things in their lives that they lack.

Maybe that’s what I could have tried when I was being harassed and humiliated. “Hey man, your attempts to destroy my will to live won’t make your father love you.” Nah, probably not.

The Self and its Ever-Corrupting Shell

Lionel Shriver quotes one of her own novels’ characters to explain the different worlds inhabited by attractive and non-attractive people:

People who’ve always been good-looking, she says, “haven’t a clue that how they’re treated—how much it has to do with their appearance. I even bet that attractive people have a higher opinion of humanity. Since everybody’s always nice to them, they think everybody’s nice. But everybody’s not nice. And they’re superficial beyond belief … Ugly people, fat people, even people who just aren’t anything special? They have to work harder to please. They have to do something to prove out, whereas when you’re pretty to look at you don’t have to do anything but sit there and everybody is plumb delighted.”

Absolutely true, and this doesn’t even take into account that we less-than-stunnings often are not only ignored, but tormented. Just as posited in a previous post, I often wonder if I’d be the attention-needy entertainer I’ve become if not for the struggle to treat social water for so many of my most awkward, formative years.

Shriver brings in her own experience:

For me, having my teeth straightened [after being bucktoothed] at 15 was instructive: I was still the same person, yet suddenly my classmates were kinder. To be sure, no longer feeling self-conscious about my front teeth has made me more confident—but that just means that being spared all those cracks about Bugs Bunny has helped me to be more completely myself.

Have you ever had some feature about you that perhaps was particularly unattractive, and maybe even you didn’t realize it? And then have you had that aspect of your physical self improved or corrected? If so, you already know, it’s not even that people are just nicer, they are palpably relieved. Thank goodness you fixed that, it was difficult for me to cope with.

More Shriver:

Socially, cosmetic transformation makes a big difference—an appalling difference. And maybe the discipline of regular exercise builds mental muscles for the pursuit of more important goals. But beyond that, our contemporary equivalence between the self and its ever-­corrupting, malady-prone shell profoundly diminishes what it means to be a human being.

There’s one thing I’ll add to this, that it is not exclusively a cosmetic transformation that can have this kind of effect. All of my middle and high school years I was subject to fairly relentless bullying, mockery, and general social torment. I was goofy looking, small, unathletic, and did not, to most of my peers, to possess any redeeming qualities. I was just this thing.

Most of them had no idea that I was a pretty goddamn good actor, though. And why would they? They’d never see a play even if they were paid.

One morning, my senior year, the closed-circuit morning announcement “news show” reported that I had won first place in a state drama competition the preceding weekend (for comedy monologue, as well as a slew of other awards, I do not at all mind telling you).

In the hallway soon after as I moved to my first class, one of my usual tormentors, a kid also named Paul I seem to be unable to forget, a big, handsome jock type, stopped me. He has mocked me for years, and was part of a coterie of well-to-do school athletes that delighted in my misery.

“You won an acting prize?” he asked.

“Yep.”

“Wow, man. That’s great.”

He nodded, genuinely impressed. He was taken aback. After years of knowing only that I was a little slug-thing for him to amuse himself by, a weird boy who did nothing but sort of poorly exist, he found out that I had a talent, a skill, that I actually excelled at — officially, even!

It was as though I had grown 6 inches in height and a set of muscles overnight. Only then did I have value. It was a nice feeling in the moment, but in hindsight it bothered me a great deal that, well shit, I’ve always been this guy you’re now impressed with. Maybe you and your dudebros could have laid off, even a little, just until you knew for sure whether or not I was merely local nerd fauna for you to feed off of.