A recent hot-stove topic has been the slew of bullying-related suicides. I've read and watched this topic with a sordid sort of interest. Having been a "victim" of bullying for much of my childhood, it's been easy for me to condone the vilification of those who are doing the bullying. However, doing so simply turns the tables while ignoring the true problem at hand and that is eliminating bullying at its source...if that's even possible.
Let's start with assessing just what makes a bully. Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, 11th Edition, gives us the following definition: a blustering browbeating person; especially, one habitually cruel to others who are weaker. As an adult, I look at that description and think that if I knew someone like that, I wouldn't associate with that person. But, I think, most adult-level bullying isn't as easily marked or identified as it might have been as a child. As kids, there were simply kids who were known as bullies. These were the kids who liked nothing better than to impress (both figuratively and literally) their physical prowess on others (ie, beat them up...or at least threaten to). But, in childhood, as far as I was concerned, the worst types of bullies weren't the ones who simply threatened physical harm, but the ones who had the power (whether actual or perceived) to manipulate your immediate world on a social and mental level. I used to dread going to certain classes in high school because I knew I would be a target for whatever snide comment so-and-so had for me that day. And, for every comeback that came to mind, I simply bit my lip most of the time.
Every person who has grown up with red hair can attest to the fact that he or she received a fairly undue amount of teasing for it. It just comes with the territory. As if being a kid isn't hard enough, we lucky few get an extra helping of self-esteem depleting abuse. Throw on top of that the bubble I had lived in through Catholic grammar school (with an 8th grade class of 15), you might say I had a bit of a rough transition to public high school. I was 5'9" and 115 lbs when I entered as a freshman. When I graduated, I was 6'1" and 125. (Today I waver between 135 and 140. Most I ever weighed was ~147 when I was trying my hardest to gain weight. Can you say "fast metabolism"?) So, yeah...sort of like a walking flag pole. Nothing like sticking out in a crowd when all you want to do is fit in. I rarely did. And that's all we really want as kids, right? To fit in and feel wanted.
Picking on others is not exclusive to kids, unfortunately. I see it every day. Ask someone if they condone bullying and, I imagine, most will respond in the negative. However, make a snide comment about so-and-so's clothing/hair/weight and you may be joined by a chorus of affirmation. I plead guilty to the latter just as many of us must. It's our competitive nature to take others down a notch, even if it's under the guise of jest. But, what we have to realize is that we're regressing to a form of bullying by doing so. It's a symptom of our society. We can no longer eat the weak...legally. We can no longer slay our sexual competitor...legally. And, as adults, you can't threaten physical harm to someone in order to get your way...legally. So, we're forced into this passive-aggressive stance that manifests itself verbally.
Because I was never able to be a physical bully, I learned to be the verbal one. I developed a sharp tongue and used it without remorse amongst people I knew wouldn't strike me down physically. I took advantage of friends who were less swift with the verbal barbs. I'd like to think that I never said one thing that was so damaging as to cause someone irrevocable injury, but one might be fairly scarred from a thousand paper cuts.
Delving into this topic brings up some glaring truths. Bullying doesn't just create victims; it perpetuates a problem. Even if bullying is the expression of a repressed natural instinct, there must be a point at which it can be recognized and snuffed out. But, if we are unable to recognize the level at which it exists in ourselves, then how are we to stop it from coming out in our own children? And, if we turn around and vilify bullies, aren't we simply becoming the bully? An-eye-for-an-eye leaves a room full of blind people.
I think it's important to recognize that bullying isn't something confined to high school halls. We seem to be finally making a decision that bullying is no longer an acceptable norm. It's detrimental to us as a whole and has no place in an intelligent growing society. However, just because it's recognized as such, doesn't mean this problem will just go away (Okay, no more bullying…starting…now! Ok? Ok). Just as we are going through the pains involved in expelling racism and homophobia, the same will hold true for bullying. I can only hope that when my son is my age, he can look back and recognize when we turned that corner.
October Is Anti-Bullying Awareness Month. Try and do your part in getting us around that corner.