Picture me, dear reader, all of twelve years old and my weight greater then than my IQ. Short, squat, and unsure of myself and those seemingly buried latent abilities that wouldn’t crop up until much later, plodding my miserable halls of middle school warily searching out those unwelcome signs of that one kid who had, for some unexplained and inexplicable reason, targeted me, intent on proving himself the stronger. I once bowed down to that kid to avoid having my ass handed to me. Oh, the shame in that moment. Despite the vengeful ire that burned through some high school and even later years of finding that kid and pissing on his parade I can’t recall his name now. I do remember Ira Levine in elementary school suddenly getting a bug up his ass and working me over during a week of recesses. One day he proudly told me, “any day, any time.” “Fine,” responded my cocksure youth, “today, in that field, after school.” Suddenly, I found myself awash with new friends and offers of help in defeating Ira the newly terrible. Ira found me after school and informed me that we couldn’t fight as his bodyguard was sick. He never troubled me again.
I wonder about Ira and that nameless other (was he a Chris?) now. Surely, they’ve mellowed in the way that age and adult pressures demand. Maybe not. Maybe they’re still terrorizing people in random bar fights or stalking meek men while searching for something that few of us really understand. I’m more inclined to believe that they’ve married and had children and now worry about their kids being treated with the same disregard that sticks them in my memory here today. I’m betting that they’re more or less decent cats, just trying to find their way like the rest of us. Kids can be cruel; it’s kind of a part of finding our way, I think. Those two bullied me a bit, I was less than kind to others. All these years hence I see little wrong with that.
It would seem that bullying has become epidemic, if I’m to believe all the press has to say about it. We’ve heard the horror stories of young gay men committing suicide to escape the jeers of their peers. We’ve heard, in turn, about how absolutely cruel young girls can be to another outside their personal clique. And we’ve seen videos gone viral of young fat children (not so far off from my twelve year old self) playing Jedi with a broomstick. Cynic that I am, I can’t bring myself to believe that bullying is any more prevalent or even more inhuman than it was when my coworker told me of once chaining a naked freshman to a water fountain some thirty years ago.
Let’s stop for an aside. I don’t condone bullying. I was a frightened fat kid, panic nibbling at the edges of my uncomfortable frame, walking longer routes to easy-to-reach places so as to avoid ‘those kids’ that would take my money or debase me easily. (And they did just that, dear reader; crying, my allowance gone, I walked home shamed and strangely breathless, thinking that anything I might have done would have fared better than keeping my body bruise free.) Nobody wants a child to feel that sinking despair in the pit of their stomach and those weird and irritating little shakes of the hands that fear so coldly makes useless. I no longer wish that on that nameless cat that shamed me all those years ago or even that kid that mugged me on my way to buy a comic book and play some Mrs. Pacman on what had started to be so lovely a Saturday morning with cartoons and chores. No, I’m not arguing that bullying is necessary or even character building. I’m just saying that it’s always been there and will, more than likely, always be.
But, here’s the rub. Has bullying gotten worse? I can’t imagine that the vast sea of humanity has drifted so far from its shores and frightening wave upon wave has caused more and more children to become more hardened and callous than those that pushed me around, my father around, or even beyond. You can tell me that this next generation is more tempestuous and uncaring, lazier, more disrespectful, and, all around, less than the generation that preceded it. Respectfully, I’ll simply not buy it.
“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.” That quote is attributed to Socrates. I’ll let you look up the date. Just don’t tell me that the world is getting worse every generation. Socrates would have me believe that Alex and his droogs would own the world by now, but I know that ending of A Clockwork Orange that American publishers decided to omit. (Look it up, it says a fair amount about the whole work and Anthony Burgess would love for you to know what he meant when he wrote that whole thing, I’m sure.)
But, and it’s a fairly large but, we do now have the internet. I can imagine that this relatively new form of arguably faceless communication could well be affecting our interactions and perceptions in day to day life. I often argue that language, alone, dictates our perceptions (and, therefore, our realities). The internet should have some psychological effects, as well, I think. Could the internet, those dearly embraced webs of knowledge and misinformation be contributing to the overall scene of bullying? I could buy that. E-mails are often far more critical than my face to face dealings. Are children climbing on Facebook bandwagons of exclusion, relishing in the near anonymous aspects of name-calling and perception building? The need for acceptance is strong in children (ach, adults, too, lest I forget myself) and acceptance is strongest in ousting others, let’s not forget. Can our youth be building cases against the poor outsiders of their schools more securely through the nefariousness of ones and zeros?
Even this tugs a bit at my cynicism. In respect to the above mention of language I Googled ‘bullying’. Stopbullying.gov (seemingly, a good start for any search of bullying) defines it thus: Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.
Can you feel my hackles rising? They are, I assure you. “Real or perceived power imbalance” alone makes me want to throw the chalk at the class; perception being my very definition of reality. Beyond that, power imbalances are, I think, par for the course. We’re always imbalanced. I could knock out a novel in half the time it took that one kid to bean me in dodge ball. Even young, that made sense to me and I’ll not waste width and breath on belaboring that point here. And “has the potential to be repeated, over time?” Jesus, Mary, Joseph and pogo sticks; everything has the potential to be repeated over time. Even in a finite universe, black swans surprise us and patterns emerge that we’re not accustomed to even looking for.
Care to take a guess about which part of the next statement I find ridiculous? “Excluding someone from a group on purpose.” Give me a moment here…I don’t even have a colorful expression of disbelief to fully convey my absolute and utter incredulity at the balls of such a statement. Balls, indeed; heavy, pendulous bastards knocking against everything, be it logical, sensible, or even incredibly ridiculous. I can’t be the first to find umbrage there. Can I, really?
Groups are defined, in no small part, through their exclusions. That’s why they’re groups and not wholes. Forgive me for not finding that a great leap of logic. I balked originally at hearing that the Boy Scouts of America (though I never graced that group with my presence) were disallowing gays until I was reminded that BSA is a private group; that is to say, they choose the members they want. I can’t argue that. That’s fair. Don’t argue me, there. If you want gay Boy Scouts you can start your own Boy Scouts. I encourage that. I encourage all people to accept all others. I further encourage all people to not accept all others. That’s your choice and no one should force you to do otherwise. I further encourage all people not accepted by any said group to give all hell available to them to the folks blocking them out. Kick against the pricks and then disallow other pricks to kick with you. Honestly, I beg you to do so and support even the batshit craziest of stances, as people should be allowed all the batshit crazy we can carry. Are we so given to extremes now that we must insist on belonging to the Westboro Baptist Church simply because they don’t want us there? Allow your enemies their berth and worth. (I’m tempted to defend this thought, but prompted by my failing logic to leave it be. Accost me as you will, but it stands.)
Damn it, damn it, damn it. Please tell me that I’m not alone in this. Please. Other people see this, feel this, right?
My buddy, when I asked, told me that it is the redefinition of bullying that’s bothering me. Bullying, he concedes, was for us the very real fear of physical overpowering. Now, he further states, it’s merely the name calling that we’ve dealt with for as long as we can remember…and, yes, the exclusion from certain groups; a fact that we’ve all dealt with, again, for as long as we can remember. He and I are much alike in the respect that we both have so many interests that we gain entrance to many groups, but our philosophies all too often leave us outside those same groups. For us, not belonging has become something of a norm. I have to remind myself that a child craves that belonging when adulthood often brings pride in not belonging to those norms. My buddy makes a strong point further: our children need more self confidence than self assurance.
Take a moment with that one, if you will. I couldn’t accept it at face value at first, but I’m coming around to his thinking. I like the distinction.
Self assurance, to me, is the emotional equivalent of “I am pretty” or “I am smart”; those very things that parents and loved ones, so very rightly, try diligently to instill in our youth. I see self confidence as staring at the chasm before you and stating, “I have no idea what’s in store, but I will learn it and do it well.” That’s strength to me. I like that, applaud that, and will do what I can to aggrandize that in whatever children with whom I have a vested interest. Self confidence in our youth allows them to be excluded and say in their best Cartman voice, “Fuck you guys, I’m going home,” and be cool with that.
The bullying I endured stopped right around the time that I gained that self confidence of unknown courses before me (though, I’ll not go into the defining circumstances wherein I gained that self-confidence). Could it be just that? Is it so simple as our children gaining that confidence to hold their heads higher and look in confusion to the bully calling them names that no longer make any sense to their new found perceptions?
The beautiful and rather proudly named NarcoSleepy tells me that there was a study that found that the creation of middle schools created a new level of adolescence, one that she admits that she finds the kids to be largely unhappy within (and I can commiserate, middle school was not a happy time for short, fat, little me). Is this continual grouping of like ages harming us? In high school my alma mater decided that children were having too many troubles adjusting to the idealism of high school curriculum and life-style. They segregated the freshmen from the rest of the classes. Due to scheduling troubles which plagued me every year, I found myself a senior in freshman lunch hour and was instantly convinced that my aversion to this technique was well-founded. We learn as we see. There is nothing easy in an eighteen year old dealing with a thirteen year old, but they learn, they coalesce to a very certain degree. I did, as did others before me, and others in that lunch-room that I found so distant to my then so lacking maturity.
Bullies, bullies, bullies. I can’t shake the feeling that we’re all talking about different levels of the same childhood hindrances. Yes, we can stop a child from physically accosting another repeatedly (and well we should), but should we stop cliques? Can we stop name-calling? Is the old adage about sticks and stones correct? Should I be more concerned that name calling will slowly erode a person’s attempt at a better life? If dear little Abs (now four) is not invited to a party, I can only hope to make it clear to her that it’s not the end of the world, but, ultimately for the best, but what do I know of the four year old universe? I know that I wasn’t invited to parties and I know that I stood out in a few of them as the guy that shouldn’t be there. I found people that would accept me and warmed in that. Even now, nearing forty, I consider that the course of things and I wonder ‘was my bullying less than the trend now?’
In the role of Devil’s Advocate I will say that you or you child have no right, whatsoever, in being part of any group. Those groups should be expected to reserve their memberships. I’ve seen numerous Christian skate nights, but not one Jewish skate night. Even in the all encompassing passion of elementary school gatherings I was left on the sidelines when couples skate was announced after Radar Love played and we were allowed to roll around the rink counter-clockwise. Further, I’ll afford the luxury of anyone to call another a disparaging name. I know that some will take this to extremes, but one’s self assurance and confidence must surpass these moments. We can not and should not disallow even the coarsest and most ignorant of these statements. Words are precisely as powerful as we allow them to be and the idea that an elected official once stepped down from office because two aids did not understand the word “niggardly” and took offence bristles me. He was bullied by people that felt equally bullied.
Enough! Christ and cripes. Are we so feeble? These are not new questions. I’m tired already in seeing my warble and variance from the original theme (though, I thank anyone in making it this far in this diatribe). I’m not convinced that bullies have changed or that things are worse than they ever were.
None of this, of course, even defines bullying any better than that government website or comes even remotely close with how to more fully deal with it. I’m just throwing questions to the wall, as I’ve not yet heard these questions presented to me in the interests of downtrodden youth. I’d like better discourse and less of hearing that it’s a problem and reading of parents confronting their children’s bullies in ways that are not acceptable to my ideal of an adult (bully is as bully does).
What is it? Is it worse? Why? I’d like some other input. I beg it of those that have given it some thought other than the knee-jerk reaction of seeing their child in pain. There’s more here, I’m convinced, and I’m less than satisfied with what I’ve been presented thus far.