After my post a while back on bullying, I found this excellent blog post on the topic which I think makes a lot of parallel observations which have broader application.
First, I agree that the world isn’t divided up between “bullies” and “victims”. Being a bully isn’t a matter of identity. Neither is being a victim of bullying. We do ourselves and those we are trying to help a great disservice by trying to identify what makes someone a bully or what makes someone likely to be targeted. Approaching the problem from that direction actually makes the problem worse instead of making it better because it reinforces the idea that there are certain traits which are better or worse than others.
For instance, when I was bullied by a teacher as a high school kid, the root of the issue was that I didn’t fit that teacher’s concept of what a member of the group I was in (she was our sponsor) should look and act like. In short, I was neither cool enough nor popular enough. She didn’t like me, she didn’t think I belonged there, and I got that message loud and clear. So the first problem with the way the situation was handled by my mother was that it actually made the apparent divide between cool and popular people and myself even wider.
The message should have been that none of those attributes matter. Perhaps I’d have felt differently about the situation if my mother had marched into that room and told the teacher in no uncertain terms that she was not justified in treating some team members differently from others for any reason, period. That’s the message we should have been teaching. No combination of traits and qualities makes it okay for someone to be treated differently. And by the same token no combination of traits and qualities makes it okay for someone to treat others differently or demand to be treated differently than others. Approaching bullying in any other way just widens the divide.
Consider, for instance, the geek community. We come together to celebrate all those things we used to be ostracized for, which should be a really positive thing. And then in the same space where we are gathering in positive solidarity as fandoms and geeks, we turn on each other and bully people for not living up to how we think they should be. Cosplayers are bullied, fans shame other fans for not knowing everything there is to know about the game/show/film/book/etc or not being fans for the same reasons… When we focus too hard on labeling people as bullies and bullied, good and bad, we miss the root of the problem entirely.
Second, the blog post makes the same great point about bullying not being a problem people grow out of. I’ve long said that the worst lesson I had to learn as an adult was that adults aren’t different from kids except in terms of access to resources and influence. I grew up feeling like I didn’t quite fit in, and everything I was told about getting through my adolescence focused on things getting better as I got older. I didn’t really put any effort into learning to relate to other kids my age, especially those who I felt didn’t or wouldn’t like me, because I had been taught that it wouldn’t matter. When we reached the adult world, I was told, all that childish stuff wouldn’t matter and when I made a success of myself I’d have the last laugh.
And then I graduated from college and got a job working with people who acted just like the kids in high school. There were still rumors, pranks, cliques, and bullying. It was more subtle, less overt, but equally wrong. And it came as a really huge shock to me at the time. I’d put a of stock in the idea that when I got to be an adult my skills and achievements would have more weight with others than my social skills, and that was absolutely and completely backwards. I ended up having to learn how to make friends as an adult when I really should have learned that as a kid. And that’s what happens when we teach kids that it doesn’t matter what others do to us, that it doesn’t matter what happens to us at the hands of other kids, that the adult world is some magically different place. I was taught that petty bullies would grow up to get some kind of karmic retribution and I’d be vindicated, but that was the worst thing I could have been taught.
The linked post goes on to boil everything down to our reaction and contribution to behaviors, especially teasing and other behaviors we might intend to be funny, which create unsafe spaces for others and normalize bullying. Becoming a better person doesn’t mean only poking fun at and humiliating those who “deserve it”. Becoming a better person means realizing it’s never okay to make someone feel like it’s not okay to be different. It’s those acts — the things we do to make others feel like unacceptable or different — which are the problem.