It’s About What We Do, Not Who We Are

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.  

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When We Were Bullied As Kids, What Did We Want Done About It?

I maintain there’s not a person on this earth who hasn’t been bullied at one time or another.  I certainly experienced my share when I was younger, and unfortunately some of that came at the hands of adults.  In one case, my mother intervened and requested a conference with the bullying teacher, and it actually made the situation worse.

Recently I was talking with someone who was struggling with how to protect her kid from bullying or at least prepare him to handle it.  When I told her that it didn’t matter what her kid did, he’d be bullied by someone for something and that it would be more important to prepare him to deal with it (and told the story of how my mom’s intervention made things worse), she asked a really vital question I’d never considered before:

What did you want your parents to do about the bullying?

I’d never really considered it.  The way my particular situation was dealt with at the time was the wrong way, something I predicted even before the meeting took place.  But when I went to my mother complaining that the teacher was treating me unfairly and didn’t like me for some reason, what did I want from her?  Obviously she thought I was asking for intervention.  What was I asking for?

This is a really relevant question for all adults, even those of us who don’t have kids, because it’s a much broader topic than just bullying.  When we feel mistreated, belittled, marginalized, or harmed by others, and when we take those complaints to our friends or our deity of choice, what do we really want to see happen?  The way we react to things in our life that make us feel the same way bullying always makes people feel ties directly back to our inner child.  

The thing is that the bullying I experienced isn’t something that only happens to kids.  Adults do it to each other all the time.  At one point in my professional life I came up against a supervisor who, for reasons I can only speculate about, was dead set against allowing me to advance within the company.  In many ways, it was the same kind of bullying I’d experienced back in high school.  This time, however, I knew I didn’t want anyone to step in and try to sort the situation by throwing all the accusations into the light.  When the bully has authority over the victim and the mediator doesn’t have authority over the bully, that can only end in disaster.  

So, being an adult with a more critical and strategic mind, I sought out my own solution in the form of a support network.  

I talked to my manager about moving forward and she backed me up.  I talked to other supervisors and volunteered for opportunities to show that I was capable and ready.  I networked.  I developed more people who supported me and advocated for me.  And through it all I never had to accuse the bully of anything.  I didn’t have to make a fight about it.  I just kept pushing, kept finding allies, kept growing my network of support.

And, in retrospect, that’s what I wanted from my mother.  I wanted to know that, should I make my own push for justice or my own move to change the situation, she would back me up.  I wanted to find those people who saw things differently, to assure myself that I was surrounded by people who knew her opinion of me was wrong, who might see for themselves if things got bad.  

In the end, the point I’ve finally learned as an adult is that you cannot change what others think of you, and you don’t have to.  I continued to work under that supervisor, and despite his opinions I rightfully got the opportunity to move up in the company.  Other people gave me the opportunities he refused to provide, and in the end his opinion didn’t matter.  

So, in response to the original question, what did I want my parents to do about bullying?  I wanted them to tell me I was right.  I wanted someone to assure me it wasn’t okay for the bully to treat me that way, that I had a right to be upset, that people in this world had my back.  I wanted the adults in my life to provide a safety net while I faced down an unfair situation.

The things we do for kids to try and solve the problem of bullying are largely counter-effective.  If we teach them not to act in ways which make them different, we reinforce the idea that there are “bad” ways to act and look and be.  If we teach them to meet bullying with bullying we teach them that those acts which make them feel so awful are okay if done in retaliation.  

What if we taught our kids (and ourselves) that for every person who treats us unfairly, there are many more who will be there to hold our hands and support us in our search for a better situation?  What if, instead of trying to figure out how to defeat those who stand against us, we try even harder to figure out how to strengthen our ties with those who stand with us?

In the end, the confrontation with the bullying teacher had its up side.  The meeting ended in outrageous lies on the part of the bully regarding things other teachers had said about me.  In response, I went to my other teachers to ask for myself if there were problems I should know about.  I did it on my own, and I ended up reassured that the rest of my teachers had my back.  Had I not already been reasonably sure I had people behind me to back me up, I might have been unwilling to stand up for myself like that.  

I think the best thing we can do for each other, for humanity at large, is to concentrate less on fighting our enemies and more on being there when our friends need to lean on us.  The stronger our own alliances, the less threatening the enemy becomes.