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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Seek and Ye Shall Find

One of the challenges of being without a predefined spiritual label is that it can be just as hard to define for oneself the purpose of one’s nebulous spiritual endeavors as it is to describe your spiritual identity to others.  When people ask what you are, what you believe, they expect an answer which is concise enough to give them the information they’re after without devolving into a sermon.  

I think most of us find labels to be important to some extent.  Even for those of us who don’t have a religion, finding a name for where we stand is an important communicative task.  And, whether we like to admit it or not, we judge others based on the labels they choose for themselves.  Both the choice of labels and our reactions to the labels chosen by others says a lot about what we want and think others should want from their spiritual life.  And this means that, to choose the most appropriate and most useful label, we have to have a firm understanding of what purpose spirituality plays in our lives.  The more certain I have felt in my life about what I believed and what my religion or spiritual path was supposed to do for me, the more easily I’ve selected a label.  

In the past couple of decades, choosing a label has been extremely difficult.

And it’s more than not knowing what I want.  It’s also not knowing what words will most effectively convey the idea to others.  What we think we are saying isn’t always what is heard.  Especially when we’ve rejected a label for ourselves, we can be prone to assuming we know what others who still use that label mean when they say it.  Those assumptions say more about us than they say about others.

Though I’ve still not settled on a label which I feel is both meaningful and accurately communicative, I labor under the assumption that once I get a firm grasp on what I believe is the purpose of my spiritual endeavors the description will fall into place.  That maybe settling on a label will be the signal that I’ve found my spiritual identity.  

In the meantime, the centerpiece of my personal spirituality is the search itself, the quest for direction if not answers.  I am, if nothing else, a seeker.

Be the Good, Forget the Haters

It’s always interesting to see how people react to learning various facts about you, especially when you know that the impression they have of you may contradict the image they will associate with some other aspect of your life.  For instance, when people find out I was a cheerleader in high school they often expect me to be dismissive or ashamed of it because, clearly, I shouldn’t want to associate myself with the cheerleader stereotype.  

Similar things happen when people broach the topic of my religion.  Because I don’t want to enter into long, potentially uninteresting (to them, at least) conversations about my spiritual exploration and philosophies, I usually just fall back on the “atheist” label because it is technically correct.  Technically, I don’t believe in supernatural beings or phenomena which exist outside of the laws of science, so I’m an atheist.  

To some people this helps paint me as a rational, intelligent human being who values logic and the scientific method.

To others, this brands me as hostile to people of faith, misled by evil influences to reject truth.  And they might even think I eat babies or something.  

This could, of course, turn into a rant about how people misjudge other people and apply stereotypes which are negative and damaging to society.  But that’s not where I’m going.

Yes, it’s ridiculous that there is a portion of people on this planet who believe that atheists are evil and lack morals, or that cheerleaders are more sexually active and less intelligent than average, or any number of other unduly negative stereotypes.  But what is more ridiculous is that we put far more effort into trying to convince others to change the way they think rather than demonstrating with action that they are wrong.

Arguing that, as an logical atheist, my beliefs make more sense than religious concepts goes nowhere to convincing a devout person that I am not threatening to them.  In fact, the argument likely reinforces their perception.  Using that effort to be as much a positive force in the world as they expect me to be negative would go much farther.  That is not to say that debate and discussion have no place, but when it comes to those who are judgmental and accusatory it is unlikely that logic and rational discourse will get you anywhere.  

Ultimately, it does us all more good to focus on being a living embodiment of those positive things we hope our labels will say about us than it does to fight the negative stereotypes through words and confrontation.  It’s much harder to claim that a group of people is destructive and evil when that group is visibly and unquestionably working to help others and contribute positively to the world around them.