This is a post on bullying. It wasn’t intentional to post it on National Coming Out Day, but it is fitting, isn’t it?
The best quote I have for National Coming Out Day comes from a good friend of mine, who tweeted this morning: The only things you need to say when your child comes out to you: “I’m glad you chose to tell me.” “I love you.”
As she pointed out to her fellow parents, Coming Out Day is not about you, but them. About your child or loved one feeling comfortable and safe enough to tell you something that is very important to them.
My initial reaction to this was mixed. Sad that we need to have a whole month designated to bullying prevention. Relieved that this problem is being acknowledged more and more. To be honest, I think it is becoming an epidemic. An epidemic of meanness, fostered in part by the anonymity and relative safety of the internet.
I was a victim of bullying when I was growing up, though if you’d asked me at the time, I wouldn’t have said so. I would have acknowledged that I was being picked on by bullies, but I wouldn’t have considered myself a victim–not until much later, when I was trapped by circumstances and unable to get away. Not until standing up for myself didn’t have as much an effect as it had in the past.
I learned young that standing up to bullies was the best way of making them leave you alone. My mother might have had some odd ideas about raising children, but she did give us carte blanche to protect ourselves when it came to bullies.
I missed so much time in the first grade due to illness that I was required to take summer school to move on to the next level, despite having good enough grades in my classes. Legally, the school had no choice, I hadn’t met the mandatory attendance requirements. So few students in elementary school have to repeat a grade that summer school is held all in one place, with students from my age (five at the time) though eleven to twelve years old all in the same room. The only good thing about summer school was that it meant that I would finally get to celebrate my birthday like everyone else had done all year long.
In my limited experience, on your birthday, the teacher made cupcakes and everyone sang Happy Birthday. You were treated with deference for the day, and as a student with a summer birthday, I felt cheated of this honor. So when my birthday rolled around during summer school, I naively announced it to the class.
No cupcakes. No special mention or songs. And at lunch time, a group of 11-12 year old boys cornered me on the playground.
“We’re going to give you a birthday spanking.”
The leader of the boys grabbed me by the arm and turned me over his knee, smacking me on the bottom while his friends laughed.
I popped up and delivered a right hook to his jaw, knocking him ass over end to the ground. His friends scattered while he lay there crying. Later, I found myself on a bench outside the principal’s office, sobbing to my teacher as I explained what happened, frightened that I was going to get into trouble for hitting the boy. “I guess I d-d-don’t know my own strength.” I cried.
Looking back, I can see that my teacher was trying very hard not to burst out laughing at me. At the time, however, I thought I was in Major Trouble.
It taught me a lesson, however. Stand up to bullies and they break and run.
The next run-in I had was when I was eight. I lived in a neighborhood where the street looped back on itself. Often in the afternoons, we kids would get off at the first bus stop and take a shortcut through the woods to our own section of the street, as it would shave a half hour off the time you sat on the bus. The only problem is that some of the older kids used to hang out in a clearing in the woods, smoking cigarettes and harassing the younger kids as we tried to cross through to the other street. They would shove us into the mud and take our books. I was losing baby teeth at the time, and they called me SnaggleToothed Sarah as they pushed me around.
Having seen the results of standing up to a group of bullies before, yet recognizing I was outnumbered and out-massed, I armed myself for my next encounter. I placed a cast iron nutcracker inside my string-bag purse, and when the group of older boys came circling around like a pack of jackals, I let my purse drop to the end of its leather ties and began to rotate it whoop-whoop-whoop like a bolo.
One of the boys laughed. “You gonna hit me with your purse?”
I whumped it into his side when he tried to shove me again. (Dear God, it’s a wonder I didn’t kill someone!)
“She’s got rocks in her purse!” he shouted, and again, the crowd dispersed like fleas leaving a dead body.
It was a powerful lesson to learn. Stand up, and bullies back down. Biff-bam-boom.
Only when I got to middle school, it wasn’t so easy. My family moved from a major city to a small town because my dad wanted us to grow up in a small town environment. I went from being an average student to having everything in class be a repeat for me, and for once, I knew all the answers to the teacher’s questions.
What I didn’t know was that answering the questions so easily would make me a target for a group of thuggish girls my own age. My entire seventh grade year became a living nightmare.There were two kinds of families in that town: factory owners and factory workers. I didn’t belong to either class. The factory owners sent their kids to private schools. The factory workers were casually violent in a way I’d never experienced before. I was shoved into metal lockers and left until someone let me out. I was pushed headfirst down a flight of stairs. I was attacked in the girl’s bathroom and had my clothes torn off my back. I had girls threaten at 8 a.m. to kill me after school if they caught me alone later that day.
I was overwhelmed and uncertain how to fight back. I had no friends or support, other than the tacit approval of my mother to kick ass if needed. For some reason, I was incapable of telling an adult what was going on. Perhaps because I instinctively knew that involving adults without solving the problem on my own would make it worse.
So instead of getting help, I ducked my head, kept my mouth shut and hoped they would forget about me.
Two memorable things happened that year. The first was that I signed up for a reading class as an elective, thinking it would be a class where we read fabulous books for fun. (Yes, I know, naive!) What it turned out to be was a remedial reading class where every day, we read stories from a series of color-coded books, and then took tests on the stories we had just read. It was unbelievably boring.
One day, the teacher asked me to collect the books and put them away at the end of the class. My booklet went into the box labeled. ‘reading at 12th grade and beyond.’ The next closest person to me was reading at the third grade level. Everyone else in the room was reading at the first or second grade. I was shocked. I knew I read above my grade level–I always had. When I was six, I once got into an argument with a librarian who refused to help me find the unabridged version of Black Beauty because she said it would be too difficult for me to read.
“I’ve already read the entire book,” I tried in vain to explain. “My copy is missing the last page. I want to know how it turns out!”
“That book is for older children,” she told me, and directed me back to the section for first graders.
No wonder the kids in my school hated me. Here I came in, and without even intending to do so, I’d made all of them feel stupid. That was another lesson learned. People bully because it makes them feel better about themselves.
The second incident occurred when I was leaving gym class. The bell rang and we all rushed for the doors, hurrying to get to our lockers and dump our stuff so we could get to the next class without being tardy. One of my enemies pushed past me in the crush at the doorway.
“Out of my way, bitch!” she snarled as she raked my face with her cleated track shoes.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been hit in the face when wearing glasses but it hurts. A lot. I stood in shock with the pain for a moment, and then a towering fury overcame me.
I mowed her down in the open quadrant between buildings, a tiny Incredible Hulk in my rage. I spun her around and lifted her up over my head, shaking her while frothing out, “Don’t you ever do that again!”
I let her drop to the ground and stormed away.
She waited until I got about 25 feet away and then called out, “I bet you think you’re tough, don’t you, bitch?”
I wheeled on one heel and headed back toward her but she sprang to her feet and bolted like a rabbit.
And that was the last bit of trouble I had with those girls.Once again, standing up proved to be the answer. We moved back to our home town the following year, my dad having realized what a mistake the whole venture had been.
It sounds pretty simple. doesn’t it? Stand up, fight back, watch the bullies back down. I don’t think it’s that simple anymore, however. For starters, bullying isn’t just done by a few kids at your school. It doesn’t end when you return home either. Bullying has become far more sophisticated with the advent of the internet. Kids can be hounded constantly by text, slammed on Facebook by people they’ve never met, attacked and flamed every time they come online. They are harassed on the buses, in the hallways, at the football game, in their bedrooms at night: everywhere that they have internet access. The nature of the bullying is uglier and more aggressive too. Snaggle-tooth Sarah? Please. Try slut, cunt, whore… these are all things a friend’s daughter had levied at her when she turned a boy down for sex. Along with the allegations that she was sleeping with anyone and everyone. She was thirteen at the time.
It isn’t just limited to kids, either. I think there is something about the anonymity of the internet that makes a certain kind of bully act more boldly. Maybe it is the public nature of it, which allows people to dogpile the person being attacked, regardless of whether they know the person or not. I’ve written about bullying among adults before, but it never fails to horrify me the extent to which adults can abuse each other over the internet.
Personally, I’ve had to deal with the fallout of a controlling friendship, in which the person involved not only wrote me a 3 page email citing all my failings as a human being, but then gave my email address out to people that were complete strangers to me and invited them to do the same.
I’ve watched helplessly as a good friend faced down enormous emotional and physical challenges with the heart of a lioness, only to nearly be destroyed by online bullying. Her struggles introduced me to the concept of ‘victim-bullying’, in which the person doing the bullying actually claims to be the victim of a great wrong–and then encourages everyone to come support him or her in her ‘exposure’ of the person who somehow wronged her. Wow. Talk about your sophisticated bully!
I’ve been witness to a fandom friend post an unpopular story that caused her to withdraw from fandom completely and re-invent herself under another name–all because she had a beloved character contemplate a possible abortion, and readers erupted like Mount Vesuvius. I’ve seen another friend flamed so badly over a story that she had to shut down her Live Journal account, coming close to walking away from fandom as well.
There are anonymous hate memes within fandom, places where people post everything they hate about their fandom. That’s just a mind-boggling oxymoron to me. At a glance, these memes spew their venom at everything from the actors, the fanfic writers, the popular stories in fandom, to the show itself. Which begs the question: if you hate it that much, why are you there? And if you are intent on leaving, why must you poison the well for everyone on the way out? My theory is that these hate memes, where thousands of comments are left on each posting, are all the grumblings of 20 or so people who feel under-appreciated by fandom as a whole. That somehow their special snowflake status got overlooked and they are seething over it.
I say, if you want to say nasty things about someone, be willing to put your name and face to them.
A writer I respect and admire is currently the target of a mob-mentality on an unnamed website not known for its kindness to authors. It doesn’t matter if the ‘mob’ is one angry man with 12 aliases, or actually multiple people of the same opinion. What matters is that the site is doing nothing to stop the ugliness, despite it being a violation of TOS, and every confrontation of the leader of this mob only makes things worse.
Ah, there’s the rub, there’s the thing that makes bullying today so different from when I was younger. Standing up to the bully isn’t always the right course of action anymore. Not when we’re talking about public forums, where potentially thousands of people might join in. Certainly, not where bullies can invite people to come support them. Online bullies crave an audience. They are there to create wank; they WANT people to react to them. They are the Hydra from Greek mythology–if you cut off one head, two more will grow in their place. The best thing you can do is ignore these people, hard as it may be. They will make your life a living hell–but more so if you challenge them. Don’t do it. If they are bad enough, someone will report them and they will get banned from your community. They will come back with another name and identity because they are sick; they cannot let go. But a behavior ignored will eventually extinguish itself. Should this happen to you, be sure to tell your friends NOT to jump in to your defense. If you are boring in your response, the wanker will go somewhere else, looking for a more inflammatory reaction.
Last year there was a personality among my circle that posted angry blogs full of sweeping generalizations aimed primarily at women. Despite the fact that he asked to be my friend, every time I posted anything on Facebook, he would leave a deliberately provoking comment to my update. After the third time, I simply blocked him. I have to tell you, some of the things he said and did rang major warning bells for me. As in the kind where someday, a neighbor is interviewed as saying, “He was always such a quiet boy…” You know what I’m saying here. Scary dude. This is *not* someone you want to engage. Ever.
So what do you do when you encounter bullying firsthand? If the person is someone you know personally, take whatever it is out of the public forum. Do not respond to them on Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever your shared community may be. If they have a beef with you, they can take it up with you privately. If you refuse to engage with them publicly, they may well drop the battle if they were only looking to stir things up. Be prepared, however, for the bully to ask your mutual friends to take sides. This is painful and inevitable, and if the bully can convince your friends that he or she is more vital to them than you are, your friends will side with the bully.
Don’t ask your friends to take sides in return. Never mention the bully or what the bully has done. Let the bully stew in his or her own pot of unrealized wank. Reacting to the bully gives the bully ‘victim’ rights (see link above). Don’t do it.
If the bully is not known to you, but a stranger who is attacking you online, do not engage. Ask your friends to stay out of it. They may leap to your defense before you can stop them, but ask them to stop as soon as you can. If you need to take a break from being online, do so. Do whatever is necessary to protect your mental health and well-being. The internet can do without you for a while and you can do without it, too. (Heck, if you’re like me, you might even get some writing done!) If you have no professional reason to be online, just take a vacation. Do not shut down your accounts, your website, your online presence. The bully wins then. Yes, if you erase your online presences, they will give up and move on, but they will be watching to see if you show up again. They will come back in full force because they know that harassing you made you delete your accounts before. Don’t play that game unless it is vital for your self-protection and mental health.
What if you *must* maintain an online presence? You’re an author, an artist, a professional that must maintain a web presence? Ignore the bully, ask that everyone else do the same. Block the bully whenever possible. Avoid the sites that the bully frequents. Do not keep pulling the scab off a partially healed wound to see if it is still festering. Leave it alone!
Don’t suffer in silence. Share your experience with some trusted friends. Don’t bleat your sorrows in public, but garner the support and advice of friends in a private or restricted correspondence. And remember, not only are you not alone, but this too, shall pass.