Monday, October 20, 2014

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HARD AND HARMFUL: An Open Letter to an Increasingly Precious Society

Bully (n) a blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who habitually badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people.
About a year ago I saw a regional news team cover a story about bullying. I’d heard the headline and watched the promo, so I settled down to watch because it’s an issue that’s always close to my heart.
The newscaster stood on the sideline of a football field in the black of night, outlining the events of the previous evening in a tone of solemn concern. He informed me that several parents had complained, a community was up in arms, and many “children” had left the field in tears. The word “bully” or “bullying” was used several times during the course of the story which revolved around . . . a high school football team being defeated by a huge margin.
I’m sorry. What?
I sat in stunned disbelief over the following minutes while I learned that one team dominated so completely, they shut the younger, less experienced team out 95-0 (or something like that). The coach of the winning team, and by implication some of the players, had been labelled bullies because they didn’t “let up” when it became clear they could win without competition. Parents had complained, first to the umpires, then to the school. The committee that deals with…whatever this was, was investigating.
Now, I have zero problem admitting it’s hard as a parent when your kid’s on a team that’s being pummeled. And well do I remember the sense of shame and weariness as a teenager when my small-town school teams were trounced by the city-kids. I do not want to suggest that the evening wasn’t a challenge for all involved. But bullying? Really?
Let’s take a look at that definition again:
Bully (n) a blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who habitually badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people. [Emphasis mine]
I don’t want to stand on any toes here, but I don’t define a single, embarrassing incident as proof of habitual behavior – especially when that incident involves a competitive sporting arena at high school level.
To me this story encapsulates how at times the media, teachers, parents, and even kids themselves, actually damage the cause of highlighting and educating on the issue of bullying.
See, the word “bully” holds some weight now. You start throwing that around every time a couple kids get in a fight, or someone gets hurt, and you will minimize the effectiveness of the word. And, as any kid who is actually bullied can tell you – words can hurt. They can also do good. Using “bully” correctly, and applying the proper weight to it can help the victims get the assistance they need and avoid assigning a damaging title to those who don’t deserve it.
So let’s get this right.
BULLYING IS a relentless, intentional campaign to intimidate and shame. It is targeted and malicious. The victim cannot walk away because the perpetrator will follow. The victim fears speaking up because the perpetrator will punish them (in hiding) for any discipline received as a result. The effects of this kind of relationship – and believe me, this is a relationship – are harrowing, creating deep-seated fears and insecurities which will follow the victim for years. Sometimes for the rest of their lives.
BULLYING IS NOT someone getting mad, irritated, or even aggressive with someone else. It isn’t winning where someone else has to lose. It isn’t having an argument, losing a friend, or disagreeing with passion.
Bullying isn’t conflict. It is sinister.
Bullying doesn’t just make someone feel bad for one afternoon, or over the course of a week. Bullying tells a person they lack value, and are alone in this world. It creates messages in the victim’s head that run on a loop even when that person is alone:
You’re ugly.
You’re useless.
No one cares about how you feel.
People would be better off if you weren’t here.
Shut up.
Go away.
That’s why this problem is so difficult to solve – because we aren’t dealing with a conflict which can be reasoned and negotiated. We’re dealing with inherent, subversive messages that, over time, are actually adopted by the victim. In a perverted form of Stockholm syndrome, the person who is being hurt begins to think that the perpetrator is right.
Here’s my point:
There is a canyon of difference between normal, negative human interactions and bullying. As a culture, we need to stop pretending that people can always get along. We need to stop deciding that young people shouldn’t experience and learn to cope with negativity. We need to draw a very clear line between something that’s hard, and something that’s harmful.
So let’s stop jumping on the bandwagon when advertisers, media, or even parents cry Bully! Let’s avoid sensationalism and just listen for the signs that someone close to us is being intimidated. Let’s stop using the word “bully” to shut down people we don’t like, and start using it as the first step to empower the weak. Let’s create a genuine dialogue about what really happens when one person undertakes a campaign of violence – either physical, or emotional – against another, and start looking for ways to change what those internal voices are saying – on both sides.
And finally, if you’re reading this and you’re someone who often hears those italicized messages in your head, take it from me: They are wrong.
No one on earth sees things quite the way you do. No one loves and lives quite the way you will. You don’t need to disappear, you just need a hand.
If you can’t be sure that someone already in your life will be able to offer the help you need, talk to TEEN LINE:
Call (310) 855 4673 or (800) 852 8336
Text “Teen” to 839863 (between 5:30pm and 9:30pm PST)
Or go online:
Reach out. Find out that you aren’t alone, find some friends to help you through this. Get stronger. Because one day this will get better. Then someday after that you’ll find your sweet spot. And when you do, all those people that told you to hate, and loathe, and fear yourself will all wish they had what you’ve got.
And trust me, there’s no better revenge than that.