Some Working Notes on Bullying

There has been of late a new and popular campaign against bullying, and that’s laudable, but they are going about it the wrong way.

What follows are some working notes from what may become a longer work, but I dared some people on twitter to read my blog, so some of this is for them. Some of it is truly working notes.

I’m skipping the part where I establish my expertise. You’ll have to trust me: I have a lot of experience with this from both sides.

The current tendency is to target the bullies. While you won’t find me stopping you, that approach will never really work. You may stop some bullies, but more will always take their place.

Bullying as a social tactic is both easy and alarmingly effective, and therefore will always be popular. Bullying is not used so much to steal lunch money – though that surely happens – but to raise one’s status among one’s peers.

That works because we collectively let it work. We let it work because we tend to equate people who are difference as threats, and therefore confer status upon those who join us in suppressing them.

We are not wrong about this.

The trouble with weirdos is that you may not be able to guess with any safe level of certainty how they might react in any given situation. Given that the number one predator to human beings is other humans beings, this causes alarm at a primal level. Our history overflows with people attacking other people for no reason beyond perceived differences and tactical opportunity.

This attitude, of course, is at odds with our expressed desire to build a more just social society. While any useful remedy for the underlying psycho-social tension eludes us, it’s relatively easy to point out the big kid picking on the little kid and say “There! He’s the problem!”

So we bully the least of the bullies. Ok – that kid totally had it coming. But you are not likely to solve anything beyond that one incident. Hell, you have a better than even chance to make it worse.

In the 1970’s, when I learned to deal with bullies, I was taught we are responsible for our own emotions, specifically how we react to those emotions. Make no mistake, emotions are going to hit you. They are auto-triggered in the brain. But outside of some very specific adrenaline circumstances, we then choose what to do about them.

Let me distill the lesson I learned the hard way:

If you let the abuse affect your reactions, you are giving a bully more power over your life than he needs or deserves. Yelling or crying or other fits will only ever make it worse. Now you’ve validated the underlying premise – that you are weird and unpredictable and to be shunned.

I am also leery of counseling kids that they should always appeal to authority. Many times the worst bully in the classroom is the teacher. May times the worst bully at work is the boss.

You fight bullying with what you can control – which is you. Don’t take the bait when you’re the target. Don’t pile on if you’re a bystander. Oh- and don’t be the fucking bully.

This is easier written than done – for these are totally natural impulses. I’m over fifty, and I still struggle with this. But that’s the answer. Tolerance, kindness, understanding, just like in the Bible, or Sesame Street.
OK – housekeeping.

The week before last I made 4500 words – close but no cigar. I’m not going to list it out – you’re welcome.

This week I did even worse 3500 plus this blog. Some of that has been work. Some has just been a funk.

I have lost my super-powers.

I used to make a to-do list and it would all get done – somehow. The shortcomings above are matched all across my life.

I used to be impervious to bully bait , and here I wasted half the night getting pummeled on twitter- when I knew a hundred times better what the actual agenda was. As an explanation, not an excuse, I think the reality of living alone is catching up to me, now that the logistics of the separation are mostly settled.

My first impulse is to talk about these things with my wife but…And that, actually, has been the hardest part for me.

I have had many friends offer to listen if I needed to talk, and I appreciate their concern, but what  I’m really missing is the deeper context. Being near the boat once in a while is not the same as being in the boat every day. It’s the difference between “the noisy thingy”, and “ the ratchet on the forward portside railing that makes the disturbing clacking noise”.

There is no one left in my life that knows what I mean by the noisy thingy. And that has been the hardest adjustment to make.

Now we know.

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