I’ve observed bullying for most of my life. I was once the victim of bullying, a situation that I nipped in the bud by ignoring my antagonist whom I considered to be sadly damaged. I successfully defended a classmate who was the brunt of ugly jokes and taunts. As an educator I witnessed incidents of cruelty that were horrific. I did my best to teach both my children and my students the importance of living by a moral code imbued with sensitivity, integrity and kindness. When necessary I entered the fray to protect those who had become emotionally broken from the barrage of insults that they had experienced. Sadly I have noticed that over time the game of bullying has only seemed to grow stronger and more common as social media provides a powerful conduit for harming individuals with words and ideas.
Bullying appears to have evolved into a worldwide blood sport these days. We have a presidential candidate who is lauded by his supporters as a kind of warrior because of his fearlessness in accusing an opponent’s father of being somehow associated with an assassin or remarking on the physical flaws of women that he finds threatening. He hurls insults at entire religions and countries. Instead of admonishing and spurning him, large groups of people provide him with attention and adulation as though his lack of manners is a sign of courage rather than crudeness. What are our children to think?
We have countless commercials in which people quite subtly demean others in an attempt at humor. Why do we find it funny when an individual pokes fun at a friend’s command of grammar? What is so wonderful about a woman rolling her eyeballs at a husband being portrayed as a total moron? Why do we laugh when we know we should instead feel uncomfortable?
Facebook and Twitter abound with ugly derisive posts. We encourage bad behavior by sharing and retweeting comments that might once have been considered too rude to repeat. We say that we abhor bullying of any kind and yet we do little to stop the ceaseless chatter that demoralizes and demonizes individuals and groups alike. In today’s world none of us are immune from unwanted and often unsolicited hatefulness. It is little wonder that so many people are choosing to tune out.
Prince William and Princess Kate are attempting to vanguard a movement to bring attention to the horrific effects of bullying. Their campaign reminds us of the often unfair and sordid gossip that swirled around Princess Diana, William’s mother. The poor woman was hounded by cameras and invasions of her privacy. Rumors smothered her attempts to live normally. In the end she died in a tragic accident as she attempted to evade her stalkers. It might be said that she was the victim of a form of salacious and relentless bullying from a public all too hungry to learn her dirty little secrets.
I have generally found that bullies are quite insecure. While they may appear to exude confidence the truth is that they have a need to exert power over others to assuage their own fears. When stripped of their boorish behaviors they often have very little to offer. They are generally very unhappy people and many times are the product of abusive parenting practices. They struggle physically, academically and emotionally. Their bravado masks the emptiness that they feel. They need to dominate others so that they might may pretend to be powerful. They become particularly happy whenever they attract a following for their contemptible behaviors. Like the boorish dictators that they are, they mistake fear for respect. In most cases the quickest way to shut them down is to leave them alone and isolated, a tactic that is all too many times easier said than done.
Back in high school I ran for student body secretary. One morning I had a minor skirmish with a fairly well known bully. I stood at the entrance of my school handing classmates campaign material and requesting votes. Most people politely acknowledged my greeting but one fellow decided to speak his mind. He tore the paper that I had given him in half, spat on it, let it fall to the floor and then crushed it with his shoe. He looked me in the eye and proclaimed that nobody liked me and that I espoused a special hatred in him. He told me that I was so unattractive that it was hard for him to even look at me. As a parting shot he gave me directions as to where he thought I should go.
I suppose that he wanted me to cry or react in some manner but I was determined not to give him the satisfaction. The only thought that I had was a deep sense of sadness that his life was so bereft that he found some sense of joy in putting me down when I barely knew him. His actions only registered in my mind because they seemed so overblown and indicative of an individual who was headed nowhere in life. I’ve always remembered that occasion because I wanted to understand what kind of poison might have created someone so hateful. His cruelty was stunning to me because it said more about him than it did about me.
We all have a vested interest in helping not only those who are bullied but the bullies as well. Our children need counseling in how best to handle such negative situations but we also must consider how to help those whose actions are so obviously toxic. We can begin teaching our kids by modeling healthy behaviors ourselves. We have to speak out against anyone who wrongly uses words and actions to demean or harm. We must show our young that it sometimes requires courage to stand up for what is right. We have to be careful that in defending we do not sink into the morass. We can demonstrate how to debate with facts and ideas rather than insults.
There have been bullies throughout history. We have yet to find a sure fire way of ridding ourselves of them. Sometimes the answer is as simple as ignoring them. Other times we have to provide them with counseling and help. When all else fails figuratively bloodying their noses is our final option. Mostly though the most effective method for dealing with bullies involves being assured within ourselves. When we have confidence nobody can touch us. Feeling good about who we are is the first line of defense against bullies. Our goal for stopping the current trend toward ugliness should be to show our children how to rise to higher ground. When we provide them with a strong moral compass they will be ready to overcome any taunts that come their way and they will do so with the strength and conviction that we have imbued in them.