I hate the word bully. It has become yet another flashy buzzword for these early days of the 21st century — another cause célèbre, another brand to sell, another ribbon to wear. We attribute every schoolyard skirmish and childish disagreement to the work of a bully. Even harmless name-calling, once a rite of passage for all children, is now considered full-on psychological warfare and verbal intimidation. When the four year-old who calls a classmate a poopyhead on the playground is labeled a bully, we have gone too far.
I am not unsympathetic. I was routinely called a faggot from the ages of 8 to 17. I know firsthand that bullies exist in our schools; the evidence being my story and the stories of the broken children who suffered far more horribly than I at the hands of these would-be oppressors. Without question we have an obligation to stop these bullies, but we also have an obligation to distinguish between the bully and the children simply learning to navigate the choppy waters of childhood. When we use bully as some sort of catchall, we effectively neuter our children and foster a culture of victimhood.
I suppose it comes down to this: which is worse, marijuana or heroin? Are they equally bad? Simply stated, if marijuana calls you poopyhead and heroin torments you until you kill yourself, which one would you put your resources into stopping?
If all bullies are the same then the real bullies inevitably slip through the cracks, left to mature, in size if not mind. I can think of at least a dozen grown-up bullies I have encountered in my adult life. People with such shockingly low levels of self-esteem they can be made whole only by making others feel less. For the pint-sized tyrants we have zero tolerance, but for the adults we make excuses: we convince ourselves it would be rude to contradict them; we shakes our heads and cluck that everyone has a right to their opinion; and my favorite, we cite the all-forgiving “free speech”.
Every morning I walk past a restaurant I used to frequent on a regular basis. One evening while eating there with friends, several people from my group were openly hostile to our waitress. One woman in particular was especially condescending and dismissive, taking every perceived mistake as a personal attack. The tension at the table was palpable, many of us were horrified and uncomfortable, but no one more so than our poor server. Now when I eat there I burn with embarrassment, not because of what my bullying dinner companions did, but because I did nothing to stop them.
Several months ago when picking my son up from school I was part of a conversation with two other parents. The conversation devolved into a thinly-veiled discussion on race, specifically how unfortunate it was that this otherwise wonderful school was so “urban”. Polite racism. One of the parents hypothesized that the school might not have so many discipline problems if it was in another neighborhood, by which she meant white neighborhood. When I think back on that conversation I burn with embarrassment, again not because of what the other parents said, but because I said nothing to contradict them.
When I was teenager I had an uncle who confronted me about being gay. At the time I didn’t know what I was other than an overweight awkward teenager who never thought he’d have any kind of sex — gay or straight — but still this man persisted: Don’t you have a girlfriend? Why don’t you have a girlfriend? Don’t you like girls? He kept on for about fifteen minutes. I suppose he thought he could bully me into heterosexual submission. In this memory I burn the most with embarrassment, unable to stand up even for myself.
Bullies grow up. They become racists, homophobes, and generally nasty people who take joy in reducing a waitress to tears. We may be vigilant about curtailing the abuses of a ten year-old bully, but for grown-up monsters we look the other way. It might be that in conjunction with policing our playgrounds we should also hold ourselves accountable. Perhaps we should ask ourselves how often we — the adults — stand up to our bullies?