On Bullying

18 Mar

I don’t usually bother with trigger warnings, or anything along those lines, but this post is more intensely personal and less dispassionate than other things I’ve posted. (I also had my opinion changed at one point when someone pointed out the flaw in my logic.) Writing it was not easy. The next one – some observations on anger and venting – will be less passionate.

When I was in Primary Four, when I would have been around eight-nine years old, I stopped being invited to birthday parties.

Too many of my memories of those days are hazy, wrapped in the pain of being excluded by pretty much everyone in my class and being at the mercy of an uncaring school system that took four more years to decide I was dyslexic. I don’t think I did anything to deserve to be excluded, but I don’t know. There’s a bit of me that thinks … maybe I was to blame. Or maybe it was them. I was the weird kid. I was the Calvin, they were the Moe. It was so bad that I told myself that going to boarding school wouldn’t be so bad. It would be a fresh start.

In my entire life, I do not believe that I have ever made such a catastrophic misjudgement.

The boarding school was utter hell. I don’t think I went two days without being hit or mocked or generally treated like s***. I had no friends, no one I dared trust; I didn’t dare relax, even for a moment. I was at the bottom of the entire hierarchy, picked on by my peers and ignored by the teachers. I withdrew into myself as best as I could, to the point that I have difficulty empathising with others, but it was never enough. My life was either one of complete social isolation or simply not isolated enough. When my parents – who meant well – asked if I wanted to invite someone home during the holidays, I panicked. It was the last thing I wanted. There were times, too many times, when I considered suicide as the only reasonable option. It would have put an end to the pain.

I hated them. I hated the bullies, I hated the teachers, I hated everyone. In short, I curdled.

Things got a little better, when I went to a different school. And yet, the habits I picked up in boarding school cast a long shadow over my life. I had a couple of friends, but I always kept them at arm’s length; I simply didn’t dare open myself to anyone. University was better still, while work was a mixed bag. There were times when I let myself get pushed around too often because my life had taught me that resistance only made things worse. Even now, I still carry too many of those habits. I flinch when I hear a football bouncing on the ground, I withdraw into myself when surrounded by other people, my first response to anyone talking to me like I’m an idiot is blind fury …

If I could go back in time and speak to my past self, I’d tell him that it would eventually get better. Because, you know, it did.

And yet, I’m still the prisoner of my past.

***

There have been a number of memes passed around Facebook over the past few weeks and you can see one of them below. (And a link here.)

29178547_10213876562601818_1701638955086595606_n

And I have mixed feelings. Very mixed feelings. It’s easy to allow yourself to curdle, to allow your helplessness and resentment and frustration to turn to anger. It’s easy to feel that everything is unfair (and never unfair in your favour), that everyone is against you, or that everyone else has it better than you. And it’s easy to believe that people make exceptions for the popular (or strong) kids that they won’t make for you. I know popular kids who got away with crap that would get the unpopular kids expelled. If I had had one friend, just one, someone who I could be myself with … I like to think that I would have had a better life. But by the time I met genuine friends, it was too late to cure myself of bad habits, habits I needed to survive. So yes, I say; walk up to the unpopular kids and try to include them, just once. We all need social contact to survive.

But, others say, doesn’t this smack of blaming the victim?

29178802_10215409934143258_562206855359627264_n

Perhaps it does, just a little. People are responsible for their own actions. I was told, time and time again, that some of the worst bullies in the school came from broken homes or foster families or were dealing with abuse at home. And yet, I never considered such claims to be an excuse. I would feel sorry for someone who was abused at home, but my sympathy would vanish like a snowflake in hell if that person turned around and abused someone else. And yet …

And yet, an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.

I’ve read stories where someone was treated badly – once – and brooded on it so much that he turned evil. The real world isn’t like that. It isn’t the single incident that curdles the mind, but the steady grinding pressure; the beatings, the insults, the isolation … the sheer certainty of knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that everyone considers you worthless, that authority would sooner punish you than the people who make your life hell. And if that was counterbalanced by other people being nice to you, perhaps things would be better. But this requires people to accept that they might have a certain responsibility towards their classmates.

Every school I’ve been in has had a problem with bullying. And every school had an anti-bullying program that was worse than useless. I don’t think any of the people who designed them knew anything about bullying, let alone how to stop it. Their programs were, at best, useless; at worst, well … here’s another meme.

29244357_10155889629353564_5140323327797100544_n

If you’re only taking note of a problem because it has exploded in your face, you’re already too late. And if the message you’re sending – intentionally or otherwise – is that this is the only way to get attention, what do you expect to happen?

***

I’ve always tried to ask myself why something happened as well as what. What drives people to do evil things? Or even things that seem (to me) counterproductive?

There’s a lot of talk about how violent video games are connected to school shooters. Do violent video games play a role in turning young men into monsters? If I can argue that bullying does, why can’t someone else blame video games? Gaming has a sexism problem, we are told. It’s a filthy misogynistic cesspit of sexism and rape culture. You can find quite a few articles along those lines if you look.

Why would it look like this to an outsider?

Imagine … imagine a fifteen-year-old boy. We’ll call him George. He’s spotty, somewhat overweight and generally unlikable. He wouldn’t be fashionable even if he wore the latest in designer gear, which he doesn’t. He gets picked on a lot. He can’t win and if it looked like he was going to win, someone would change the rules to prevent it.

And every day, after school, he goes online and plays video games.

At school, he’s the human chew toy; online, he’s a big man. No one judges you for being a nerd online as long as you don’t tell anyone you’re a nerd. George can pretend to be someone else, for a while; he can play on a level playing field and actually win. And he allows himself to vent, to say all the things he wouldn’t dare say at school because he’d get in trouble for saying them. Online gaming – and I am not the first person to make this point – is his safe space. He might lose a video game, fairly. No one is beating him up for daring to exist.

And this is something people need. Everyone needs to be able to vent their feelings, either through swearing or kicking a ball around the field or even loading a game and slaughtering a few thousand enemy pixels. If these feelings are not released, if someone is denied a chance to express themselves, the feelings start to curdle and turn sour. But the people at the bottom are often not allowed to vent their feelings.

So … along come reformers who see the surface froth and demand that the gamers clean up their act. They might even have a point, from an objective point of view, but George and his friends see it very differently. To them, they’re getting persecuted – again – while the reformers are ignoring the real problems. They’re nothing more than bullies, picking on the ones who can’t fight back. And this is how GamerGate got started.

The thing is … if you’re at the bottom, if you feel you’re at the bottom, if you think you have to keep fighting constantly because a moment’s pause will bring disaster … you keep fighting, because you must.

And … well, some people grow up and out of it. Others … snap.

***

The good news is that, sometimes, the bullies get their just deserts. (I don’t know if this story (and update) is true, but I want it to be.) And that the average nerd will grow up and out of it. But … they rarely believe that at the time. Why should they?

I don’t have a real solution to the problem. Things have mushroomed, thanks to social media; it’s now possible to bully someone from halfway around the world. No one is ever allowed to forget their mistakes, let alone put them in the past. Perhaps the only thing I can suggest is immediate consequences for bullying behaviour, up to and including permanent expulsion, but even that has its limits. Teachers, the people on the ground, are rarely capable of getting a child expelled. And that assumes they want to try.

And social exclusion and bullying aren’t the only problems. Nor are they easy to fix.

But we have to try.

19 Responses to “On Bullying”

  1. Darryl March 18, 2018 at 10:51 am #

    Chris. A great post. My experience after Primary School is not entirely dissimilar to yours in many ways, though it sounds like you were treated worse and reacted differently, though we both seem to have survived the experience and attained some reasonable measure of success in our lives. I started to write more, but I’m really not comfortable sharing. I guess that’s one reason why I will probably never be a writer.

    I’m not sure that the problem of bullying is one that can ever be solved. Human nature is human nature. I’ve never understood the Pollyanna attitude that some people, mostly of the left, have towards children, Children are wonderful in many ways, but are also self-centred and often cruel, consciously or otherwise. Short of constant surveillance there will always be instances of bullying and there will always be victims. But we can and should be acting to minimise the problem. We can do better. Education campaigns and anti-bullying policies go only so far. I have some ideas but I don’t think I have the magic answer. I am sure that we can and should do better.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard March 18, 2018 at 12:31 pm #

      Years back, a young man who was in High School with me was talking to my father and wondered how I was doing. He also commented to Dad that we (him & others) made live hell for me. 😦

      While that was too many years ago, from what I’ve heard matters have gotten worse nationwide in the schools because of how the school system handles matters.

      For one thing, if somebody tries to “punch out a bully”, then they get in trouble not the bully.

      Oh, Chris mentioned this thing about “reaching out to victims of bullies”, while school-shootings were “after my time” I’d say that I wouldn’t have trusted “people reaching out to me” especially if I knew that they were doing so because they feared that “if they didn’t, I’d shoot up the school”. Of course, at that time it might have given me ideas. 😦

  2. Darryl March 18, 2018 at 10:58 am #

    Here is a case of a bully getting his just desserts which attracted extensive media coverage in Australia some years ago, and I believe went viral on YouTube. Food for thought.

  3. PhilippeO March 18, 2018 at 12:11 pm #

    Agree, a very good writing on Bullying and its effects. Bullying is dangerous because its perpetuate itself. Those bullied sometime in turn become bully himself, they lash out to younger kids, to girl, or another random group. It Impossible to be entirely extinguished, but effort to reduce it is good thing.

  4. MishaBurnett March 18, 2018 at 12:29 pm #

    I believe that bullying, as distinct from other forms of physical and social violence, is a learned response to an environment of perceived disparate consequences for aggressive behavior. Bullies are made, not born.

    When children learn that “what happens to me for hitting you is less severe than what happens to you for hitting me back” they learn to exploit that to gain power.

    It can be as simple as “I’m bigger and stronger than you” (as an aside, what was considered a “fair fight” when I was growing up was a ban on all techniques that a smaller child could use to overcome a size disadvantage) or it can be the result of authorities that base punishment on the identity of the child rather than the offense committed.

    The rise of bullying in American schools in not in spite of diversity training and such identity politics among teachers, it is a direct result of it. In the last high school I attended (briefly, without graduating) back in the early 1980s it was believed by all of the students that the Black administration was unwilling to suspend or expel Black students. I can’t confirm or deny that with data, but it is what the students, Black and White, believed.

    As a consequence, the White minority was constantly bullied. As a consequence of that, I stopped attending school and never did get a diploma.

    The recent school shooter in Florida was not a victim of bullying. He was a bully who knew that he would not be punished for his attacks on other students because of the school policies, and had no reason not to escalate his aggression to the point of mass murder.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard March 18, 2018 at 12:34 pm #

      Yep, and because the school & the police had not reported to the Feds his actions, he was able to purchase weapons that he shouldn’t been legally allowed to do.

    • Ihas March 18, 2018 at 3:12 pm #

      I also read an article recently pointing out that all or most of the shooters since Columbine were not bullying victims. I’m not sure if it was a credible article or how to fact check it. There is so much conflicting information out there, it is difficult or impossible to have an informed opinion on this topic.

      I’d like to thank Chris for sharing his personal experience. I can only imagine how difficult that sharing may have been. I tried opening up about such issues years ago and the responses uniformly were “Everyone gets bullied,” which seemed dismissive at the time. In later years, I thought about some of the verbal abuse I inflicted on others, calling them “stupid” in front of the group, for example. It occurred to me that there is more than one kind of bullying, and maybe I was guilty of one form of it, that perhaps led to some of the bullying that I experienced.

      But we are all very different people. We experience different sets of stimuli throughout our lives and would not react or develop the same way even in response to the same sets of stimuli. For these reasons, and because of ethical problems with methodology, it is very difficult to approach these issues using the scientific method. Take the case of Ted Kaczynski’s reaction to being subjected to verbal abuse during a psychological study in which he participated during college. He supposedly went nuts and became the unibomber because of the effects of labeling, or whatever.

      But do we know for sure that he wouldn’t have turned out that way even if he did not participate in the study? And what happened to the other study participant’s? Why didn’t they become unibombers or similar? Or did they?

      Hopefully, science will one day be able to address these issues, perhaps with gene therapy or other treatments to prevent psychosis in those prone to it. For now, I just think that we live in a world full of irrational people, and the patients are running the asylum.

  5. Jas March 18, 2018 at 12:32 pm #

    Hey Chris, excellent post. Sorry to hear of your difficulties both growing up, and the resulting impact on your life. I can empathise as someone who went through very similar things as a kid, nothing was ever done, and in Australia, the mentality is toughen up princess. I went on to law enforcement (nothing to do with the bullying), but in 11yrs in the job, I never saw a single action plan that looked at an effective deterrent to it.
    The problem is, much like Domestic Violence and those type of issues, it stays with you for life, impacts your life, determines who you are in a lot of ways. A single incident can psychologically damage a person for life, and it is at epidemic levels across the world.
    As you said Chris, with social media now, you can go around the world, instantly, and it isn’t like when was kid, and it was school giving you a hard time, and if you were lucky, maybe people didn’t find out, now it is a planet watching it 30seconds later, judging based on incomplete information and destroying people’s lives.
    Something needs to be done, something big, something urgently before we have a generation of damaged kids.
    Fantastic post Chris, very courageous, you’re a good person.

  6. Veraenderer March 18, 2018 at 1:40 pm #

    My story isn’t as bad as yours I was only bullied 1-2 years + the occasional idiotic kid which did it a few times later and I was in a school which did actually attempt to do something against it. The problem was I just wanted my peace and was not brave enough to really fight back, would I have done it I think I would have been able to get them either expelled or could have beaten one of them up with minimal consequences (self defense is pretty broad defined in germanyf and younger kids should really not try to bully older ones) and I think it would have stopped the shit. That being said I was only able to connect in the last 2 years with some of my class mates somewhat (and I have no contact to them anymore) and have today only one friend (which I know since kindergarten but went to a different school and has/had more problems then I) and a few people in the uni with which I like to work together. That being said I have today still a bunch of problems (because of various reasons originating from my childhod and youth), but I’m reducing them systematicly each year 😀 .

  7. Vapori March 19, 2018 at 8:42 pm #

    First that was a courageous post and I applaud you for it!
    (also from germany so the system is different.
    On Bullying it doesn’t seem to be that bad over here or at least it wasn’t in my school.
    I got Bullied too, or maybe not I’m not really sure, about school-bulling some of it is obvious bulling, but there is also a big gray area, Like in my case, I think it was mostly open conflict, sometimes that crosses a line and gets too dirty as children can b quite idiotic

    That is often inevitable when 20-35 teenagers are confined to one space for 5-9 hours a day. A pecking order will form, sometimes one will be isolated at the bottom like Chris was and be picked on, and that is something that needs to be prevented. (as that is mobbing )

    What actually surprises me is that teachers didn’t care. As over here they do try to prevent it with mixed success, but at least partially successful robbing ones lunch money or beating somebody up happened was something Ive seen maybe 3 times during all my time in school and that had always consequences.

    That is of course not easy to handle for a teacher, a he can easily punish the wrong one, and 90% of the time the punished students or their parents will think it was to harsh or unjustly.

    There are obvious blind spots still if a bully managed it to get in trouble for 3 times he was usually expelled.

  8. Anarchymedes March 20, 2018 at 10:15 am #

    In my school days, when somebody ran to the teacher crying, ‘He’s hit me’, the teacher would say, ‘Don’t you have two fists of your own?’ And telling Mum, and having her fight your battles for you was worse than… how shall I say it politically-correctly? Worse than becoming an underage male sex worker. There was no Internet back than, but even so, the word spread, and even transferring to another school wouldn’t help: one could never, ever shake off that sort of reputation.
    My point is, there is one, and only one time-honoured way to respond to bullying: you (and not your Mum, Da, or well-connected uncle) make it more pain than fun for them. Because despite all those anti-bullying programs, as long as it remains more fun than pain, they’ll keep going. And ‘walking away and appear nonchalant’ – that recommendation was written by someone who’s lived a sheltered life and never been bullied. Just like the law requiring the use of ‘reasonable means’ of self-defence was written by someone who has never been attacked, except maybe verbally.
    I don’t want to tell my story here, like so many others have done: I know it’ll be written off as propaganda of violence and ‘the law of the jungle’. But several years ago, somewhere around Sydney a drunken thug approached ten young backpackers, chose his victim, and began to bash him. And the remaining nine (!!!) able-bodied young men just stood there and watched, petrified. Think harder…

    • Darryl March 20, 2018 at 12:17 pm #

      This may work on occasion for certain types of bullys and bullying, for those who are able to do it. But a lot of the bullying going on is not about physical attacks but more about certain children being isolated, friendless and being continually ridiculed. I’m not talking about a little bit of teasing, but a concerted unrelenting campaign which for some can last the whole of their time at school. Social media has made the situation worse. And, of course, the old saying about sticks and stones applies. A Child responding to such an unrelenting non-physical campaign with violence will quickly find themselves suspended or expelled.

      This type of bullying is much more difficult to deal with. The “ethics” of not telling apply just as strongly today as they ever have, and most suffer in silence until such time as some event leads to discovery. And then usually continue to suffer as they are further ostracised by their peers and school authorities often ignore the matter.

      • Anarchymedes March 21, 2018 at 9:59 am #

        The answer to that would be to stop needing them—those ‘frienemies’—but of course, for a child it’s easier said than done. Me, I’ve learned to enjoy it: being always with the people but never one of them; a stranger in a strange land. And guess what? As soon as I mastered that, friends started to flock. Maybe not the intimate, close ones, not like the Three Musketeers. But friendly enough. Besides, it made immigration a non-event for me – unlike so many nostalgic immigrant ‘patriots’ in all those ‘diasporas’ and ‘communities’ which, IMHO, should be forcibly broken if necessary.

  9. wolfcry March 20, 2018 at 10:09 pm #

    Thanks for having the courage to share something so personal Chris, interesting to hear about your experiences.

    As someone who was often singled out and isolated (some of which was self imposed) as well I will just echo that yes, it does get better, and all the “weird” kids end up becoming more unique individuals than the rest of their peers. Hopefully finding interesting and fulfilling careers that use their talents to the fullest.

    Kids often don’t understand that singling out someone who is different and abusing them is cruel. I had a friend who was of Native American descent and was shocked to hear people picked on her based on her ancestry. Doesn’t matter what it is, if you’re perceived as “different” either inwardly or outwardly, you will be picked on.

  10. David March 21, 2018 at 10:45 pm #

    I can’t imagine going through all that shit I was bullied for 1 whole year, it was seventh grade after I had just moved there and for those not American 7th grade is the middle of middle school and possibly the worst year I could have possibly moved in. Anyway that year might have actually been the worst year of my life I was depressed suicidal my grades plummeted and while the physical stuff was limited to shoves and trips, stuff I couldn’t fight back against for fear of admin, the slow isolation and verbal abuse is what Really got me down. I actually ended up transferring schools the next year And making friends as soon as I was able to get over the previous year my self confidence was shot to hell. 5 years of martial arts and some really close friends I made there is what got me out of it plus it taught me how little impact these people will have on my life if I don’t allow them. To anyone getting bullied martial arts is the way to fix it not only does it rebuild confidence while in seventh grade I was physically scared to fight someone now I know they are not threat to me and I could give 90%+ of people who mess with me a broken arm.

    • Kalenath March 22, 2018 at 10:38 am #

      You know the scary thing?

      I studied martial arts and stopped. Not because I was bad at it. Far from it. I enjoyed Kendo, Iiado and Kenjustsu more than anything else in my life up until that point or since.

      Then one day, years after school, I met a man who had bullied me in high school. He recognized me and started to do it again. He was still larger and stronger than I was. But I had a wooden sword in the trunk of my car. All it would have taken was ten seconds to get that and I could have killed him easily.

      What scared me was that I WOULD HAVE. I looked at him and I didn’t see a human being. I saw a TARGET. I saw where to strike to kill. I could have taken his head off with a wooden sword. Not easily, but I could have. And I WOULD have. That is NOT SANE. Every psychologist I have spoken about that to has said the same.

      I was in control. Barely. I did not strike him. He thought my fear was of him and reacted as he always had. Even when he pushed me and spit on me, called me all the names he preferred back in school, I did not react. Because I was TERRIFIED of what I would do.

      I talked for two hours to my sensei that day and I have not picked up a sword since. Not because I am afraid of others. Because I am afraid of myself. Of what school and the bullies made me into. They got what they wanted. They made me a monster. They hurt me and I want to hurt them back. To this day, i want to hurt them back.

      But I won’t. I refuse to let them win.

      I know that makes me weak. I know that makes me stupid for not being willing and able to kill to defend myself or avenge myself in today’s US society, and I don’t care. I am not a murderer. That altercation would NOT have been a fight, it would have been murder. He had no chance against me if I had a sword in my hand and for a long moment, I didn’t care.

      I will not be a murderer no matter how much many public education systems try to make me into one. I belong to the NRA but I do not own a gun. For the exact same reason.

      • Anarchymedes March 23, 2018 at 2:37 pm #

        Our bullies love us so much because for most of us intellectuals it’s easier to endure pain than to inflict it — easier to get hit than to hit someone. But all of this works well and good so long as it’s just us who’re getting hurt and humiliated. We can always feel like martyrs, and claim the ‘moral victory’. But if it’s not us but someone we love who cops it because we’re unable to do what needs to be done, all philosophy in the Universe falls flat — and one cannot feel oneself anyhing other than what one is—insert your own epithet here, to describe what it is—for letting that happen. This is a terrible lesson to go through, but it cures pacifism once and for all, and makes the right choice (of who should it be, our loved ones or the bullies) happen instantly.

  11. Rich Harrison March 27, 2018 at 12:57 pm #

    In your post you mention that the anti-bullying “programs were, at best, useless” and I completely agree. After much thought about why these programs are so often worthless it occurred to me that most of the people who are designing and implementing these programs were never bullied and in many cases were actually bullies themselves.

    • chrishanger March 30, 2018 at 5:51 pm #

      That’s half the problem. The other half is that the people designing (or implementing) the programs simply don’t have the authority to do what needs to be done.

      Chris

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