Wednesday, 23 October 2013

It gets better?

I never liked the word "bully". To me it sounds too trivial, it smacks of that simplistic babytalk quality, the fumbling childish kind of adjective that might be the name of one of the Seven Dwarves or the title of a kindergarten singsong. It isn't easy to take seriously someone who says they get "bullied", it's like if they said they got flippied or whim-whammed. It fails to capture the scores of injustice and heartaches that never quite go away. It fails to deliver on the tragic seriousness of the concept. But then, I guess if the word was more accurate, if it truly represented the spirit of what was endured, it would be a harrowing blow to the ego merely to confess it.

Mommy, I was soul-tortured at school today.

The "It Gets Better" campaign seems to have run out of steam by this point, but it served a good purpose while it was out in the zeitgeist. The one thing that bugged me about it though was this proclivity for focussing on only one branch of a larger issue. I understand how severe homophobia is in some places, and I'll always be the first to attack that sort of hate head on. But when you're going to focus so much attention on bullying, especially during childhood, there's no need to be exclusionary. Bullying is a major issue that effects people of all stripes and colours for various reasons. It's not just one subset of people.

To be honest, I think homophobia is a strong word to use against children. The reality of the situation is that kids are vicious little buggers who manage to single out the first differentiating factor they can find with eagle-like precision and will ruthlessly peck away at that single element until their genetic compulsion to test the other members of their roost for weaknesses is sated. This mentality doesn't really stop at childhood either, and may, over time, actually create the prejudices we now liberally slap labels on and consider that the start and end of the conversation. It happens because it's natural, it's to be expected even if it's not to be excused or defended - which is not what I'm doing, by the way.

The reason I point this out is because bullying isn't limited to only one social group. It's universal. Not everyone will experience or knowingly participate in it to any serious degree, but it will still nonetheless happen to some extent in every school, every setting in which you condense a lot of young people into a small space. A few years ago I concocted what I call the "contagious bully" theory, that is, the idea that we all have a bully inside us waiting for a chance to be invoked. Often times we descend into a mob mentality without even realising it, and even may unwittingly participate in bullying without ever making the connection. One bully taking liberties with someone will immediately set a new social standard that says to all bystanders "this is alright", at which point they all feel liberated of a rule they were previously compelled to follow and find it more acceptable to join in, no matter how reprehensible the activity may be.

The contagious bully is just as much about the victim as the bully themselves, but I'll get to that in just a moment. The point is, we all naturally fall into a co-operative dynamic, and generally someone who suffers bullying will find that it's no single individual, but rather some mysterious collective decision that everyone around them seems to have made to make their lives a living hell. The reason is, it's not really just "a bully" at all, it's not something unusual or beyond the pale, it's the way we naturally are. It's the animalistic nature of every human being to single out and relentlessly attack an individual to push themselves up another rung on the hierarchical ladder. Whether the distinguishing feature they pick out is your apparent sexuality, your race, gender, hair colour, the way you walk... they'll find SOMETHING because they are hard wired to. So there's no point in pursuing an anti-bullying campaign and trying to make it all about one sort of bullying, like it's an isolated problem you can magically fix.

And that's a problem I have with most anti-bullying measures, to be honest. The tendency to treat it like something you can fix. I don't think it is, and I think it's unfair to expect schools, parents or meaningless platitudes to repair a problem that isn't really a problem at all. It's merely human nature. I've seen some attempt at helping that are moderately sensible. Therapy - always a good idea. I've seen people like my friend Elizabeth begin programs that teach these kids martial arts, not as a matter of self defence, but more as a vehicle for delivering self-confidence and providing them an outlet. That's good. Where most other anti-bullying measures fail, is by trying to tackle the bullies themselves, rather than the victims.

It's all good and well to say "it gets better", but does it? Does it magically just sort itself out? Do you wake up some day in an adult's body and realise all those memories are so far away they are scarcely even real to you any more? That's a fantasy every sufferer of bullying has and longs to see fulfilled. I know, I've been there too. But somehow I came out of it with a perspective that seems rare among bullying victims. And that word, right there... "victim", has a lot to do with it.

Victim is more than description, it becomes a badge you wear. After being hammered for so long with feelings of oppression, powerlessness and self-resentment, victim becomes the label by which you identify yourself. It changes you. Intimately, personally, it changes you in ways you don't even notice. But other people do, because other people still carry that same predatory nature that first turned them against you. When humans smell weakness on one another, some primal urge to eradicate it from the species possesses them with a bloodlust. Once you see yourself as a victim, you begin to exude an invisible aura that screams out "victimise me!". The way you carry yourself, your mannerisms, speech. Like a rabbit in a dark field a paranoia sets in, you become aware of everything around you, and like the stalking fox, your twitching ears become just as noticeable to the subconscious minds of the changelings in your midst.

What I'm saying is, attitude determines consequence. When you begin to see yourself as a victim you inspire a cruel hunger in those around you to take advantage of that weakness and further victimise you. Studies such as the Stanford Prison Experiment show us with scary detail how inclined we are to fall into these dominant or submissive roles given even the smallest incentive. It's not that hard to understand why, either. As a social species we are compelled to establish some kind of pecking order or hierarchy. At the same time, sibling rivalry and childhood aggression are designed to weed out the runt of the litter as a sort of natural eugenics. That's what evolution is, when you think about it, so it's really no surprise to me that these instincts can be so powerful that they can make otherwise innocent or decent people turn into monsters at the drop of a hat.

When you resign yourself to the role of victim, you not only accept that judgement, you reinforce it. As you sadly hang your head low to try and be less noticeable to the bullies, you only become more noticeable. As you try to steer out of their way, you make them want to chase you. This is why people who have been bullied tend to find that the same thing happens again and again, even when they move to new areas. It follows them around like an odour they can't scrub off. Similar mechanisms also explain why people who have been subjected to intense bullying can sometimes become bullies themselves. They have been taught that you are either weak or you're strong. They've had the social imperative to test other people in that same way imprinted on them the same way that language or counting are. Young minds are extremely fertile to such conditioning.

Don't tell me "it gets better", at least not without explaining why and how. And don't tell that to young kids who will then spend the next few years of their lives waiting for some magical epiphany to sort everything out. It won't happen. I'm not saying nothing can be done about bullying, what I'm saying is, the first part of solving the problem rests on the shoulders of the person who has the problem. You can't police human nature, you can't force kids to stop being kids, and speaking as someone who has lived that nightmare, I can tell you, intervention only makes it worse. The playground seen through the eyes of student and teacher are two very different worlds, much like a prison. There's a system that the kids naturally construct, an unspoken code, and the authority figures play little role in that. Nothing makes you stand out more to bullies than having the spotlight of the school shone upon you thanks to the (usually unwelcome) intervention of parents or meddling teachers.

You're not going to survive bullying by hiding behind authority figures, and even if you could, it would do you no favours. The cliché advice you always hear is to stand up to the bullies. Sure, that's one way to go. But here's the problem, if you've already gotten a lot of negative attention from them, standing up to them is sort of like a punching bag taking a swing at the boxer. Soon enough, everyone gets wind of it, and all the boxers want a piece. It becomes a status thing. Sure, you can stand up for yourself, but against how many? Because it's not like the movies, there's not just one bad egg with a Mohawk and a single earring who flushes your head in the toilet and steals your lunch money every day. It's not one gang, or one type. It's everyone. Everyone is the bully, because you're the one giving off the victim signal that makes them smell blood.

Standing up to a bully is a great way to learn that might makes right, and even if successful, is generally the sort of reasoning that leads to bully victims BECOMING bullies. I know, I nearly went there too. I tried every coping mechanism you can think of when I was in that situation. That's why I also know that the other stereotypical piece of advice everyone gives, to ignore them and they'll just go away, is also bullshit. While a punching bag that fights back might be an attraction, one that doesn't is by no means boring. After all if that were the case no one would get bullied in the first place. Ignoring them doesn't work, standing up to them doesn't work, and trying to get others on the outside of this unique social dynamic to interfere does nothing but inflame things. So what the hell can you do?

It's not a pleasant thing to say or to hear, but the simple truth is there is no easy fix to bullying. A large part of getting through it is just keeping your head down and enduring it. It won't go away, but it won't destroy you either, unless you let it. Fantasising about the day it will all be better is fine, but it can also make the days pass very slowly. I'll tell you what you should do that I didn't do, and that's focus on building a better future for yourself. I lost hope at a young age and didn't really commit myself to my education. In hindsight, I wish I had put a lot of the time I spent feeling sorry for myself into studying and setting myself up for something that I quite frankly lacked the optimism to envision at the time. But even that won't actually help you get through the bullying.

There is no magic wand. Nobody can step in and fight the battles for you, and unfortunately, like it or not, it's just a catch 22 situation. Fight back if it gets physical enough to pose serious danger to you. Inform authority figures if it moves from something psychological to something that costs you blood, money or good standing with your school. I am NOT saying to ignore "serious" bullying, of the kind where a vendetta forms between two students and one makes it their mission to destroy the other. What I am saying is, when you find that your life is just generally miserable, that you seem to attract or inspire predators in everyone around you. When the whole school seems to have turned against you, don't try to find some kind of reset button to make it all go away. Accept it. Accept that it will be over eventually, and start moving in that direction.

I am not saying any of this to make anyone feel hopeless or trapped. I'm saying it because a painful reality is better than a false truth. It doesn't matter if your headmaster declares a zero-tolerance policy. It doesn't matter if your parents talk to their parents. It doesn't matter if you push back, run away, hide, avoid or even play the same game and get in good with even bigger bullies. Human nature will finds its way. The best way to stop being a victim, is to stop deciding that you are. Stop believing it, stop feeling it, stop caring what these other morons say about you. It won't make it all just go away, but even if the very most you can do is limit how receptive YOU become to that pain, that's still better than wishy washy sentiments that you can't take to the bank.

If you want to get out of a bad situation, let me assure you. It DOES get better. But angels won't descend from above and simply deliver those better days to you. You have to go out and find them. I know you might not think you're strong enough to do that right now, but neither did I, neither do any of us. It still happens. It happens because it must. It happens because your need to survive is just as strong as theirs. If you are hurt by what they do it's because they are injuring in you something that is quantifiably real, a tangible need to survive, a live spark that they are sensing and trying to extinguish. You can't hurt a caged person with threats of putting them in a cage. If you are suffering, it's because you have something to lose, and that proves you still have something to survive FOR.

I mentioned I have an odd perspective, and by now I think it's becoming evident. Most bully victims I know (there's that word again) end up angry and vengeful towards their malefactors. I share the anger, but in a more general sense. I hate any sort of bullying whenever I see it. But I bear those people from my past no ill will. Why? Because they were children. I did things when I was younger that I would never do now. Why? Because I was a stupid young kid with no wisdom or maturity or capacity to understand the consequences of my actions. It is unfair to hold a grown person responsible for the actions of a child they can barely remember being. We do most of our development as individuals way after those years. I know people among my friends and family who only figured out what they want to do in life or who they really were well into their fifties.

It's so sad to see how other people let their pasts define them. How they carry those scars like the markings of an exclusive club or some childish rite of passage. They magnify the impact of their past injuries by obsessing over them, whilst paradoxically using that martyred status like a pedestal to elevate themselves to the state of being somehow better than everyone else because they went through that, and now they have the right to judge. I see these people commenting on news stories about barely self-aware little children bullying one another in scandalous ways, saying how they hope these kids get expelled from their schools and end up growing up sad and penniless. Wishing harm or psychological distress upon them. And I think to myself... "who's really the bully here?" The pre-teens that are pulling on each other's pigtails? Or the grown men and women who sit there snidely lowering their thumbs happy to throw those poor kids to the lions over one mistake?

Don't let your past define your future. You may have been hurt become, perhaps in very deep and personal ways, but understand that it's just something that happens at that age. Whether it was an adult, or a child that wronged you (and I've experienced both, I still vividly remember my Spanish teacher teaching my entire class to chant "Shut up, Founder" in Spanish whenever I tried to participate and learn (she actually used my real name, obviously). It doesn't matter, because carrying or treasuring those scars only achieves one thing. It gives the people who ruined your past the power to destroy your future as well. Do they deserve that much credit? Do they deserve to have THAT MUCH power over you? Don't give that to them. Don't give them the satisfaction. Don't waste your time or energy hating them. Chances are, by the time you're old enough to be over it, they won't even remember you. And if they do? If they are that sad? They probably don't have much going on in their lives by that point. You, on the other hand, will.

Remember, if it's very serious, you eventually may have to do something about it. Involve someone. But there's a big foggy line that needs to be crossed before it can get that bad. It was about as bad as it could get for me at times, including having guys jumping up and down on my head, trashing my home, stabbing me through the shoulder blade with needles, you name it. I don't, however, consider it to have gotten to that degree of seriousness, now that I have the clarity of hindsight. It was hell at the time, but it was also just what happens when you let other people convince you that you are weak. You become weak, and you attract more cruelty. None of that was really bad, for me though. For me the worst part was the psychological bullying.

The rejection, the whispers, the pennies and stones that would periodically come flying over your shoulder. The general sense of being resented or regarded as some ugly human wart that no one wanted within touching distance. I didn't cry or complain when I was punched or stolen from. It was the rumours, the occasions where an entire classroom agrees to do something wrong and then unanimously blame it on you, the atmosphere of general hostility that was so perfectly implanted into the way everyone behaved that it would even come to infect the teachers. I understand the burden of having been chosen by your entire world for being the scapegoat, the mule, the punching bag, the nothing. Bullying is a great deal more complex than a small gang of Bulk and Skulls tipping your bag onto the floor for fun. And it doesn't have to involve switchblades or lighters to be devastating.

I'm telling you it can get better, and I'm also telling you how. Deal with it. Tolerate it. Don't let it define you, and live for yourself. Whether you're gay, minority, or an average white male with seemingly no attributes that should make you stand out, but for some inexplicable reason you just find yourself surrounded by hate. You don't get past this by hoping, you do it by letting go. It's okay to grow up angry, just be angry at the right things. It's okay to grow up scarred, just let those scars be lessons, not trophies. There is no bravery or heroism in simply going through a shitty experience, but in being able to forgive afterwards?

That takes balls.

Thanks for your time, and I hope that if anyone who reads this has ever been through something so terrible, that they end up being happy and at peace with themselves. Never look in the mirror and see what they wanted you to see. If you really want poetic justice for your bullies - that's the best way to do it.

Wishing you peace and happiness,

The Founder