Tag Archive | bullying

The art of critique

Over the last five months or so, I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with online “dialogue” that feels suspiciously like fighting.  As I’ve said before, I’m not a fan of policing every single word that I speak or write in order to achieve some Platonic ideal of non-offensive communication.  It would be impossible to please every person in existence, and by attempting to satisfy one person I will inevitably alienate another (often from the same circle).  I would much prefer to make a mistake and have someone point it out to me than try to read minds ahead of time.

There’s no shame in being told that our words have hurt someone, even if it was unintentional.  If someone is upset or angry and points out the flaw, that’s an opportunity to grow, learn, and (hopefully) deepen a relationship.  I hesitate to use the word “blessing,” because some find the connotations offensive, but I do consider it a blessing when someone corrects me, even using strong language or statements.  Ideally, it’s proportionate to the offense (that is, a tweet for a tweet or a blog post for a blog post) and a critique of my words, not my character or my presumed intent.

I’ve been going over and over in my mind what exactly has been so upsetting to me about many recent interactions on social media.  After all, I’m rarely directly involved, and even when I have been, no one has told me that I’m doing anything wrong (aside from one very snide and hurtful exchange).  Yet something about it has been triggering panic, sadness, anger, and desperation like I haven’t experienced in years.  I tried considering it from a workplace standpoint–if tensions on the job are high, it creates an unpleasant work environment even for those not involved in the situation.  Twitter may not be my job, but as a stay-at-home mom and writer, it can be like a “workplace” among fellow bloggers.  That doesn’t fully explain why it was so painful to witness, though.

I tried unfollowing several people regularly involved in these controversies, but it hasn’t helped so far.  I would have to unfollow about 200 more people in order to feel completely safe from any and all triggers.  I’d be left with mostly famous people and my local grocery store chain, which–let’s face it–isn’t all that interesting  (sorry, Wegmans).  It’s impossible to escape disagreements, and it’s impossible to be the “perfect” blogger.  So, if the problem isn’t who I’m following (and can’t be resolved by unfollowing), then what is it?

This morning, it struck me.  The specific way of pointing out flawed ideas brings back my childhood in vivid detail as though I were living it over again.

Allow me to explain.  There are two different ways in which people engage with posts and ideas with which they disagree or even find offensive.  This is what happens in the first situation:

  • Person 1 makes a statement or comment people disagree with.
  • Other people reply that it was a Bad Thing to Say, sometimes even with strong language or harsh words or anger against the original statement and the person posting it.
  • Person 1 either apologizes or doesn’t, takes down the tweet/post or doesn’t.
  • Discussion may or may not ensue around the original statement or the arguments against it.
  • Life goes on.

Here is the second version:

  • Person 1 makes a statement or comment people disagree with.
  • People passive-aggressively tweet or write blog posts about how terrible Person 1 is.
  • Person 1 feels personally attacked and fights back.
  • Other people jump in to defend both parties involved.
  • Nothing gets resolved, tensions remain high, people distrust anyone still friends with either person/persons involved.
  • Life goes on, but people are unfriended or unfollowed because of their involvement or refusal to get involved.

Sadly, this happens more frequently to women.  It’s particularly bad if the person who makes the original statement is already part of a marginalized group–for reference, see what has happened pretty much every single time a black woman speaks up publicly about an important issue.  I really don’t know how to say this without someone feeling like I’m “calling them out” personally.  I’m trying to point out the difference between telling someone their words or actions were offensive and making bold statements about that person or their character.

Why this is so upsetting for me personally is the name-calling and the fault-finding in regard to a person’s humanity.  I spent years being told that I was ugly, worthless, stupid, and deserving of mockery.  Is it any wonder that it hurts to see anyone using the same language and then justifying it by saying, “I have a right to be angry” or “This is a healing step”?

We also need to stop saying that everything someone says is justified because of their personal history or even because they are right.  Being right doesn’t justify verbal violence.  Would we be okay with a person pulling a gun on someone else because they’d said something offensive?  I doubt it.  Yet we’re fine with someone pulling a verbal gun because it “isn’t as bad.”  I am going to tell you that anyone who believes verbal assault “isn’t as bad” because you don’t die from it has not spent a childhood being verbally abused.  They probably also haven’t been subjected to rape threats in the comments section of a popular blog, either.

This is absolutely not about anyone’s right to say that something was offensive or in poor taste or triggering or otherwise upsetting or harmful or even that we just plain didn’t like it or don’t agree with it.  It’s not about tone-policing or suggesting that anger isn’t healing or holy.  It’s about how name-calling, passive-aggression, mocking people rather than ideas, and assigning motive to people is not a healthy way to interact with the world.  That’s very different from telling anyone not to be angry or not to express their anger, and it’s not even asking people to “just be nice.”  Niceness is not required in order to attack ideas instead of people.  “That’s a shitty thing to say” isn’t especially polite, but it sure beats “You are a shitty person for saying that.”  It’s also a lot better to say, “That statistic you cited sounds like someone pulled it out of their ass” is also kind of rude, but it’s much better than, “You ignorant ass, smart people know that’s not true.”

I’m not going to spend 2014 grinding my gears on this issue.  Although it’s not my preference, I’m happy to thin my social media to close friends, celebrities, and the grocery store.  Either way, I’m taking myself out of this completely.  Follow me or don’t; be my friend or don’t.  All I ask is that if you step away, you extend me the courtesy of not talking about me behind my back, sending me manipulative emails through my blog, or tweeting thinly-veiled mockery of my personhood.  After all, that’s the same respect I’ve already given to you.


I’m supposed to be doing something else right now–working on editing the next chapter of my novel, maybe, or getting started on school for the day.  But I can’t concentrate.  Every time an online blow-up happens, I feel sick.  Distressed.  Afraid.

The weird thing is, there’s not much for me to fear.  I typically stay out of it.  I may throw in a comment or two, but I don’t choose a side and then engage in battle.  I don’t find that kind of thing meaningful, and it often takes away the limited energy I already have.  In fact, I more or less quit tweeting for two months, in part because of my health issues but also because the constant tension was making my health worse.

Last night, I tweeted this:

tweet 12_16I know I’m not the only one.  When I’ve mentioned it before, I’ve gotten–not surprisingly–unpredictable results.  As I reflected, though, it occurred to me that it isn’t (for me) as much a volatile parent as a hostile school environment.

For many years, I was bullied at school.  The terrible thing was that I could never, ever figure out what I had done wrong.  I couldn’t think of some thing I’d said or some person I’d hurt that caused the problem.  I thought maybe I just wasn’t cool enough or pretty enough or trendy enough.  Funny thing was, I wasn’t even popular enough for other kids to “ruin” the way bullying seems to be portrayed in movies–you know, the popular girl whose friends turn on her.  I wasn’t even good enough for that.

The funny thing is, when I decided to become more serious about my writing, I ended up inadvertently sitting at the popular table.  I made connections.  I became one of the “good ones,” landing on several people’s lists of bloggers to watch.  I never enjoyed the kind of success some have, but that wasn’t terribly important anyway.  I was at a season of my life when I was stuck in an offline social environment that wasn’t good for me, and I needed the shelter of like-minded people.

Through that, I discovered that I never, ever want to be popular again.

Being popular is not at all the same thing as being liked.  It’s merit- based–you are only as popular as your followers want you to be.  We can argue about whether or not some people deserve pushback (hint: they do), but that really isn’t what scares me.  I’m absolutely not anywhere near the top of the power structure in terms of blogging.  So I’m a lot more concerned with people bullying at the micro level and whether or not that could potentially happen to me.

As much as it is not okay for powerful people to bully those with less power, it is also not okay for less powerful people to bully each other.  There is absolutely no excuse for that behavior.  “He did it first!” is not a reason, especially if the recipient of the harassment isn’t even the one who attacked.  Neither is “But that person over there needs to stop!”  Of course they do.  There is no question about that.  But that isn’t license for passing it on.

I quit the popular table.  Keeping up appearances is wearying.  I’m not going to police every word I say to make sure that a particular subset of a subset of the population isn’t upset, bothered, or even offended by what I say.  For example, if I want to write about forgiveness and healing, I’m not going to try to contort myself finding a way to say it that validates the small number of people who actually enjoy carrying so much turmoil around that it spills onto everyone else.

That kind of emotional and intellectual pretzelizing has stunted my growth as a writer.  For months, I refused to write fiction because I lived in terror that some people–again, a small but vocal number–would read meaning into it that I never intended.  There’s a common belief that if someone writes something, it must automatically mean an endorsement for that thing and that thing alone.  All writing must, in some form, be a kind of social critique.  Well, I don’t write that.  I write the sort of fluffy, cheesy stories one might choose to read curled up with a cup of cocoa or to pass the time on a long flight.  It’s not rife with hidden agendas.

This fear was causing my soul to shrivel.  I needed time to clear my head and discover what it is that I’m looking for.  What I want, I think, is not to be popular.  I don’t want to be heralded as a blogger who “gets it right.”  I’ve lived a lifetime of trying to meet someone else’s standards for being a good person–whether it was the popular kids at school or the leadership of my churches or the self-appointed Guardians of the Internet.  I’m done with that.

What I actually want is to be liked.  No, I don’t mean my blog.  Hey, that’s great if it gets read.  I don’t mean my fiction, either, though that would be cool too, if I ever publish.  I mean I want other real people to like the real me.  Not because I’ve earned my Ally Cookie or my Feminist Badge or whatever but because we both enjoy My Little Pony, the New York Yankees, and long walks on the beach.

Is that even possible?  I don’t know.  I’m determined to try, though.  While still writing about the injustices within the church–which, let’s face it, I do better than trying to be the perfect activist anyway–I’m going to reconnect with people who I might find enjoy the same things.  I had that, once upon a time, but I let it go.  It’s time to find it again.  This time, I’m going to hold on to it.  Having something real is more important than being popular.

Why bullying matters

By Lphip003 at en.wikibooks [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Trigger warning for bullying.

A new study states that the effects of bullying have long-lasting effects on the survivors.  According to the New York Times article on the report,

Victims of bullying at school, and bullies themselves, are more likely to experience psychiatric problems in childhood, studies have shown. Now researchers have found that elevated risk of psychiatric trouble extends into adulthood, sometimes even a decade after the intimidation has ended. [Read the rest of the post here.]

No. Shit.  Really?

Well, thanks for that, JAMA Psychiatry.  We certainly couldn’t have figured out that adults who were bullied as children might suffer with symptoms of PTSD without your expert help in identifying that fact.  It’s not at all as though those of us who were actually traumatized as children haven’t been saying this, you know, for years or anything.

It really makes me angry that it’s taken so long for the after-effects of bullying to be recognized.  We have networks to help survivors of all sorts of other violent acts, and we acknowledge the trauma that has been suffered–except for bullying.  When it comes to bullying, it is still looked at as a rite of passage.  Victims are still sent to “social skills” classes to learn how not to be “easy targets,” and all of us have heard at least one person say to us, “Just get over it already.”  We’re told that the bullies are to be pitied (and within the church that they deserve “grace”).

I don’t need the New York Times or JAMA Psychiatry to tell me what I already know: Bullying destroys a person from the inside out, and it takes years to break free of the self-loathing.  We internalize the messages of worthlessness and some of us never fully recover.  We have permanent scars, physical and otherwise; some of us don’t make it at all.

I lived it for eight years of my childhood.  I was called names, I was ostracized, I was mocked.  I was punched in the face, smacked with a bag of heavy books, and poked with sharp objects.  I was spit on and had all manner of disgusting substances put in my hair.  I was pantsed in the lunch room.  One kid used to flip open the latch on my musical instrument cases and laugh at me when I told him to stop.  I had a boy in my ninth grade study hall threaten to rape me because “ugly girls deserved it,” and he spent the first five minutes of nearly every study hall touching my thighs and calves under the desk where the teacher couldn’t see.

You know what happened?  Let me list it:

  • I was told to ignore it
  • I had the “sticks and stones” rhyme recited at me
  • I was told I was “thin-skinned” and needed to toughen up
  • I wasn’t believed (after the backpack incident, my father examined me and declared that there were no bruises–i.e., I was lying)
  • I was told that boys who picked on girls “liked” them and I should be flattered (yes, even the rapey guy)
  • I was told it would pass
  • I was told it wasn’t that bad
  • I was called a complainer
  • I had several teachers laugh at what the kids did to me
  • I had to ask for my seat to be moved on more than one occasion, rather than having another student moved or told to stop

So does this produce trauma?  Yes.  And I hardly need some study to confirm what I could have told the researchers in a five-minute phone call.

I think one of the worst parts of this is that my experiences were mild compared to some of my classmates.  As bad as it was, I used to be grateful not to be some of the other victims.  I’m ashamed to admit that while I didn’t bully any of them, I did nothing to help them.  I was too busy trying to survive and I feared that my situation would worsen.  I have no excuse; I should have stepped in anyway.

If you want to know why I’m so passionate about being part of making sure we take down institutions that enable person-on-person aggression of any sort, this is why.  It’s not about “accepting” the “other.”  It’s not about being kind to people in spite of our differences.  It’s about respecting the humanity of each and every person and teaching our children to do the same.  When that becomes our starting point, then there will be no “others”; only people.

It’s ok to call someone names if they deserve it.

This one is going around again.  Maybe it’s because it’s the start of a new school year.  Who knows?  Instead of passing it along on Facebook or Twitter, I think I’ll do what I do best: pick it apart.

At first, this looks pretty good.  I mean, it’s absolutely true that people get picked on by people who don’t know them.  But when I look deeper, I see something disturbing about it.  There’s an underlying message that probably wasn’t intended, but is an unfortunate side effect.

It’s not okay to bully people for things that aren’t true, but otherwise it’s fine.

It’s not good to call a virgin a slut, but maybe you can get away with it if she really is sleeping with a bunch of guys.

We shouldn’t assume that pregnancy was the result of consensual sex, but if it was, we can mock her.

If we see the fat girl eating potato chips, it’s a good idea to bully her into eating the way we think she should.

Best not to physically assault someone who is abused at home, but they’re fair game if their home life is stable.

You can call a kid “lame” if you want, as long as you make sure he’s not the sole source of his family’s income.

It’s fine to make fun of people with disfiguring scars, unless they’ve served in the military.

See, we don’t really need to know someone’s story.  We don’t need to know the history of another person in order to treat him or her with dignity.  Respect doesn’t depend on what someone else has or hasn’t done.  The message of this “anti-bullying” picture isn’t one of treating others with honor.  It’s about continuing to judge others—their actions, their motives, their bodies.

I’m also uncomfortable with the “RIP” at the beginning of the message.  While it’s true that sometimes bullied teens take their own lives, two other things are also true:  Not all bullied kids are suicidal and not all suicidal adolescents have been bullied.  It doesn’t address the problem in a healthy way.  Instead of generating concern that leads to finding solutions, it only encourages pity.

There are better ways to address the serious social problems our young people are facing.  We can start by being the kind of people who teach our own kids to hold others in high regard, to respect them regardless of their physical appearance or their personality quirks or what we’ve heard about their behavior.  We can also help our kids recognize signs in their friends that they might need help.  These are not issues that can be resolved by reposting pictures on the Internet.

Notable News: Week of June 23-29, 2012

Good stuff this week!  Follow-up to the bullying incident from last week; a great blog post from a friend; and more good stuff from Rachel Held Evans.  Enjoy!

1. People respond to the bullying in a loving way that shows care and concern for everyone.

Yeah, I really love my friends.  This is just one example of why I feel so blessed by the people in my life.  If something happens to my kids, or if they do something stupid, this is a family I know has my back.  They’re on at about 1:20.

2. Response to my musings on the “sex is bad” thing.

A friend left this wonderful blog post in the comments section and I want to be sure others have the chance to see it.  I love the generous, open, caring way she highlights the problem.  Be sure to read both this one and the one she links to in the text.

3. Coming Out Christian

Check out this terrific guest post on Rachel Held Evans’ blog.  I’ve been saying for a long time that we need to hear each other’s stories in a safe place.  We do need to listen and we do need to keep our hearts open.

Vacation here I come!

Notable News: Week of June 16-22, 2012

My apologies for not posting yesterday. It’s been a crazy week, with the end of school and various other things. But here it is, with only one highlight this week.

In case at least 20 of your closest friends haven’t already sent it to you or posted it on social media, here’s what happened. In my town, a few kids on a school bus verbally assaulted the bus monitor. I refuse to post a link here. Too many people have watched it already, I couldn’t stomach it myself, it would be highly triggering for some people, and the responses to the video have been disproportionate to the situation in a lot of ways.

A couple days ago (just in case you missed it) I had a major tweet rant. I had come home from church feeling refreshed, hoping to put a fairly lousy situation with one of my kids behind me. I went online to look at their professional portraits and share them on Facebook.

Instead of the usual “we had the best pizza for dinner!” and “my kid scored 10 goals!” status updates, my feed was crowded with posts about the bus situation. What struck me as strange was that approximately 98% of these posts were sympathetic to the kids, with no mention at all of the woman.

Not only that, the vast majority were about how tough the kids must have it at home, how they just need love and care, how we must forgive them. I agree, and I think the death threats are over the top. But I think the outpouring of support for them misses the mark.

It is reasonable to offer love and forgiveness without accepting the behavior. It’s not an either/or situation. The support and fundraising for the victim suffer from a similar problem. Caring for her does not mean throwing money at her, like that will resolve the issue.

We’re continuing to talk about this situation with our kids. What we are telling them is that we don’t bully back, that we stand up for others when we see bullying, and that we work on finding ways to reconcile with each other. We’re also teaching them that they don’t have to continue to endure bullying, nor should they ever instigate it.

My hope is that rather than watching this display with your families, you would instead spend some time together talking about how to handle these situations. Every family has the chance now to stop this cycle of hurt.

The Victim Is Responsible?

I was at my son’s school today and picked up a few packets of parent information.  Most of it was the typical stuff, a couple of recipe books, school news, that kind of thing.  There was also a newspaper-type thing.  This month’s issue was all about bullying.  Since I have a particular interest in the topic, I thought I’d check it out and see what it was.

The first page was all about some multi-page document outlining a full bullying-prevention program.  The rest was devoted to providing exercises and activities related to bullying, presumably for use in the classroom.

The first couple of sets of exercises were impressive.  There were several scenarios, with discussion questions throughout each situation.  Questions included the type of bullying and how the child might have been feeling.  Each scenario ended with the sentence, “It was not _____’s fault that s/he was bullied.”  There were also some great questions for kids about identifying their own feelings and using healthy responses to feelings.

Despite the outward appearance of being a great tool, I had some concerns about the material.  There was a list in the front of the magazine which outlined types of bullying and the degree of concern each deserved.  I had no problem with the lists, for the most part.  Obviously teasing, while mean-spirited, is not life-threatening; flashing a knife is.  However, I disagree that racism is the only potential hate crime.  I saw no mention of violence or threats based on gender or sexuality.  I realize this is a publication for elementary school students, but are the authors of the magazine that clueless?  Surely experts on bullying are aware that kids are already being singled out for harassment, even at such a young age.

My second concern was with material presented later on in the magazine.  While the authors were careful to point out that bullying is not the victim’s fault, they made it clear that the victim is (at least partially) responsible for ending it.  Now, I’m all for kids standing up for themselves.  But that can be hard to do, especially if you feel that there isn’t anyone on your side.  It’s easier to assert yourself in the company of friends who care about you.  But that won’t happen for a kid who feels that he or she has no one to support him or her.

We’ve come a long way from the days of assuming it’s entirely the victim’s fault.  But why, oh why, don’t we stop excusing the perpetrators?  It reminds me of all those seminars for women on how not to be victimized.  Yeah, that’s right, ladies–don’t wear “sexy” clothes, don’t drink booze, and make sure you say no loud and clear.  Huh, so it’s not the guy’s fault that he’s a jerk?  Kid, make a wisecrack when someone insults you and ignore what those kids are whispering about you.  Never mind the fact that no one has the right to be cruel to another person.  When are we going to stop making excuses and start holding kids accountable for harassing others?

In my experience, and that of many other kids, bullying doesn’t get better just because you’re assertive.  It doesn’t get better just because you tell an adult what’s happening, either.  For many kids, it continues to get worse.  And when kids take their own lives over it, parents are beginning to demand someone pay.

Why let it get to that point?  If we stop it, if we create a culture of respect, kids will treat one another accordingly.  This is what we need to expect in our schools.


Bullying is bad.

Well, there’s a way to start a post with an obvious statement.  But I think you know what I mean.

Today, my kid confessed that back when a kid was teasing him at school, this kid told him he should “just go kill yourself.”  Nice, huh?  I wonder where a seven-year-old learned that particular phrase.  Thankfully, this story has a happy ending, at least for now.  J is now friends with this boy.  I’ve met him; he’s not a bad kid.  He was polite, his mom is a sweetheart, and J has a great time playing with him.  It seems strange to think this is the kid who spent a month teasing J.  We were also fortunate that J’s teacher is good enough to spot bullying and didn’t tolerate it in his classroom.

Not all kids are so lucky.

This is the kind of thing that goes on every day, in classrooms all across the country.  And it’s not limited to classrooms or schools.  It happens on playgrounds and in other recreational settings.  I’ve had to tell my kids on more than one occasion that they should stay away from certain kids on the playground because they are teasing other kids.  My nephew has a couple of boys that live in his neighborhood and have picked on him in his own house.  It took months before the whole situation came to light because they were just sneaky enough to do it where the adults couldn’t hear.

Which is, of course, what most kids do.  They carry out their bullying in much more subtle ways than beating up another kid, and they do it where and when parents or teachers are not listening: Hallways, bathrooms, playgrounds; sly notes, whispers during lessons, even in a kid’s own bedroom, apparently.  I can remember being called names for years, and even when I told my teachers, they either didn’t believe me or brushed it aside as “kids will be kids.”  I was often told to toughen up or ignore the bullies.

These days, it’s also popular to sympathize with the bully.  It’s true, we need to love our enemies.  But often the victim is pushed aside in favor of offering “psychological help” to the perpetrators.  This may come partly from the mistaken idea that bullies all come from broken homes or have abusive parents.  While that is certainly true some of the time, it doesn’t explain everything.  Some kids are just mean to others regardless.  The kids who picked on me came from stable homes, for the most part.  Which only made it harder, actually, because it meant that I took it to heart that there must be something wrong with me if the “normal” kids said so.  In fact, I once had an adult suggest as much–that the other kids should be kinder to me even though I was “different.”  (I was never exactly clear on how I was different.)

And what about when the adults are the problem?  I’ve worked in schools and my husband is a teacher, so we’ve seen it happen.  A teacher develops a dislike for a certain student and creates tension for that child.  We’ve seen teachers discipline students over make-believe incidents.  I recall one student who had stomach aches for an entire year because he was convinced his teacher didn’t like him.  I tried to remain non-committal, but it was difficult, given that I knew for a fact that his teacher had expressed dislike for him.  I recall another student who was mocked by several teachers who all claimed it was “in good fun.”  I know some teachers who say rude things about the (lack of) intelligence of their students and who seem to have very little clue about developmental stages.

Sadly, it doesn’t go away as adults.  It concerns me when I see this kind of thing happening.  I have seen people publicly speak about how we need to be more patient and kind in out interactions with the world, such as showing patience with a slow clerk in the grocery store.  Five minutes later, the same person is refusing to associate with certain types of people during social time after worship.  Not everyone outgrows the stage where they see themselves as better than others.

There is no clear answer for this problem.  Sure, I could pull my kid out of school and go back to teaching him at home.  I will do that, if he’s ever bullied or harassed to the point of being miserable or not wanting to go to school.  But I’d rather that he have a good public education without being victimized.  Is that too much to ask?