Lies Told to Bullying Victims Over the Years: A Compendium
The people who torment you are popular, a word that means “well-liked.” If people whom everyone else likes find you unacceptable, then the problem is obviously you. Of course, physical and verbal assault and harassment are strictly against the rules of our school, but we adults are powerless to stop it. Besides, kids will be kids, and what you’re suffering isn’t serious. If you ignore it, it will stop. Bullying is a normal part of growing up, which is also the best time of your life– trust us. However, if you were really a good kid, you would feel sorry for bullies because they have low self-esteem and a lot of problems at home. The damage that bullying is doing to your self-esteem does not cross our minds, but if you complain too much, you’re a whiner, which is why you’re bullied in the first place. If you attempt to commit suicide, or even mention suicidal feelings, then you’re clearly mentally ill, and we are absolved of any responsibility for you. We’re not a mental hospital, are we? If only you would change.
Every one of those lies did unspeakable harm to generations of bullied kids. Some of those kids killed themselves quickly, others slowly, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol and other addictions. Some have post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition which places them, emotionally, right back in the moment of their greatest helplessness whenever the memories of abuse are triggered. Some survived.
I could write torrents of words about each one of these myths, but other people are all over it. The myth no one else is addressing, though, the one that really gets inside the heart of the bullied child, is popularity. Ask even a kindergarten-aged victim, “Who picks on you at school?” and the child will probably answer, “The popular kids.”
What does it mean to be popular? The most popular restaurant in town buzzes with people who love the food. Disney World is a popular vacation destination. The world’s most popular soft drink is Coke. Popular places and things are easy to understand: they’re the ones a plurality of people like, even love. But popular people, particularly in school, are not necessarily the best-beloved.
I remember a boy and a girl in my junior high and high school who were universally liked for all the right reasons. Kim and Craig (names changed to protect the evolved) were clear-eyed and kind. Kim was (and remains) vivacious, interested in others, quick to laugh, generous with a compliment. At an age when most of us were criminally narcissistic, Kim knew what people needed to hear and had the magnanimity to say it. Craig was an all-around good kid with the warmest smile I’ve ever seen on a teenage boy (he still has it as a grown-up). He was an athlete, but not a jock; an excellent student, but not a grind; an Eagle Scout, but not a prig. He had friends in every social group, every academic level, every part of town. Yet, if you had asked anyone in my graduating class to name the most popular boy and girl in our year, their names probably wouldn’t have come up, because “popular” means something different from “widely admired and beloved” among children and teenagers. (The song “Popular” from the musical Wicked is a witty, knowing take on the kind of popularity that counts in school.) The best-loved kids are never bullies, but the popular ones sometimes are.
The popular clique can mean the kids who are wealthy, good-looking, athletic, confident, and entitled, in some schools. In others, it can mean the tough, defiant kids no one messes with. It’s the group that many other kids long to join and try to emulate, but its mystique depends on exclusivity. You can’t apply for membership. You can’t ask them if you can play. If you have to ask, you’re not in. Kids outside the group may feel a variety of emotions about them: envy, resentment, contempt, longing, and self-pity, but not love. Definitely not love.
The word “popular” in this context, then, is a misnomer. These kids aren’t widely admired, like Craig and Kim, or enjoyed by the masses, like Coke and Disney World, because they are not exactly popular, but powerful. In some communities, even the adults don’t dare to cross them. Like a multinational corporation headquartered in the Cayman Islands, this group plays by its own rules with no court of appeals. But in a language in which we famously park on driveways and drive on parkways, what difference does it make if we call them “popular” instead of “powerful”?
It might make all the difference in the world to bullied kids.
Imagine their perspective. It’s bad enough to be unsafe, deprived of one’s dignity in a thousand ways each day: mocked, beaten, tripped, stolen from, lied about on the Internet, humiliated. It’s worse if those who engage in the behavior are labelled with the word used to describe something the whole world loves. If a criminal robs and beats up a 12-year-old on his way home from school, everyone’s outraged sympathies lie with the victim. If kids regarded as “popular” abuse the 12-year-old, some people wonder what’s wrong with the victim, himself included. After all, if the kids who are the social equivalent of Coke and Disney World hate you that much, what is wrong with you? Can it ever be made right, or should you just commit suicide, as some of your tormentors suggest? Connotations kill.
Bullying is the exercise of power against a person who doesn’t have any. Powerful children understand this very well, and bullied children are bewildered by it. A young man recently told me about two girls in his high school science class who would steal school supplies out of his backpack or off his desk, scribble on his immaculate notebook, destroy his homework, flick sharp objects near his eyes. When he objected, the girls would tell him that it was their right to take whatever they wanted, that it was a free country and that he had no right to stop them from doing anything they wanted to do to him. His rights, of course, were nonexistent. The girls flummoxed this polite, intelligent boy. He was physically larger than they, but helpless to stop kids so assured of their own power. Bullies act from exactly such a position of entitlement, as if to say: I do this to you because I can, and because there is nothing you can do to stop me. The classic advice to punch the bully in the nose, though ill-advised in the post-Columbine, zero-tolerance era, remains correct in its theory of power, sending the message that this victim is no longer safe to victimize, and that a new, more pliant one will have to be found.
The power dynamic also explains why the politically correct and well-meaning attempt to teach “conflict resolution skills” to address bullying is so utterly misguided. Conflict resolution assumes equality, a situation in which peers whose objectives are at odds can work out a compromise. But bullies and victims have no issues to work out. The bully would like to use his or her power to abuse and dehumanize the victim. The victim would like to be treated as a human being possessed of rights and dignity. There is no ground for compromise. The correct analogy is domestic abuse, for which not even the most starry-eyed optimist recommends conflict resolution.
New Jersey’s new Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, as well as new anti-bullying laws passed in Connecticut and Massachusetts, finally takes the power dynamics of bullying seriously. Schools can no longer dismiss bullying as a normal part of childhood or pin the blame on the victim for being too sensitive, too opinionated, too gay, too fat, too ugly, too smart, too stupid, or just too strange. The law forces school administrators to challenge bullies and their sometimes equally powerful and aggressive parents. It requires schools to initiate an investigation at the first incident of harassment, bullying or intimidation, and to take a series of forceful actions to ensure that the bullying stops immediately, whether it occurs in school, off school grounds, or even online. The law threatens consequences stopping barely short of the wrath of God. Some administrators worry that the new policies are too extreme, but it will be refreshing to see schools forced to err on the side of victims, at least until the litigation begins.
The subtext of the law is, finally, an acknowledgment that bullying is about power and that only a show of power greater than that of the bully can end it. Administrators, parents, and the police are presumed to have enough institutional power to overcome the social power of the bully.
Do they? Will the new policies work? I don’t know. They will certainly work better than the old policy of ignoring bullying, which doesn’t work at all, as generations of victims can attest– those of us who survived, that is.
The new anti-bullying laws may not be popular, but I hope that they are powerful.
Julie Goldberg is writing a novel about, in part, the psychological trauma of bullying.
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