I keep seeing anti-bully propaganda online, and it is nearly always associated with the LGBT community.
Bullying, when I grew up, was something I was very familiar with, but it was not such a common topic as it is now. It was called “teasing” or “picking on”, and it was just how it was.
Being Picked On
My family wasn’t poor; in retrospect, I consider my upbringing and my parents outstanding. But it was the 1980’s and farming was bad, and we watched the budget. We had a big garden. We were a family that went to a Pentecostal church Sunday morning and night, and on Wednesday evenings for youth activities. We were in 4-H, and took care of animals and didn’t have a TV and played piano and read books and got good grades. We rode horses. We worked around the farm. We shot hoops on a gravel driveway, and we didn’t see a lot of other kids during summer vacation and that was fine with me because I dreaded school.
“Have Janet and Julie tell us how to say it. They speak that funny language at that weird church.” The entire high school mixed choir laughed and I just stared down at the sheet music in front of me that had some Latin words that we were struggling to sing, and wished I could disappear.
“I’m not dancing with Neidlinger. Wide load.” We were learning ballroom dancing in gym. Now, I would kill to be the same size I was then, but at the time I thought I was monstrous.
“Nice clothes, Neidlinger. Didn’t I see Amy wearing them last year?” Each year before school started, a girl in town would bring out garbage bags full of her old clothes and I always looked forward to it. I got a brand new wardrobe, as far as I was concerned. It was exciting, until I walked in the door at school.
“Doesn’t your mom brush your hair, Neidlinger? You got rabbits in there? Ever wash it?” I have a lot of hair. Mom brushed it. She made me breakfast before school — cooked cereal — she took care of us. But, after an hour-long bus ride in the morning, and leaning on the seat the whole bumpy ride, my hair would be messy.
“I suppose Linger’s gonna cry. Gonna cry for us?” I had always been an easy cry, but I learned how not to cry in front of people by the time I graduated.
“You Neidlingers should just live in a church.” I never forced the Bible down anyone’s throat, never carried my Bible around, never gathered around the flagpole or did any of the other things “church kids” do. I always felt guilty at Bible Camp when I’d hear how kids were not ashamed at their schools and doing all these daring things, but I just didn’t want to invite the hassle.
It’s pushing a lunch tray over so I couldn’t sit down. It’s stopping the conversation on my approach, and staring at me until I walked away so I knew I wasn’t welcome. It’s openly laughing, mocking, and rejecting. It’s nothing like getting beat up, but it is being bumped into lockers on purpose, and learning to walk with your eyes down on the floor so that you didn’t meet someone’s eye and get them started in on you. It was learning how to exist without existing during the early years of your life when you form some seriously concrete opinions on yourself and how you fit in the world.
None of this is unique to me. Kids everywhere are experiencing this, and adults everywhere remember this.
It seems that now, bullying has now come to be associated with the treatment of the LGBT community, and many of those kids who are like me are still not really “protected” under this new social focus. Amazingly, for some of my beliefs I might be seen as a legitimate target to be bullied in this new push. I am told I am a hater, and full of phobia. It is not true, but that is the label given someone like me.
The Larger Group
It is not OK to take bullying and say that it only happens for one group.
Bullying has happened all through time to people of different races and religions and economic classes and social classes and body types and personality types and disbilities and, in general, anyone deemed weaker than the larger group.
It bothers me a great deal to see the LGBT community bullied, and it bothers me to see some of them turn around and bully a religious group and get a pass. When victims become the “larger group”, they run the risk of becoming the very thing they are speaking out against. Groups focus on protecting the group and are defensive of attacks. They quickly become bullies themselves. Group mentality is ugly, no matter what group it is, because groups are faceless while individuals are not. Groups do away with the human story for the sake of the cause.
For the same reason I am against hate-crime legislation — does being assaulted for a defined reason make it worse than just an “ordinary” assault, all of which stem from hatred for another person? — I despise this new focus of bullying as being group-associated.
When I stood in front of my high school locker that spring day my sophomore year, between fifth and sixth period, and saw that someone had dumped pop all over my books and notebooks and trashed the inside of my locker and put a post-it note with the word “dog” on it inside, I didn’t really care why they had done it. I didn’t care if it was because the person hated my religious beliefs, the way I looked, the clothes I wore, my last name, or my personality. All I cared is that it hurt, and that someone had done that to me.
When bullying — and crime — becomes associated with a group or a reason, you dramatically increase the chances of ignoring justice for larger numbers of people for the sake of selective conscience, and even give those victim groups license to be bullies themselves as they become enforcers and evangelists for the cause.
Why do I have these ridiculous photos of me in this post? Because I’m putting a face on my story, and making it personal. For victims, bullying happens on a personal level, not as a group. Speaking for groups and fighting against groups is the place where bullies are made.
The Bully Pulpit
Theodore Roosevelt could not have coined a better phrase than “bully pulpit.”
The person making the most noise gets the attention, and his message is attributed to anyone with the same label. Fred Phelps calls himself a Christian, and so all Christians are, unless they swear off anything remotely disagreeable in the Bible, Fred Phelps.
Trading one bully in for his victim to be a bully does not make up for the wrong things done to that person in the past. It only continues the cycle of wronging innocent people who have no connection to the injustice, or who are quietly living personal lives and NOT being bullies themselves.
Does disagreement open the door to be labeled a bully, or to be bullied? Is it possible to have radically different beliefs and still have love for another human being? For the individual? Or is the bully pulpit all we hear in this escalating mess?
In some ways, we’ve all been bullied, and people who are bullied have decisions to make. They can fight peacefully and with dignity for others who were similarly bullied. They can remain in fear and self-hate their entire life, existing without existing. They can be apathetic and not want to help anyone else, because no one helped them. They can learn from their experience and devote their life to helping others. They can explore their hurt and turn it into something beautiful, like art or creating. (The Christian faith has a strong component of seeing suffering as a gift to be made into a thing of beauty, whether for a season or for a lifetime.)
The worst is when they become bullies themselves.
Thinking that past wrongs and a history of injustice give you a free pass on bullying doesn’t make you anything but a sanctimonious bully. Reacting with anger because of hurt or fear or inequalities makes you a really mean and ugly bully. Mocking others who are not bullies simply because they have similar beliefs or connections to groups you dislike or disagree with makes you a prejudiced and ignorant bully. Whether you’re a preacher in front of a church with a receptive audience, or a gay journalist behind a podium with an agenda, you have the potential to be that bully. If you’re serious about being against bullying, no one gets a free pass.
We are all bullies in some way. We have all been hurt, pushed aside, left out, wronged, and there has been at least once or twice when our reaction was to lash out at another as a bully.
But, in this larger dialogue, the question is pretty easy: Are you against bullying? Are you really?
Because you’ll stop treating any person differently. You’ll stop using the past as an excuse for present wrong behavior. You’ll stop promoting only one side of the story. You’ll stop taking the easy bait provided by the most hideous of bullies, highlighted by the media. You’ll get to know those people you are told are “the enemy.” You will always love, even when beliefs are different. You will not expect another to compromise their beliefs in order to avoid being bullied. You’ll not hate or tear down anyone, even when you have a clean shot. Otherwise, you’re just another hypocrite in search of a bully pulpit.