Just because we all do it doesn't make it okay.
Bullying is once again at the forefront of everyone's minds in Ottawa. In less than a year, there have been two highly publicized stories about teenagers killing themselves. Suicide, a topic avoided by most because of what it represents, is being talked about at dinner tables. Around the lunch table. In classrooms. And that's an important step because if we don't recognize it then we can't acknowledge it's a problem, and if we don't acknowledge it's a problem then we can't do anything about it. But what do we do?
Suicide is not a disease. There is no vaccination or medication or a one-size-fits-all action plan. It's a complicated act that is frustratingly impossible to understand because even if there is a letter left behind we can never completely understand the storm of circumstances that led someone to take their own life. Because they died they are not there to tell us exactly what happened; what in that moment made them feel that they had no other choice but to end their life. The swirl of heredity, mental illness, social circumstances, family situation, peer group, coping skills are too tightly interwoven to choose which was responsible. What was the final straw?
Bullying is also at the forefront of a lot of people's minds right now because the boy who killed himself was bullied. Because he was gay. Because he was 'different'. I use the term in single quotation marks because not a single human being on this earth is the same and yet we constantly attack and judge others because they are different. He was gay and he liked musical theatre and figure skating. Boys are supposed to like girls and they're supposed to like sports and they're supposed to like hockey. That's how he was 'different'. Maybe you can't change someone's heredity, their predisposition to mental illness; the fact that their family is struggling; that their peer group is leading them astray but there is something you can control; something you can change. Yourself. Misty of the Chickadee Tweet recently wrote a post about bullying and empathy:
When we put ourselves on another level, and look down on others, we are saying I am not you. And that, my friends, is how wars are started; how fights or disagreements arise; and how we come to marginalize others. It is based on the fact that we have separated US from THEM, or ME and YOU. As soon as we take this step to separate ourselves, and as soon as we draw that line in the sand, we have lost the battle. As humans, this is how we fail each other, time and time again.
Empathy is not sympathy; it's not feeling sorry for someone who is marginalized or different or struggling. People don't need pity: they need you to stand beside them and acknowledge their feelings. They need you to share in their struggles and their emotions and to see what the world looks like from their perspective. They need you to put yourself in their shoes and experience what it's like, even for a nanosecond, to be them.
The topic of bullying came to mind at, of all places, a blogging conference I attended last week in Toronto. One of my unexpected take-away's (of the unpleasant, deep thoughts variety) was that bullying has changed and evolved. Children and teenagers are tormented not only face-to-face (and behind their backs) but via text messages and blogs and Twitter and Facebook and YouTube. The constant assault on their sense of self is never ending and relentless.
Technology gives us the means to torment people 24/7. What used to be confined to work places or the school yard is now interwoven into every moment of every single day.
Bullying isn't just physical violence. Bullying is any act of physical, verbal, or emotional abuse that is intended to harm the victim. It is direct (face-to-face) or indirect (gossip, exclusion).
Bullying is hurtful. The acts of physical, verbal, and emotional abuse are intended to harm the victim. There's nothing 'accidental' about bullying behaviour.
Bullying isn't fair. Bullies often have an advantage over the person they're bullying; they might be more popular or might have sensitive information about the person they're bullying. There's an imbalance of power.
And we are all responsible.
Because we slough it off as "kids will be kids", "they're just joking around", "Susie started it", "Sam started it", "it's what kids do now", "he never laid a finger on him", "it's how kids learn about the real world"
Because we do it ourselves.
We taunt or mock acquaintances and friends at dinner parties and coffee dates. We gossip at soccer games and hockey games and ballet practices. We 'unfriend' people on Facebook and block them on Twitter. We write blog posts and create vlogs and start inflammatory discussions intended to mock and divide: like Misty highlighted, it becomes US versus THEM.
And because our kids live a digital world, the same digital world we occupy, they are watching every move we make.
It's no wonder our kids are bullies and it's no wonder that it's getting worse. Just because you didn't kick your friend Jane in the shins in a Starbucks ruckus over who's really best friends with Emily doesn't mean you're not a bully.
You unfriend someone on Facebook for a perceived slight and encourage several other friends and acquaintances to publicly follow suit. You're bullying.
You write a blog post about formula feeding, breast feeding, circumcision, co-sleeping, baby-wearing (insert controversial topic of your choice). You tell your readers that people who don't do (or who do) these things are stupid, foolish, bad parents, horrible, morons, idiotic. That they are the bane of the modern world's existence. You respond to reader comments with derision and scorn. You are not encouraging discussion and education and engagement. You're bullying.
You create a forum for discussion and dialogue and then mock, shun, or taunt people who dare to express an opinion that differs. You block them and continue your discussion where they can't see; joking about how stupid and short-sighted they are. Even though you know that others could share screen-shots of your derogatory conversations you disregard the harm your words might cause. You're bullying.
You give someone advice (about their marriage, their career, their family, their life). When they explain how they are planning to do things, you tell them they're wrong. That they don't know what they're talking about. That your beliefs are indeed knowledge and fact and you know best. That they're stupid for failing to see things from your perspective. You're bullying.
I've been a bully. I've been narrow-minded and judgmental. I haven't taken the time to stand beside someone and see what the world looks like from their perspective. To acknowledge what they're feeling. To embrace their differences and stand beside them rather than higher than them pointing down and judging.
Because being empathetic is hard. It's hard not to be right and not to be 'better than' and to not feel especially good about yourself. It's hard to acknowledge when you've made a mistake or when you've been unkind. That you're wrong. That your fallible and human.
So what do we do?
My answer is of the simple yet gut-wrenchingly hard variety ~ "if it makes you uncomfortable you probably need to do it."
If you're nervous about stepping into a playground spat or you overhear kids taunting each other, do it anyways. Children need to see that we're willing to take a risk (like the ire of another parent) to protect them from verbal or physical abuse. Even if it's not your child, step in anyway. Kids need to see us model the behaviour we want to see in them; that we need to protect, not hurt, one another. That it's not acceptable in any circumstances to tease, taunt, mock, belittle, or harass another person.
If you're angry at a friend or a family member or an acquaintance it's okay to voice those frustrations but make it about you. "I'm upset...I'm feeling hurt" and share with your confidantes the other person's perspective and where they might be at right now. "It really hurt but I can see how maybe she thought..." Even if you want to be right, you want it to be about you; stand in the perpetrator's shoes for a minute and see what the situation looks like from the other side. If a friend is ranting about something that happened ask the hard question about the other person's perspective. Maybe your friend will be angry, maybe they'll curse at you for not being on their side, but maybe for a nanosecond they'll see what it's like to be the other person.
About to send a nasty email, direct message, or Facebook comment? Don't do it. Pick up the phone or don't say anything at all. Emotion, mood, and tone are nearly impossible to detect in written communication. The person is likely to be hurt, distraught, angry, confused, and they're likely to miss the point of your message because there is no dialogue. If you are close enough to someone to send them an email about being upset or hurt then you're close enough to that person to find their phone number and call them. What are you hoping to achieve by sending the message? What are the likely outcomes? Is anything productive or beneficial likely to result from the message you're sending? Will it start a conversation about something that's upset you or will it create a wall?
Annie of PhDInParenting recently wrote a post about the state of blogging and social media and she used the term Scandal-Click-Bonanza, which is an unsavoury and unethical way for bloggers to earn money: scandals (inflammatory posts) = click-throughs (lots of people wanting to add their infuriated 2 cents) = money. When you read an inflammatory blog post; when you deliberately seek out people whose opinions are vastly different than yours; what are you hoping to achieve by commenting? Will equally inflammatory responses open dialogue and facilitate understanding. Not likely. There is nothing wrong with sharing your opinion but are you doing it to open dialogue on the topic or because you're judging the writer and want to prove that you are smarter and right and better. Are you facilitating a discussion or are you trying to prove a point?
I want my online communication to reflect how I communicate with others in real life. I would never call someone a bitch or stupid to their face so why is it okay to do online? I would never argue over dinner with someone who has vastly different opinions 'just to make a point' or to prove that I'm smarter or right so why is it okay to do online? I would never walk up to a friend or acquaintance in real life and in front of a group of people say "I can't believe you did X" or "I'm not your friend anymore" or "What's wrong with you?!?" so why is it okay to do online?
Just because we all do it doesn't make it okay.
Photo Credit: Online Bullying via Shutterstock.
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