By now, many have heard about the four seventh-grade boys who mercilessly taunted and humiliated a 68-year-old bus monitor, calling her “fat,” “disgusting,” and saying her family killed themselves because “they couldn’t stand being around her.” She sat almost motionless, doing her best to ignore her tormenters. Her son had, in fact, killed himself ten years earlier. Ms. Klein was reduced to tears by the cruel attacks of these boys. This was recorded on a cell phone and went viral on You Tube. A Canadian man saw the video, and having had his own experiences with bullying, started a fundraising drive on Indie GoGo. His intention was to raise $5,000 to send Ms. Klein on a restful vacation. The site has raised nearly $600,000 for Ms. Klein in just three days.
I learned two things. First, there are children so desensitized, coddled or ignored that they grow up to be mini sociopaths. Second, they are outnumbered by decent, caring people who cannot bear the idea that this behavior should stand. They reached out in the only way they could to a stranger to show support. Ms. Klein has since been interviewed by a number of TV networks and thanked the thousands of donors not only for their contributions, but for their kind letters. One TV anchor asked why she didn’t fight back. She stated she likely would have been the one to be fired if she did. Something is wrong when a victim fears standing up for herself lest she be labeled the perpetrator.
While there will always be bullies, this behavior is egregious. The young culprits are starting to log in apologies to Ms. Klein, but the damage is not easily undone. What prompted such ugliness in the first place? In the absence of anything better to do on a bus ride home, could these boys not find a more productive activity? In our fast-food-that’s-so-five-minutes-ago-tweet-hungry society, the quick take down and the slur is rewarded. Good behavior doesn’t always get the same amount of applause or attention.
We live in an environment of contempt prior to investigation. The messaging is everywhere: Facebook, Twitter, and You Tube all have questionable entries; “Reality” shows offer figurative and literal mud slinging; HBO’s Bill Maher calls a woman a “slut,” a “twat” and says “she should be splayed out on the hood of a car;” Rush Limbaugh likes to use the word “slut” and considering he is a portly man, he is most happy to dish insults about a woman’s weight. Then there is the questionable behavior of cable news hosts along with comedians like David Letterman or Louis CK who sexualize and diminish women. Aging women particularly get a snootful of insulting commentary.
The media, hungry for ratings, is forever hunting for that “gotcha” moment. Mainstream outlets routinely compete with the lowest common denominator among us. Objectification and cruelty earn big dollars and big audiences. The current political climate also advocates name calling. Demagoguery is the order of the day.
The ugliness and disrespect is in the air. Left to their own devices, kids ingest all of this, whether they watch these particular programs or not. And where are the parents of these cruel kids to set limits and provide guidance? Are parents practicing this sort of behavior as well? The kids have to be learning it from someplace.
Some have also questioned the huge dollar amount that has poured in for Ms. Klein. Anthony Kosner of Forbes called it an “empathy bubble.” While he did not criticize Ms. Klein or Max Sidorov, the fund’s instigator, Kosner felt for those who have been on the receiving end of worse treatment than Ms. Klein and “who can only cheer from the sidelines” at her good fortune here. But I think the cruelty of these particular attacks, and much that bombards us on a daily basis, weighs even more heavily in difficult times. We need good news desperately – a reason to be not just hopeful, but faithful.
Perhaps this story captured people at a time when we are hungry for something, anything positive – so citizens had to make some good news themselves, by giving $20 or $30 dollars to Ms. Klein’s vacation fund. In that case, we might say, mission accomplished.
The truth is, in good times or bad, Americans (and kind people everywhere) always stand ready to raise a dollar, raise the barn, donate goods, their time, even their homes to give shelter after natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and especially to show we are not like the ones who hurt others. Certainly we are not like those who make money trashing others.
I take that as the positive lesson from all of this. I choose to dwell on those who stand up for decent treatment of their neighbors. Perhaps this overwhelming outpouring was just a way for some people to stand up and shout “Enough!” “Stop it!” No more ugly behavior.
Bullying is a serious problem in this country, one that has been linked to half of teen suicides. Ms. Klein’s family has suggested she may donate some of the donations to charities that work to raise awareness about and prevent bullying. Regardless, the message from this outreach is clear. There are plenty of us out here who do care, who are better than the ugliness that is foisted upon us on a daily basis and who hunger for an opportunity to help, to share and to give.
How lovely it would be if more positive stories went viral, enough to well outnumber and finally end “the bus rides from hell.”
Anita Finlay is the author of Dirty Words on Clean Skin: Sexism and Sabotage, a Hillary Supporter's Rude Awakening, available in at Amazon.com in print and Kindle editions.
Follow her on Twitter: @AnitaFinlay
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