I have been delivering (questionably) motivational speeches for schools and community groups since the dawn of time, talking to kids about disability and encouraging them to challenge ableism in all its manifestations. After my talks, I usually do a Q&A with the students because I feel like it’s a more authentic way to talk about things and hope that if they can get answers to all their burning questions about disability it will help naturalize difference. Inevitably, a student will ask about bullying and if I have any suggestions on how to stop it. I honestly dread this question because I’ve never been quite sure how to respond. I usually sidestepped the question with a spiel about self-confidence, talking to friends/adults, and it getting easier with age. I knew it wasn’t a great answer, but bullying seemed (and still seems) like something so much bigger than myself. But after thinking about it for years, I’ve decided to finally take a moment and answer this question once and for all.
I was bullied as a kid. Not as bad as many, but I was definitely bullied. It may surprise you that disability wasn’t the root of my bullying — I was teased for being a nerd and a goody two shoes, which was admittedly true. I was never beaten up but the verbal harassment and social ostracizing was fairly constant from grade 4 until grade 9, when I was mocked for the stuff I liked, the clothes I wore and the people I was friends with. While I wasn’t picked on for being disabled, my disability provided ample fodder for bullying. I think my bullies knew my views on walking (notably, that it is the worst) so my inability to walk wasn’t really the target of their scorn. Sometimes my bullies did pick at my bodily difference though; a rumour that spread in grade 7 that my penis was dysfunctional and later in high school the word “cripple” was carved into my locker after an argument on the Internet.
I honestly hated the kids who picked on me. I despised them for dedicating so much time to making me (and others) unhappy. Of course, hurting me was only part of the equation — these actions were probably more about manufacturing their own self worth at the expense of mine. I realized this at a young age and it made me genuinely sad. Yes, they caused me pain but it was equally upsetting to know that these people were probably out there hurting too for their own reasons. Reasons I couldn’t change. I wanted revenge, sure, but how would that make things any better? It would require me to become that which I hated; someone who puts their own desires ahead of the needs and feelings of others. It would make me into them, which I couldn’t stomach. I decided that the best way to fight back was to never, ever, be anything like those kids. If they would intimidate, denigrate, and humiliate than I would encourage, approve, and support. I vowed to live in stark opposition to their belief that there are winners and losers and never shall the two converge. I would try to acknowledge everyone’s value, especially those different than me. I’ve tried my best to live up to this mantra over the years, to empathize with others, value difference, and take time to acknowledge other people’s emotional and intellectual needs. We all deserve to have our feelings considered and just because there is suffering in this world does not mean we should intentionally be adding to the pile.
I haven’t always succeeded on this vow, I’ve intentionally hurt people and regret it to this day, but in hindsight I now see that the benefit of bullying is that it inspired me to try not to do unto others what had been done to me. Does this mean bullying is a necessary part of our development? Of course not. I just wanted a good click-bait title for this blog post. Suckers.
The problem is that we seem convinced that bullying is unavoidable. We tell ourselves that it’s a harsh world out there, that you have to be tough and if you can’t take a joke than it’s your own fault. We claim it’s all in good fun and the Internet is anonymous so it doesn’t matter anyway…we’ll never be caught and we don’t even have to see them cry! We pick at each other’s identity differences: political, sexual, gender, class, religion, ability, etc. We shame and guilt those we don’t agree with, eager to point out how their beliefs are wrong and, therefore, worthless. We degrade those who aren’t a part of our social clique and we do all of this despite being out of school for years. And that’s the rub — bullying is not just a school problem. We’ve all seen bullying occurring in all stages of life, especially now with social media and the rise of trolling. In fact, the Internet seems to play a role in polarizing our opinions and dehumanizing the Other.
We are mean to each other. In part because we can be but also because we’ve never been given a reason not to be mean other than morality claims. We are mean to each other because we don’t respect each other. We’re mean because we forget (or were never taught) to be empathetic.
For me, this is a question of what vision we want to have for humanity. I disagree with the notion that humans are doomed to be inherently selfish, petty, and mean. Humans can be mean, sure, but we don’t have to be. We can also be gentle, compassionate, and sympathetic. It’s a choice, one made through action. In this blog, I implore you embrace an alternate vision of humanity, built through actions and not just words. Fight back against your past, present and future bully by becoming the person they are not. Become humane and not simply human. We are all human, which means we get to have a say in how we’re defined. I say we start working harder to bring out the positive sides of our species to help drown out the negative.
Richard Dawkins says in The Selfish Gene that memes, clusters of ideas and culture, live or die based on whether or not they are strong enough to be passed from one person to another. For a long time, the meme that bullying is an unavoidable reality and that humans are naturally mean has spread rampant. Perhaps now is the time we put this meme to rest by no longer passing it on.