Uniquely Okay to Mistreat

“Bullying” is such a weak word, isn’t it? The word itself (not the act) always evokes silly images for me, either of cartoon schoolyard lunkheads or anthropomorphized bovines. The word “bully” doesn’t really do justice to what it can mean to the victim of bullying, particularly if the victim is a child, and experiences it day in and day out as I did. Maybe bullying would be taken more seriously if we used more specific and accurate words to define the behavior: abuse, harassment, assault, persecution, dehumanization.

We usually reserve words like this for crimes or significant social ills, and it’s understandable that it can be hard to comprehend them as applying to, say, 6th-graders in gym class. But if anything, the impact on the 6th-grader is potentially far more severe and pernicious than on the adult who is treated similarly.

I recently saw this Reddit thread on bullying, in which the original poster argues in favor of all-out legal prosecution for bullying (which I am not advocating here). “Aquareon” writes:

[One rationale against prosecution was that] they were “just having fun” (at my expense) and that if I could successfully have them sent to juvie or some similarly severe consequence, it would be a disproportionate retaliation.

I reject that reasoning as an adult because of the lasting scars bullying left. Knowing that those responsible got away with it scott free and are now forever beyond my reach has been the source of more suffering by far than the stuff they actually said and did at the time. It has undermined my belief in justice and left me feeling like I am uniquely okay to mistreat, where others are not.

Never getting “justice” for the abuse I endured as a kid is not the the greatest source of suffering for me, but it certainly sticks in my craw all these years after the fact. It’s really that last sentence that truly strikes a chord:

It has undermined my belief in justice and left me feeling like I am uniquely okay to mistreat, where others are not.

That’s the damage. In part because there is no meaningful recourse for victims of bullying (informing teachers and other authority figures usually only makes things worse for the victim), and because the perpetrators rarely face meaningful consequences (and when they do, again, the bullying only increases as a result), and because those peers who are not engaged in the bullying show a tacit approval of it by either enjoying the spectacle or staying silent, the message to the young, impressionable victim is, “you deserve this.”

How could it be otherwise? The school and its surrounding outcroppings (buses, extracurriculars, etc.), and the people who inhabit it, are a kid’s entire world. When a bullying victim’s entire known universe conspires to convince them that they are “uniquely okay to mistreat,” they will be easily convinced. I certainly was.

And I still feel that way. Of course I know intellectually that this isn’t true, but I’m fighting against years of memorized thought patterns, conditioned responses, impressions of myself that were baked into my brain just when I was at the age of figuring myself out. For all the work I’ve done on correcting this wrong thinking over the years, it may always be that my instinct will be to consider myself subhuman, of all things considered last, with only my higher reasoning to throw my sense of self-worth a rope and hoist it up to firmer ground.

So while I’m not here endorsing prosecution, I do think this aspect of bullying is worth taking very seriously as we figure out what the best response to bullying actually is. “Just get over it,” as I’ve been told innumerable times even by those who love me, just isn’t it.