The Documentary that Needs to Be Made about Higher Education (and the Workplace)
Bullying. It happened to me, too - at school and at work. It does not necessarily stop when you become an adult.
If you are a victim, it is the bullies who have the problem, not you.
I know that, if you're like me, it is difficult to understand that bullying is not personal. It is based upon what you represent - namely, a threat to the bully. Sometimes, particularly among girls, it happens because of this (to me, completely alien) "I hate my best friend" syndrome - people in love with drama, with games, who may not intend harm and who are truly clueless about the misery that they cause others. Others, however, intend to cause harm and know that bullying is a "soft" crime to commit. Some people seem to have a Jekyll/Hyde syndrome, with Jekyll shown to their parents, to school administrators and teachers, to supervisors and upper management, and Hyde committing crimes in secret. Bullying is largely not recognized for the abuse that it is.
This is not "survival of the fittest" (a phrase that I hate). No one who is secure within him- or herself commits bullying. The bully is terrified of his or her own perceived incompetence. He or she is often afraid that the victim, usually an independent worker, or an offbeat or creative student, with a distinctive personality, and a nonaggressive style, will expose or show up the bully in some way.
It happened to me. By the time I got to high school I had developed such a thick skin (I have my own Clark Kent/Superman dual personality) that I invited some of the bullying to protect another girl in my gym class who was more vulnerable than I was. Frankly, I did the same at work. In fact, because I worked with someone who got off on "correcting" me in front of others in an attempt to humiliate me, I deliberately said a few clueless/stupid things in meetings just to get her to take the bait - and she always did!
(Hahahaha! What did she think others were thinking? "Oh, Kristine said a stupid thing - she must be a stupid person"? No, they were thinking, "God, XXXX is such a bitch to jump on Kristine like that! What is her problem?" And what do you think I was thinking? "Geez, I'm so dumb," or "Thanks for the attention! I'm glad my life isn't boring, and by the way, if you weren't such a bitch I'd probably pay even less attention to you than I already do!")
Yes, there are things you can do in the moment to protect yourself, and satisfying phrases that you can toss at your bully: "What's the matter, isn't anyone paying any attention to you?" "Are you afraid that if you don't pick on me, your friends are going to turn around and pick on you?" "Thanks for the attention - it's always a compliment." "Bored with yourself? Me, too."
But I think the time has come for us to ask why we secretly think that bullying will "toughen up" victims, when in fact it is the victims who are strong and the bullies who have the problem. The fact is, school administrators, teachers, supervisors, and management are often either intimidated by (yes, even by kids) and/or admiring of bullies for their perceived strength and "assertiveness," when this is total BS. There is nothing "strong" about bullying behavior: it is a coping mechanism for the bully's low self esteem and pent-up frustration. They are rigid, externally-focused (clothes, status, popularity, "right" behavior - yes, ironic, isn't it?), perpetually insecure people who need help now.
I had a talk with the right person about my bully at work, and what I said was: "When this woman stops being so hard on herself and judging herself so harshly, she will realize that I never judged her by her standards either." Her behavior pissed me off, but I didn't want to just lay into her, since I could tell what a big burden of shame she was carrying around - this shame was the real issue, not her "faults" (you're supposed to have faults). I'm too fucking busy thinking about nerdy things like evolution and programming languages to give a shit about people's faults - as I said earlier, the more mistakes you make, the merrier life will be. But it just didn't seem as if anything in life was much fun for her.
I really don't have the answers about what to do about bullying, but I do know that no one can solve their own problems by trying to dictate the lives of everyone else around them. However, controlling behavior seems to be an epidemic in our society.
Young people model what they see and experience, and if they experience relentless pressure to "perform," or absurd zero-tolerance rules that punish honor students for having Advil in their purses or butter knives in their cars, or are not allowed to make a mistake (which is a part of learning and growing), they are likely to develop rigid, maladaptive behaviors that can contribute to bullying, or to suicide.
I'm sure the "mean girls" in Massachusetts are shocked, even hurt, by their classmate's suicide. I doubt that they were truly evil. They knew what they were doing was wrong, but likely they didn't think it was serious. They probably actually liked their victim very much. (I cannot tell you how shocked I was to learn from some of my own tormentors how much they really did like me! But I was and am a woman who means what she says and says what she means, so I did not understand the "game.") They were definitely jealous of her. However, this does not excuse their cruel and unladylike behavior, which like any group behavior spiraled out of control, as unchecked, unpunished bullying seems to do.
My experience with bullies is that they were either 1. delinquents from bad homes who were abused by family and who did poorly in school, exhibiting disturbed personality behaviors, or 2. economically well-off kids in the "popular" crowd, highly functioning, but secretly terrorized at home, held to unreasonable standards, and inwardly wounded, frightened, and confused. Often, this latter group exhibits the really annoying behavior of never being satisfied with anything and throwing drama-queen hissy fits in public.
The parents of these "mean girls" need to stop making excuses for them, because who they really want to exonerate is themselves. These parents need to ask themselves how they produced such angry, hurting girls in the first place. Are they controlling? Are they shallow, placing emphasis over clothes, looks, and popularity over character and creativity? Are they angry, hurting people themselves? Have they been abusing their "mean girls," or instilling in them a sense of entitlement, an inability to take personal responsibility, and a low tolerance for frustration?
All indications point to "yes."
What a shame that no one did anything to redirect these girls before they engaged in behavior that was truly beneath them, and contributed to a classmate's suicide. What a waste, when it would have taken so much less effort, to see and to talk to these girls, and to give them boundaries, instead of seeing the victim as exclusively having the "problem." Now she is dead and they are charged - and I think that they should be charged for a crime, but whose job was it to step in and prevent all of this? I feel responsible for this, too. I feel that we are all responsible.
What do we do about it?