Like most of us, there was a point in my life when I endured a lot of mean words: childhood.
You know the stereotypes of kids in classes: the paste eater, the clown, the prissy one, and the Special Kid. That last one was me. And I don't mean special in a good way.
Picture a very slight child, thin dark hair cut like a bowl, polyester hanging from her shoulders...and on her feet? Very large, bulky, stiff saddle shoes. More than a decade past when saddle shoes were cool. These were Special Shoes and they aggravated my sense of self-awareness into a case of severe shyness.
In those days, flat feet were diagnosed as a Serious Problem that had to be Medically Corrected. The orthopedist the pediatrician sent my mother to prescribed the absolute worst possible solution: special shoes I had to wear all the time.
Expensive and special-order, these shoes were stiff as a board and horribly uncomfortable. Plus, the shoes---so tight as to be akin to Chinese feet binding---severely limited my foot's mobility and I could barely walk, much less run.
Those shoes did an unspeakable amount of damage to my feet, but more than that, they damaged my self-esteem. No, that's not fair, the shoes made me vulnerable to kids who were cruel about differences. Either way, esteem damage is a lot harder to fix than the physical damage to my feet (and I say that after spending multiple years on crutches, physical therapy, and a couple of surgeries).
I should have just worn a white shirt with a red target on it every day.
I had to stand to the side of every recess and gym class. You could tell the gym teacher thought it was ridiculous. A few times she forced me to participate, doing some of the runs and so forth. I'd stumble around, trying to get traction, tripping over my feet and shoes, eventually sprawling in a heap basically where I started. The kids would laugh and laugh and call me names. The teacher would feel bad, put me back in my corner, and move along. She'd eventually forget or her good intentions would overwhelm her, and she'd force me to be a part of the activity again.
"Come on Julie," she'd say, "You can play dodgeball. Not too much running in that!"
And the kids would laugh and laugh until she hushed them.
I'd slink into the circle, my stomach churning itself into nausea. How I wanted to be a real part of that circle---instead, I knew I was the main target.
I remember the kids shouting, "Pelt Lucy Van Pelt! Pelt Lucy Van Pelt!" as they hurled the ball as hard as they could at me. (The Lucy was a reference to Peanuts, very popular at the time, and the saddle shoes Lucy wore, which looked just like my own Special Shoes). And the originator of the name was revered for his cleverness, loved for how he made everyone feel amused, and most of all, appreciated for how he made each joiner a part of something (even if it was a gang), and thankful for not being the target themselves. Cruelty made him king. What a reinforcer.
Looking back, I see the irony, the ridiculousness of calling the victim by a bully's name.
My sole consolation in all of this was my mother's promise, "Kids are just learning. They grow out of this. Someday, you'll all be older and this kind of behavior will be far, far behind you."
What really happened was that practice made perfect. Some cruel kids grew up and got better at cruelty. Some victims grew up and learned how to dish it out themselves.
The professional level of cruelty---verbal bullying---is teasing. With this, people endeavor to pass off verbal injury by saying, "JUST KIDDING, what, you don't have a sense of humor?"
I do have a sense of humor, and a rather overdeveloped sense of the ridiculous. Still, I've never found personal insults funny, which is exactly why I am clearly so torn in the post below (about American Idol) and why, upfront, I beg God not to strike me down in a well-deserved bolt of lightning.
Not everyone shares my squeamishness about "roasting" or "teasing," especially when it comes to people who put themselves out there. "Out there" apparently means you (a) deserve critique and (b) are asking for it. (Which distinctly reminds me of another flawed argument in another situation...)
After a couple of bloggers recently shared their opinion and personal experiences with online comments that they felt crossed a boundary for them, I began thinking about the potential for the Internet to be far worse than any gym or playground for personal attacks and teasing.
It's not a newsflash to anyone that the Internet offers a veil of anonymity that often emboldens people into cruelty they'd never dip to in their corporeal life. Even considering my past experience with mocking, taunting, fun-making (what a misnomer) and so forth, I still think there was a limit. Outside of rare circumstances, as adults we are generally fairly mild---even in disagreement---when looking into the face of another person. On the Internet, though, our personal connection is limited: that flick of the eye, duck of the head, indrawn breath...the signal that tells us we've gone too far and that invokes a wash of guilt, the thing I believe motivates us to moral behavior (per comments in the vanity post). Typing into a computer makes it easier to forget that at the other end of the words is an actual thinking, feeling person.
Writing can often be so very definite. We can't sense the vulnerability behind a stated opinion when it is only in black and white on a page. We don't know how certain, comfortable, confident, invested or vulnerable the words are in the mind, heart and soul of the writer.
Because we intend to be perceived as having made our weaknesses into strengths, how we detail an event might seem to be a shrug of sort, "Eh, I'm over it," instead of the deep burn of hurt that lingers a bit in our depths.
To this day I can't stand saddle-shoes. My kids are always allowed to select their own shoes, and wearing them is completely optional if that's at all feasible.
What's more...I suspect that childhood experience is why, to this day, I hate running, and say very self-mockingly/slightly aggressively, "I only run if someone's chasing me." Ha. Ha. Ha. I think I pretended so hard and so well for so long that not being able to run or do athletics didn't bother me that eventually, it came to be a truth in my mind.
That experience shaped me. It's probably a factor in why I came to think of myself as a smart kid who was motivated in schoolwork. It's probably a huge factor in why I came to be such a voracious reader. I think I would have always liked reading, but to this depth, to this degree? Would it be the major hobby and interest that it is today...had it had more competition from other activities?
These things, they're like pebbles in a pond. I think they shape us more than we give credit.
After all, we're to have a stiff upper lip. These things aren't supposed to get to us, get inside us. We should be stronger than that.
I admit it: these things did get inside me. Like tumors. Some stayed small, some grew, some were benign, others malignant.
They affect how I open up, how I share, what I share...and how available I make myself. Just when I start to think, "Hmm I took word verification off, maybe the registered user thing should go too...???" I see anonymous hard at work at a blog I like, throwing down out of line personal attacks as if...as if...well, as if it is okay to do simply because (s)he didn't like what that blogger wrote.
When I see that happen, I pause and ponder all the advice I've ever received about how to deal with personal attacks and bullies.
Those "wise words of advice" typically suggested ignoring the bully, letting it roll off your back by pushing your tormentor down a level: (s)he's insecure, has a sad life, is a sad little person, is a coward, etc.
This never resonated with the child me. First, it seemed like responding in kind (even if only in my own head). Second, it might just be surface, but many of the cruelest children seemed to be just fine, appeared to have it all including popularity and appeal so great that they had teachers and kids alike eating out of their hands.
It doesn't resonate with the adult me, either. Every person with some form of "dark and twisty" internal landscape doesn't become a bully. Neither does every person with power. There must be another element.
I think sometimes when people are cruel they are simply giddy or giddy with power. Other times I think they get caught up in the game, slip into a form of narcissism where they peer into their own perceived cleverness and fall in love. In any case, when done as a group, each participant is only emboldened by the false courage of gang mentality and the false sense of anonymity. The latter is something the Internet offers in spades, at a level nothing in real life can provide.
And doesn't that open a can of worms. Fits right in with the recent picnic of bloggy navel-gazing about how the blogosphere will develop and evolve.
The blog is possibly my adult version of Special Shoes. At least, though, I'm in good company with plenty of other people who are Special (and I mean that in a good way this time).
I accept that sometimes, people won't like what I have to say (which isn't the same thing as disagreeing) and moreover, won't like that I said it at all. It may cause them to draw conclusions about me as a person.
I'm 100% in favor of having a sense of humor about one's self, not taking things too, too seriously. This is a lesson hard-learned for an introspective person like me.
I'm 100% in favor of discussion. I think dialoguing can be a great way to become more aware, more sensitive, more knowledgeable about different issues and perspectives. It's important to share and review different points of view about an issue.
And I 100% say it needs to stop there...that is the point of self-regulation in the case of debate or disagreement: stick to the topic. There are unique cases when who the person is holds relevance, but I don't think blogging is one. We don't have enough evidence, insight, or perspective, in my opinion to deconstruct a person based solely on the self-censored words we read.
What do you think? What is your theory about childhood bullying? About adulthood bullying? About online bullying...???
What do you tell yourself about bullying, if you encounter it? And what do you (what will you) tell your child, when he or she encounters it?
copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
Tags: online bullying and anonymous comments, blog ctiticism, debate and mean comments on blog