Sunday, April 15, 2012


I've been reading reviews of the film Bully, now making the rounds, by Sundance and Emmy-award winning filmmaker, Lee Hirsch, a documentary about what many are referring to as “America's bullying crisis.”

It’s amazing how big the issue of bullying has become.  Interest in the topic will fade sooner or later.  It always does.  I hope, though, that while it is front and center enough discussion will take place to make a permanent change in the way we deal with bullying and with bullies.

It started with the brilliant decision by Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller to launch a project  they called It Gets Better to try, at long last, to do something about the bullying experienced by gays and lesbians in homophobia-laced America.  This land of the free where even today when you try to pass a law against bullying, you have to make sure that law doesn't infringe on your religious right to bully - never mind that organized religion is where most of the homophobia comes from in the first place.

Savage and Miller's idea was clearly an idea whose time had come.  Over two hundred videos were uploaded in the first week, in September 2010, and within the first six months there had been forty million hits.  There are now It Gets Better projects in all the English speaking countries and many others around the world.  It’s Todo Mejora in Peru and Chile, Det blir bättre in Sweden.  And as of last November there were plans to make the messages available in up to twenty languages. 

And now this documentary film called Bully.  I’m about to go see it, but decided I wanted to write this first, to set down how important I think the issue is and separate my thoughts from a possible film review, which I may feel disinclined to write, if it’s as heavy as I hear it is.

I’ve been bothered by bullying my whole life long, and torn about how to get involved in some kind of resistance to it.  I spent much of my life in Japan, a country I often described as “a bully’s paradise.”  I learned the word for bullying, ijime, early on because as a teacher I dealt with young people.  I saw it as a particularly Japanese phenomenon at first because Japan is less inclined than we are to believe that all people are equal.  They know there are people on top and on the bottom and they have built a world on that reality.  This makes it easier for authoritarians to bully and natural for those convinced they are undeserving to think it’s their lot to put up with second-class status, including abuse.  Over the years I’ve come to think Japan may indeed make things too easy for bullies, but it’s a more universal problem.  And the consequences are sometimes devastating.  (I wrote about this in 1991 in connection with the protest I was registering against the practice of ikki – in which Japanese kids force each other to chug-a-lug as a party game, one of the more socially accepted forms of bullying in Japan.) 

People form their views from personal experience.  I managed to piss off a neighbor girl when I was a kid for reasons I never understood.  For months she followed me around with a gang of her flunkies until she cornered me once and slammed a chunk of ice in my face, bloodying my mouth.  I remember the shock and the pain to this day.  I also remember the looks on the faces of the five or six other kids standing around reveling in their “winner” status as one of an in-group.  I went to the school nurse, she determined I had no missing teeth and nothing worse than a split lip, announced “no harm done” and sent me to shiver in fear all day long back in my seat in the third grade.  The bully’s name was Angela Caine and I remember it as if it were yesterday, instead of one winter day in 1948.

Another bully caused me more anguish.  Angela’s was a one-off.  Bobby Osborne hounded me day after day wanting me to fight.  He had figured out that men became men when they beat up other men and had decided I was sufficiently unlikely to do him harm, so he picked on me.  For two weeks I didn’t sleep and getting on the school bus each morning was torture.  Then one day, in absolute desperation I went up to him and smashed him in the mouth with all my might.  He reeled, backed off, and never bothered me again.

This experience taught me what all the adults I later talked to about this confirmed.  “There is no way out of bullying except to stand up to them.  You’ve got to learn to fight and defend yourself.  It’s all in the attitude.  Bullies pick on the weak.  If you signal weakness, you lose.”  One firm stand, like I made with Bobby Osborne, should do the trick.  Or so went the common wisdom in my small town.

For much of my life I carried that conclusion as gospel truth.  I missed the crucial point that this is not a one-size-fits-all situation.  Most kids get bullied.  And possibly most kids are lucky, as I was, and this touch with the ugliness of life is not lasting.  It's possibly even true that a little bullying is good for you because it will teach you early on to take care of yourself.

But only if it is not serious bullying.  Serious bullying is a completely different story, and this current "boom" (as the Japanese call it) in bullying stories is a wake-up call that desperately needs to be heard.  Some kids are permanently damaged.  Some actually kill themselves.

One of the reasons the problem is so hard to deal with is that we never know how to call the shots.  When is it kids being kids, boys being boys, or whatever, and when is it over the line?  Who can take it on their own, and who needs somebody to back them up?  Judgment calls all.

I remember how shaken to the core I was the first time it sank in how much of an enabler I once was to gay bashing.  I used to look at losers as self-made.  I found nelly queens not the victims but the source of homophobia and wished they would all go away and stop fueling the flames.  If it weren’t for the limp-wrists in our number, we’d all be better off, I’d tell myself.

I also played the winners and losers game.  I learned my own strengths and how to use them.  I could intimidate with the best of folk, as long as I was clever enough to distinguish those who would take it from those who would not.  I never went for violence, but I didn’t hesitate to let people know when I thought they were wrong and developed the power of scorn and derision, the power to dismiss with a wave of the hand and to deny legitimacy with a cold look of indifference.  Not bullying, exactly, but close relatives.

I wonder if my now greatly decreased inclination to bully or deride comes from the fact I am getting old.  I don’t scare anybody anymore, if I ever did.  I have no natural skill for bullying.  I have become a non-bully by default.  I wonder a lot about this apparent accident of nature, and about whether it is that simple – do people bully just because they have the power?  Or because they desperately need to find that power in a dog-eat-dog world?   It sure looks like a great rule of thumb, this thought that bullies are a function of opportunity, rather than character.  Strong nations bully weak nations.  Rich people bully the poor.  How much more “natural” can you get?

This issue of bullying is on my mind today because I have been spending time with somebody up close whose self-loathing has had devastating consequences, and the self-loathing is unmistakeably a product of childhood bullying.  Decades after the fact, the little voice in the head says, “you’re not worthy…you don’t deserve better…you’ve got it coming.”  It’s only a short step from there to becoming an enabler.  A surrenderer to the fates.  You can’t fight city hall, you tell yourself.  They can’t all be wrong.  You can’t be the only one right when there are so many of them.  What’s the point?

Not everybody is lucky enough to be able to suspend reason and common sense and risk getting beaten to a pulp as I did at age 8, when I smashed Bobby Osborne in the mouth.  For one thing, my experience with bullying was with a single bully.  What happens when you’re the victim of a playground gang?  The runt of a violent litter?  If you’re Ethiopia to Mussolini’s armies, or Poland to Hitler’s?

Dan Savage (he gets most of the credit because he takes the lead) and Terry Miller are heroes to me.  They saw what to do and they did it.

And now, if I get my act in gear, I can get over to Shattuck in time for the 4:50 showing of Bully

Hope I can sit through the whole thing.

1 comment:

William D. Lindsey said...

Alan, thank you--powerful and very thought-provoking, as with everything you write. The friend whose journey you're sharing is lucky to have you along for the journey. You're insightful and compassionate, and the two don't always go hand in hand.

I look forward to your further comments on the movie itself after you've seen it.