So, let’s talk about something no one else on the internet is talking about: bullying.
Psych. I am actually internet-savvy enough to realize what a hot topic of conversation of bullying has become in internet-land. Makes me really happy, actually. This was a subject that was not discussed often when I was in growing up, and one of the best parts of the social media explosion over the last twenty years is the awareness people have this issue. Now we have viral videos by people like Wil Wheaton on the topic (BTW, he said all that in Denver…all the best stuff happens in Colorado, you know), and the It Gets Better project, and blogs from authors like Cody Kennedy and his young reader, Timmy, on the subject. Cheers to talking about things rather than slipping them under the rug.
In fact, this subject is so much a part of internet-land these days that I wasn’t that surprised when The Onion got in on the act recently and published “Parents Surprised Cruel Daughter Hasn’t Pushed Classmate to Breaking Point Yet.”
Okay—I’m sure at least half a million people were disgusted by this article. I could practically hear the haughty response coming through my computer monitor as I read. How dare they satirize something as serious as bullying? I usually like The Onion, but they went waaay too far here. Wait, are they saying that parents aren’t responsible for their kids’ behavior? What are these writers trying to imply?
For me, though, the article highlighted something that’s become a concern for me lately: that with all this important discussion and awareness of bullying, our society is turning bullying into a single story. Or actually, a few single stories. The concept of the single story was first introduced by Chimamanda Adichie, who talks about it in a Ted Talk you can see here. Basically, the concept of the single story is this: when you assign only one vision to what something or someone can be, you simplify it or them down to parts that are so basic that you miss the important and nuanced pieces of it/them. Essentially, it’s stereotyping at its most dangerous.
The students I teach live in a version of the world where there is conversation around, strict rules against, and great thinking around the subject of bullying. And just to be clear, this is a VERY GOOD THING. But all this talk has, I think, left the public with a few dangerous “single stories” about what bullying is—single stories that I think The Onion was right and very forward-thinking to highlight.
SINGLE STORY #1: PARENTS AND TEACHERS NEED TO TAKE MORE RESPONSIBILITY AND HAVE BETTER AWARENESS. IF THEY DID, ALL BULLYING PROBLEMS WOULD DISAPPEAR.
Um. Said NO TEACHER OR PARENT EVER.
Which is, of course, what The Onion was trying to get at in this article. I have never met a parent who woke up in the morning and said, “Wow. I really hope my son goes out and intimidates people into liking him and calls people names when they don’t like him that much.” But I sure have met plenty of parents who want their kids to be self-confident, able to stand up for themselves, expressive, and true to themselves. Sometimes the line there can get a little gray. Relationships looks different in different places. The person I call a bully might be someone you consider to have inspiring self-confidence and leadership skills. Things are just not that simple, folks.
The problem is, I think, that lots of people still seem to be operating under another single story about bullying: that it’s simple to identify and therefore simple to stop. Since Mean Girls appeared on the scene years ago, kids and adults today seem much more aware of the many different versions of bullying that take place--the gossip, “power-rumoring” (as I like to call it), and verbal abuse that can all constitute acts of bullying. Social media itself has opened up a whole new conversation about what it means to bully on Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Gchat, and we as a society have conversations about it regularly.
But I still read SO MANY books where acts of bullying are portrayed very simplistically: the big kid beats up the smaller kid, or the pretty girl tells the ugly girl she’s disgusting and will never get a prom date, or one person says nasty things about another on Facebook, etc. Obviously these acts do happen, and should be written about and filmed and talked about. But I’d really like to see more discussion about the other types of bullying we see in schools and communities, because those are often the hardest to define.
You ever try telling a parent that their kid is a bully because they won’t be friends with someone they don’t like? Yeah, good luck with that. But that’s actually a huge part of what is sometimes referred to as “mean girl” bullying: that power grid that locks into place when a bunch of teenagers ostracize another, leaving that person as an outcast. It might look and sound like bullying, but it’s not so easy to explain to parents. I mean, if you had a teacher telling you, “Look, Laurie’s refusing to hang out with Julia, and so her friends aren’t hanging out with Julia either,” is your first reaction going to be “OMG, my daughter is a bully?” Or would it be, “Huh. Maybe my daughter doesn’t like Julia.”
And while we’re on the subject of single stories? We should stop calling that “mean girl” bullying. Guys do it too, you know.
Obviously, the conversation is a lot bigger than which girls like/hate each other and why, but the single story problem remains the same: as long as people largely see bullying as something easy to define and identify, it gets harder and harder to have conversations about all the different nuanced ways bullies can behave.
Case in point. I consider myself to have been bullied in junior high. I was one of those naïve, nice, nerdy (the N trifecta) kids who got teased a LOT by the popular crowd—particularly by a group of boys who thought it was hilarious that I have hair on my arms—and I had a best friend who liked to show off how much more popular and important she was than me. Every now and then she’d stop speaking to me for a day or two, and she and all our other friends would hang out together without me, laughing and taking and generally ignoring me and whispering things while they looked in my direction. One day (and I remember this vividly) after this exact scene had played out for a 30 minute bus ride, she walked by me and said, “Have a nice ride today, Johanna?” The next day she was my best friend again, just as if the whole thing had never happened.
Sure, I realize now that this was a form of bullying. But I didn’t then. It just felt like my best friend was mad at me. And even if I had realized this exchange was all about power, what was I supposed to do? Go up to my teacher and tell them that Lisa should get in trouble because she didn’t want to be friends with me anymore? And as a teacher now, who does deal with nuanced situations of bullying like this, I can tell you that having power and control over someone does not necessarily constitute being outwardly cruel to that person. This makes proving bullying behavior, and explaining it to parents, incredibly difficult. If not impossible.
So let’s stop simplifying this problem down to “parents and teachers need to be more aware.” Well, yes, we do need to be more aware. But we need to be more aware of what constitutes bullying, how to talk about it, and how to really stop it. Because honesty? Some teacher suspending Lisa for not being my friend wasn’t going to do anything in that situation. That moment of bullying was so much more complicated than a simple response like that.
SINGLE STORY #2: ALL ACTS OF CRUELTY AND MEANNESS CONSTITUTE BULLYING
I’d really just like to put this single story to bed. Now, if possible. Lately EVERYTHING seems to constitute bullying in someone’s eyes. Authors who get bad reviews on Goodreads are bullied. (Wrote another blog about that topic recently, if you want to read it here.) If a student doesn’t get into a certain club or sport, he or she is probably being bullied by someone. I’ve had teachers tell me they thought there were being bullied by some of their students, and vice versa.
Look, in some of these cases, bullying might actually be happening—sometimes. But by attaching the title of bullying to ever single hurtful, painful, or confrontational act that ever takes place in our lives, we dilute what that word really means. According to my pal Merriam-Webster, bullying is defined as “to treat abusively” or “to affect by means of force or coercion.” Bullying is SERIOUS. Abuse is SERIOUS. Coercion is SERIOUS. These days, these acts come with serious consequences—as they should. We need to use these words carefully, and only attach them to actual situations of abuse, force, and coercion. I’m sorry, but that person who doesn’t like your book and says so respectfully and with their reasons why is not bullying you. That team captain who cut you because your serve isn’t that good is just being honest.
Let’s use this word carefully and keep the meaning behind it important. Otherwise it risks become a term that means nothing to any of us.
SINGLE STORY #3: ALL KIDS WHO IDENTIFY AS LGBTQ ARE BULLIED
A few years ago, when I first stated bringing more and more LGBTQ literature in my classroom and curriculum, a principal I was working with made the following plea to me: “Please don’t just bring in stories where the gay kids get beat up and bullied and commit suicide all the time. I feel like that’s all kids see these days. I want them to know that not everyone’s story is like that.”
I started to think about it, and I started to track the stories I was bringing into my classroom. I realized she was right. So much of the literature out there focused on how incredibly negative and violent schools and communities become when a teenager “comes out.”
I’m not saying these stories SHOULDN’T be there, and neither was my principal. These stories are vitally important to those students who need to see the worst possible consequence of this type of behavior. They are vitally important to those teenagers who have had such an experience and need to know they are not alone.
But they are not the only story. There are also plenty of teenagers out there who live every version of on the spectrum of coming out stories—from full acceptance and support of an entire school and community, to no acceptance and horrific violence and bullying as a result, to everything in between.
When I was writing Every Inferno (not that many days until it comes out! Wahoo!), I made a very conscious effort to create a high school that leans more towards the end of the spectrum of acceptance and inclusion. One of my main characters, McKinley, is a gay 16-year-old who enjoys huge popularity and would certainly never call himself a victim of bullying. I’ve worried at times that people will tell me that the school I created in Every Inferno is unrealistic. But you know what? It’s my prerogative, as an author, to write my own ideal vision for our world. And I know that McKinley’s school is not far from reality—plenty of teenagers live the story McKinley lives in that book. And their stories matter just as much as anybody else’s.
SINGLE STORY #4: IT GETS BETTER
Actually, this is an important single story. For most of us of who have experienced bullying of some kind (any kind), it has gotten better. But that part of this single story that seems to get left out a lot is that we had to make it better.
I am still a naïve, nice, and often nerdy person. No apologies. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned how to navigate the world so that my personality traits work for me rather than against me. I’ve learned how to identify those people who will appreciate me for who I am, and how to avoid people who won’t. I’ve learned how to be confrontational when it’s necessary.
It did get better for me, and some of that was situational. When I left my junior high of 40 8th graders (we have some really small towns in Vermont) and went to a high school with a freshman class of 200+ students, life opened up more opportunities for me to avoid the negativity that had surrounded me in earlier years. But I still had to learn how to navigate this new life and world. Freshman year was still a very lonely time for me, as I discovered how to seek out like-minded people and avoid those who wanted to have power over me. Things did get better. A lot better. But it wasn’t just something that happened to me—it was something I had to actively take part in.
Okay, a bazillion words later, it’s probably time to wrap this up. Final thoughts? Let’s keep talking about the subject of bullying. But let’s stop simplifying it into formulas and basic variables and definitions. Let’s have nuanced, deep, meaningful conversations about it. Let’s raise real awareness, not just feel-good talk. And mostly? Let’s all listen to each other a little more and a little better. I think most of the world’s problems, and especially the problem of bullying, could be solved if we just did that.