We are all bullies in some way. But some choose to say mean bully things in their heads, and some share them with the world. Lately, more and more people are letting their hate ooze out of their pores every chance they get. Don’t get me wrong, we are good people, but we can be so damn mean. Nice kids are mean too. Trust me, I’ve seen it every year in my third grade classroom. I’ve also spent the last fifteen years trying to figure out why, and it’s clear now. If you see yourself as a good person, which most of us do, it becomes really hard to think of yourself as a bully, even when you should.
Donald Trump is the perfect example. Throughout his campaign, he managed to degrade and offend almost every minority group in America. But even worse, it appears that his behavior is contagious, that citizens on both sides of the political spectrum have permission to say and do whatever they want - no matter how hurtful it is - and be cheered on by their agree-ers. It’s like a disease. Trump sees no wrongdoing with his actions, even when he publicly mocked a disabled reporter. He refuses to see himself as a bully, therefore anyone that tries to call him one is wrong. If you’ve ever tried to call someone a bully, I can almost guarantee you were met with adamant denial. No one sees themselves that way or ever wants to admit it if they do.
Where has all the kindness gone? We would rather tear each other down than lift each other up. Allure magazine recently did a story about Lizzie Velasquez, the woman with a disease that prevents her from gaining weight. While it was meant to be an uplifting post about a beautiful, strong woman who rises above bullying, it somehow elicited tremendous hostility. I couldn’t help but wonder if the people that called her “ugly” and “disgusting” see themselves as bullies. Doubtful. They have somehow justified their thinking and let it spew out from their minds into print with no regard for the actual human being it will affect.
People need to understand that their words matter. That their behaviors have a rippling impact, whether it’s on one person or an entire marginalized group. Our individual actions have power, and we can choose to impose that power to inflict pain or to heal pain. America is in a great deal of pain right now, whether the election ended the way you hoped it would or not. We each have the ability to make it better or worse.
Where has all the empathy gone? We no longer see each other as humans who feel pain. In January, my six year old son passed away from influenza induced encephalopathy. A week later, I was in a public battle to keep his twin brother in his neighborhood school. While I was grieving one child and fighting for the civil rights of the other, I felt the wrath of people that quietly believe kids with disabilities don’t belong with everyone else. Just a few weeks ago, a woman who has never met my family posted some pretty disparaging comments about me and my little boy. People were outraged and came to our defense, but she stood firm in her right to speak her mind, no matter how hurtful it was. Does she see herself as a bully? Nope. When I reached out and practically begged her to stop, she told me that “the truth hurts” and she was simply a voice for “all the people” that don’t agree with our cause.
How quickly people forget the heartache that others endure. It’s not that I think people should be nice to me because I lost a child. They should be nice because I’m human. If we could learn to see other viewpoints and really think about what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes, we might be less inclined to let our inner bully show.
Where has all the innocence gone? We have neglected to shield our children from the animosity that exists in the world. In my neighboring city of Royal Oak, middle school students were chanting “build the wall” during lunch to intimidate their Hispanic classmates. A week later at the same school, a noose was found hanging in the bathroom. Would the kids who did those things own up to bullying? I wouldn’t bet on it. My guess is they would retreat to the age old excuse that they were “just kidding around.” Hilarious, right? The level of aggression and intolerance in our schools and classrooms is higher than teachers have ever experienced. How do we even begin to fix this? More counselors will help, but what exactly will they do? More training is critical, but what exactly will it focus on? Stronger anti-bullying laws sound like a good idea, but what happens when those laws are broken? Do the kids that break them go to jail? In reality, none of those things will matter if people refuse to acknowledge their actions as bullying.
This election has perpetuated a polarized society that thrives on division - democrats against republicans, blacks against whites, women against men, natives against foreigners, and now kids against kids. The list goes on and on. Maybe people have always felt divided, but we have somehow decided we can say what we want, regardless of the impact it has on others. If we want to “make America great again,” vitriol has no place here.
I’m a woman. I’m a teacher. I am middle eastern. I have children with disabilities. I connect with almost every subgroup that Trump has degraded at some point in his campaign. Yet I don’t hate him. I actually feel bad for him because he doesn’t realize the depth of his own prejudices. He might actually make a good president. He might be a good person in many respects. He might not even be a bully, but he definitely acts like one sometimes. I guess we all do, and admitting it is a good start.
We all have prejudices. We all have hate within us. But what we choose to do with that is what defines our true character. We can let it seep out in ways that tear people down or we can face it and chip it away to make ourselves better. Better neighbors. Better family. Better friends. Better Americans. Be brave enough to break out of our self serving bubbles. Be bold enough to have difficult conversations. Be willing to learn something new and open enough to understand.
Let’s look at ourselves first. Then let’s continue by having meaningful conversations about what bullying actually is and what we need to do to fix it. Our schools and classrooms deserve it. We should use this moment in history to create a new vision. To reflect. To heal. To find kindness again. To feel empathy again. Most importantly, let’s use it to change the way we treat bullying, because just like a contagious disease, we need to commit to finding a cure.