the vicious middle

When I was five I was invited to a birthday party for Sandra, a girl in my kindergarten class.

At it, I recall her giving out these brightly colored, chewy, things with a sugar shell. I have no idea what they were, but they were the most satisfying things in the world to sink my teeth into. Each girl got one candy, and when she got to me, she cut one in half and gave me half.

“Because you’re half,” she said.

It’s not the first time I can recall being bullied. But it’s the first time I can recall having no recourse. (When it happened in nursery school my friend Eric and I hatched a plan that led to us slamming the perpetrating kid’s arm in a toy refrigerator and doing a lot more damage than we had intended). That lack of recourse came from three main things:

1. I had no allies.
2. I had no one below me in the hierarchy through which to define a status for myself.
3. Sandra wasn’t wrong. Or, at least, she didn’t feel wrong to me. I was younger than everyone else. And smaller. And poorer. And less pretty. And more awkward. And I could never remember my vowels in the right order.

I think of this story from time to time. It’s definitely my go-to story for the “look, I’ve never really been sure I’m okay for the world” thing that I, like most people, walk around with.

But today I thought of it because of CNN’s mention of a new study that shows the more popular a kid is the more likely they are to bully unless they are are the very top of the popularity ladder. Sounds dead-on to me. How are hierarchies determined but through enforcement? The only people who wind up not playing are those who have nothing to enforce (those at the absolute bottom) or no need to enforce (those at the absolute top).

It occurs to me that this idea of the vicious middle can be extrapolated to a lot of things outside of the classroom. I’m sure it can be extrapolated to fandom, although I’m disinclined to try to map that out because I’m pretty sure those of us who play in those sandboxes can imagine the sort of reception that would get. But I’m also sure we can extrapolate to lots of other interactions where things transpire that are, or at least involve (in a larger context and agenda) elements of, bullying.

Sexism on the Internet is one, and the stuff documented at Fat, Slutty or Ugly (a website dedicated to showing the hateful crap female gamers are dealt pretty much constantly) is a great example. Here were have a place where a dudes who feel like they’re not at the top of the social hierarchy (because nerds and gamers are just two of many subcultures that, let’s face it, still get treated like crap for some pretty arbitrary and uncool reasons) and so when women (uncommon in the community by popular belief if not actual fact) show up, those men enforce what social position they believe they do have by being abusive to the theoretical interloper women, lest the tables get turned and the nerd dudes wind up one more peg down the board.

The current congressional Republican crusade against abortion rights (sure, they dropped the whole appalling thing about what’s “real” rape, but now we have the bill that says it’s legal to let a woman die rather than provide her with emergency care if that care would harm the pregnancy should that outcome be more personally comfortable for the medical personnel involved) also feels like this to me. This is true in the structural sense of the CNN-reported study — think about these congresspeople: big fish who aren’t big enough fish, who are striving, striving, striving, to stand out enough to be somebody with a name school children are obligated to remember and study; there is so much of the worst types of ambitious in politics, and it might hurt less if I were less sympathetic to that sort of pothos.

But this type of political behavior, conducted in this way on this issue, is also like bullying in the raw emotional content output and its subsequent reception, as when Sandra told me I was half.

Because I am half.

I am half to those people in Congress, half to those gamer boys I complained about in a Sassy article in 1991, half to girls who were mean to me because if they were better than me maybe boys would be better to them.

It’s all heartbreaking.

It’s also all terrifying.

Because all of us, sometimes (most times), are in that vicious middle. And hierarchy enforcement through bullying is second nature to most of us by the time we’re five or six or seven. And for a lot of us, it’s not just about unlearning a bad and unnecessary behavior, but unlearning behaviors that often have been necessary, because they kept us alive when we didn’t, and often, couldn’t fit in.

One of the theories that has come about in reaction to the findings of CNN-reported study is that the way to end bullying isn’t by addressing bullying with those who do it or those who are targeted, but with the bystanders and witnesses, the kids who aren’t in it today, but could be on either side of that equation tomorrow.

This is the part at the end of the blog post where I tell you not to be an asshole and better yet, to speak up if you see some crap going down, but I know that 9 times out of 10 you can’t. I can’t. We can’t. It’s so hard. We don’t even know what to say. We’re scared — at work, on the Internet, at school, at home — of making ourselves a target, or rushing to the defense of someone whose company we don’t actually enjoy, or losing what little bits of status we think we’ve managed to scrape together.

But bullying isn’t a habit and a mechanism and a tool that can be overcome just by deciding not to bully and doing our best to stick with it, if we’re then silent when we witness bullying. Bullying is a social action, one that doesn’t involve two or three people, but actively includes the surrounding social community (even when the bullying transpires in secret) in order for the hierarchy enforcement to have efficacy and thus enable more bullying.

Stopping bullying effectively requires herd immunity, which I’m pretty sure means we have to keep talking about it, all the time, until all of us who were ever told we were half, have one voice.

20 thoughts on “the vicious middle”

  1. It’s not a cure all, but it does work. I’ve seen individual school cultures improve dramatically with that curriculum. we tell them the most effective response is to speak up or get help, but if they don’t feel safe doing that, they can still help by turning away. Bullies read silent bystanders as support. If people look disproving and turn their backs or walk away, it undercuts that support.

  2. The Penny Aracade Dickwolves thing has been rampaging around the corner of the net that I read, resulting in a lot of the usual hateful crap. Someone did do a fascinating breakdown of some data in regards to troll comments here.

    1. Is it wrong that there’s a part of my brain that has intersected the dickwolves thing with the Hyperbole and a Half wolf pack thing?

      1. OH DEAR. Wolves!

        My feelings about the Dickwolves thing are complex. I thought the original strip was hilarious because I’m pretty sure I did that quest eighty million times. I feel like there was a good opportunity for the Gabe & Tycho to say something in the ensuing storm about promoting better attitudes in gamer culture, but as usual instead everyone went on the defensive and fanboys started telling the bloggers to shut it. I am deeply annoyed they didn’t call out their fanbase on that shit sooner. The unwillingness to have any sort of discussion about it was pretty off putting. Tycho even blogged about how his entire assumption was that it wouldn’t be useful to even try.

        All around it just left a bad taste in my mouth.

  3. of making ourselves a target, or rushing to the defense of someone whose company we don’t actually enjoy, or losing what little bits of status we think we’ve managed to scrape together.

    And the thing is, this really happens. It’s not a false fear. It happened to me. I stuck up for someone whose company I didn’t actually enjoy, or at least not all that much, and ended up losing almost all my other friends and being stuck with the people I stuck up for for 3 years which, in middle school, is an eternity.

    Of course there are caveats:

    1) We were in middle school. I seriously doubt this would happen among the adults I know, or even in college. High school I’m not sure.

    2) There had been other incidents between me and my erstwhile besties, so my narcing on them for their planned prank may just have been the final straw (although they were all similar)

    3) there would almost certainly have been a better way to handle this, though I had no idea what it was then and am not sure now. Direct confrontation? Pranking back? Warning the victim?

    4) If I were a better person, perhaps I would have enjoyed the company of the people who I stuck up for — I cannot disentangle how much was actual compatibility issues versus how much was me looking down on people below me on the status ladder, albeit mostly in my head and more with condescending chivalry than cruelty.

    I don’t regret what I did — it’s one of the incidents that defines who I try to be. But the cost was real and I wasn’t a good enough person not to resent paying it.

    It always reminds me of this quote from Mansfield Park: “The politeness which she had been brought up to practise as a duty, made it impossible for her to escape; while the want of that higher species of self-command, that just consideration of others, that knowledge of her own heart, the principle of right which had not formed any essential part of her education, made her miserable under it”, except that I cannot blame my education.

    1. Oh, I think it does happen all the time. Certainly I saw that stuff in high school, and I’ve seen it in fandom as well.

  4. I think the hardest, when being confronted by bullying as an adult… as has happened to me recently is that apathy :”it’s a personality clash” and also the fact that I didn’t react to the situation as the mid-thirties grown up but as the child that was first bullied

    and that description of being classed as half… that’s it

  5. I was on the board of directors of an alternative school, back when that designation wasn’t applied only to “the place they send the weird kids”. It came to our attention one day that bullying was occurring, and when we spoke to the teacher, she said “They’re just working out their pecking order.” And was astonished when we went ballistic and said “THERE IS NO PECKING ORDER AT THIS SCHOOL!!!”

    There followed some serious workshopping*, and she did come to see the light, which is good, as we would have had to replace her, and possibly lose her other considerable skills.

    *not quite like woodshedding

    But as far as I can see, bullying is still a problem that the greater education-and-child-rearing community hasn’t found a way to deal with. Cynically, I believe it’s because it would require Paying More Attention.

    1. Here’s my cynicism:

      I believe bullying often seems useful to many teachers and administrators. My ex had had a girlfriend that had attended a boarding school not dissimilar from the private school education I received and we discussed the bullying she had reported there on more than one occasion. I was given the very clear impression from those conversations that at least some of the faculty and administration viewed the bullying between girls as useful for enforcing gender norms (they were there to be turned into a certain sort of good society lady after all) and enforcing school roles through self-policing (bullying is not an honor code, what were these people thinking?).

  6. I don’t know that right-wingers in Congress really consider you half of a human being.
    Maybe you’re as much as three fifths….

    Re “the “look, I’ve never really been sure I’m okay for the world” thing that I, like most people, walk around with”: what, it isn’t just me?
    Seriously, I carry around in my head the Garry Larson cartoon that shows a group of bums in an alley, one of whom is a giant insect, captioned, “And then on day at a board meeting someone said, ‘Hey, he’s just a big cockroach!'”
    We all carry that feeling. That sneaking suspicion that one day you will be outed as an impostor and lose your job. As not really a decent person and lose your marriage. Or as not really a grown-up, and lose your children. And it doesn’t help to see it happen sometimes, and wonder if we are really any better than the ones who get denounced and humiliated.

  7. Speaking of rape and the No Taxpayer-Funded Abortion Act, I’m surprised by how many people defend the bullies with the reasoning that how their money is spent is equally as important as, or more important than, an economically disadvantaged woman’s right to control her body. I would ask the question “Since when is money more important than people?” except that I know the answer: according to most people, ALWAYS. Because it’s more important for a person with enough economic privilege to be able to dictate how that money is spent than to give an economically disadvantaged person a chance at a life of her own. Because it’s easier to think of the “poor fetus” than it is to think of the woman who will have to bring it to term, possibly endangering her own life in the process. And because it’s easier to believe we are born “sinners” than to believe everyone has a chance at being “good,” whatever “good” means. Even the supposedly pro-choice politicians are caving to the pro-lifers on this one, and that just scares me. Whoever yells the loudest, right?

  8. I have been the half many times, and bullied by teachers as well. And I don’t mean the teachers condoned the bullying, I mean my second grade teacher tied me to a desk with red yarn as a punishment. (Not just me either, this was something she did.) Then I was in special education, which in 1980 was not exactly theraputic and more of a herding pen. When I saw Dawn “Weinerdog” Weiner in Welcome To the Dollhouse years later, I competely understood how she took every chance to pounce on someone lower. Repressed rage will blow up eventually, and it almost always goes down, not up.

    I’m glad that when I hit high school I became “alternative”, bobbed my hair, wore black every school day, and essentially ignored everyone else. When everyone else had rejected me, rejecting back felt really good.

    1. I have to agree with you on that last bit! I sort of pre-emptively rejected the popular crowd in fourth grade because I instinctively knew I didn’t fit in with them and subtle tensions were already rising between us. It wasn’t really until sixth grade that people actively began to bully me, though, and it’s hard to say whether they did it because I rejected them first, or because I really was at the “bottom of the food chain.” It went on through the end of seventh grade, and then in eighth, miraculously, everyone stopped caring. I was still a misfit, but I had a strong group of friends who were loyal, and all of the other people just ignored us, for the most part. (I should mention that I was at a school that went straight from pre-k to 8th, so I pretty much had the same group of peers from the time I started in 3rd grade until we all graduated.)

      1. Yeah! Although oddly in sixth and seventh grades the very top of the social group not only decided not to bully me, but were friendly. This may have been because I was obviously in serious trouble-I had most of the school’s teachers and some of the students thinking they would find me dead of a suicide if things went badly. So I actually got a little popular kid noblisse oblige. So it’s true: the top layer doesn’t have to bully, and in some cases can even spare a little kindness to a person who looks as if they need it.

        That ended when I bobbed my hair and became more openly angry. But by then, I wasn’t as critically ill either. Directing anger outward does help severe depressions!

    2. I have seen actual bullying of my own children by the teacher(s) when they were in school. Apparently, when associating with children all day, it’s easy to become just the Biggest Kid. And the most able to bully the littler ones.

      If your child (or you as a child) are noticeably “different” (and “different” is not defined the same way everywhere) you are fair game, not just for your classmates, but often for your teacher as well. “Bookish” will do it, and so will “significantly better informed than your classmates”. “Dressing funny” (anything other than what everyone else is wearing) is always a good excuse.

      Where I live, “foreign” is not considered grounds for bullying, but there are plenty of reasons that are still available.

      1. Let’s see: “bookish”, check, “more informed” check, “dressing funny”-I wore hand me downs from my cousins for the first 11 years of my life, meaning that the early 70’s kept on going in my closet. Oh, and I didn’t have a strong country accent. This was a bad thing in the little town I grew up in, but it was fine when we moved to the suburbs just in time for 6th grade.

        My evil 2nd grade teacher did this crap her entire time as a teacher, I think. I remember years after the fact when I was thinking about her, I decided to end the matter in my head. I just put a curse on her! “Okay, fine: she’s going to be alone and her kids will never visit her.” And now I can’t even remember her name. 🙂

  9. Between clinical depression and exactly this sort of thing, I was convinced for many years of elementary school that I was not a real person, but some sort of soulless prop being used as a test run. As I got older and angrier, I decided that there was no way they could *tell* I wasn’t a Real Girl, and that even if they did suspect, it wasn’t Right for them to treat me like that – because if they did that to me, they might do it to a real person as well.

    People don’t understand when I get righteous about human rights issues. They think I’m advocating for myself. But really, it started out for other people. Bad enough they treat me like this, but others? They’re real. And I believed in freedom and equality and democracy and all those pretty things.

  10. This is kind of terrible, but I’ve never really noticed when I’ve been bullied before college. I was the arch-geek in grade school and high school, reading at recess and with a small group of simular social outcasts. (My grade school friends were a deeply flamboyant guy who played the trombone, and a guy who is now studying to be a Roman Catholic priest. We talked a lot about sci fi.) I got a lot of “stop think plans” for being a stubborn kid who wouldn’t do something that seemed arbitrary, refusing until it was explained to me and I agreed it was necessary. There is only one incident that was explicitly bullying to me, and it was body-shaming crap from a midlingly popular girl. Then in high school, I wasn’t really liked, but have no particular incident(s) I can point to as bullying.

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