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.