In Everytown, USA, some kid gets bullied on the playground or around the schoolyard. Seeking hierarchy, some sense of superiority, assertion of dominance over somebody, the bully picks a target, probably without even knowing why for sure. It could be the victim’s face, gait, clothes, build, voice, anything that gets under the bully’s skin, because by god they need to be higher on the food chain than somebody. They fight, or abuse, or sneer, or dump barrels of toxic waste into the social waters around the victim. The victim is beaten down periodically, until they fight back.
That’s the conventional wisdom. A bully who gets knocked down, who gets his comeuppance, runs off crying and must find another target.
But that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the victim just takes it, suffering in silence, and no one in authority ever knows the poor kid’s plight. We’ve all read stories of how wrong this situation can go, with the victim’s suicide as the only means they can see of escape. But such horrors are still the outliers. The everyday, lower-level incidents can be just as insidious, because they are more likely to pass under the radar. If someone in authority catches a glimpse, they see just boys being boys, not knowing this was a single incident out of dozens.
Bullies are systematic. Hierarchy must be maintained through threats and violence. Sometimes, the bully graduates or moves to another school—or, finally, wrenchingly, gets kicked out of the house—and the victim grows, as kids do.
The victim is bigger than some of the other kids now. He’s learned how the world works. Order must be maintained. Hierarchy must be established. Bullying means fitting in, right? It’s cool to pick on the little ones, right? Hazing is a kind of initiation. Everybody has to go through it. And doesn’t it feel good to get a little payback for the world’s injustices on somebody weaker than you? Making someone fear, obey, or worship you is such a rush.
Sometimes, in that rush, the bully goes too far and stops at the precipice of What-the-hell-did-I-just-do Chasm, toes dangling over the edge. Assertion of hierarchy is firmly established, but something irrevocable has been done. Someone is hurt, physically or emotionally, in a way that will stay with them until they die. In that moment, in that stepping back from the precipice, the victim-become-bully might recognize the wrong. Will he have strength to make amends? Or at the very least, avert himself from this path? Even if he does, however, the hurt he’s done will cling to him like a bloodstain forever.
Sometimes, the bully recovers and redeems himself, recognizing that he still bears that stain.
But sometimes the bully’s nature metastasizes. He spends his whole life intimidating others, shouting them down, issuing threats, exacting his due, all to maintain that petty hierarchical niche he’s carved out of a world that despises him. A schoolyard bully can go far. He can become a campus bully, a social media bully, a shop bully, a jobsite bully, an office bully, a boardroom bully.
A bully can even run for President of the United States and be applauded for his strength.
And strewn behind him, he leaves an untold wasteland of victims and a fresh crop of nascent bullies.
This is the cycle of life for higher primates on this planet, where the internet connects us all.
Can we stop the cycle? Yes. But it requires vigilance.
And more importantly, it requires kindness.
Bullies are made, not born.
Although female bullies and abusers certainly exist, the pronoun “he” is appropriate here, because this is a predominantly, deeply male problem. Our culture continues to perpetuate generations of young male bullies. And judging by the very existence of Gamergate, the behavior of the far-right and far-left political wings, and Men’s Rights Activists, just to name a few egregious examples, young male bullies have become more toxic than ever.
So we must ask the question: how much toxic sludge was heaped upon their heads when they were small to create this? How might kindness have changed their paths? And how can they be reclaimed and shown a brighter path?
Hating is easy. Offering a kind hand to someone who’s behaving despicably is really hard. How can we show them how to hold onto the light, and do the same ourselves?
If you succeed in doing this, please tell me how.
At Dragon Con this year, Gail Z. Martin was kind enough to invite me to take part in the Hold on to the Light Project. She has done an amazing job promoting and coordinating this effort. Many thanks to her for letting me take part.
About the campaign:
#HoldOnToTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.
Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Hope for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA) and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
To find out more about #HoldOnToTheLight, find a list of participating authors and blog posts, or reach a media contact, go to http://www.HoldOnToTheLight.com and join us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/WeHoldOnToTheLight