Dwight Longenecker, Greta Thunberg, and the Question of Bullying

Dwight Longenecker, Greta Thunberg, and the Question of Bullying September 26, 2019


In the mess of the impeachment news, I was forced to overlook a story that’s gotten on my nerves.

As you no doubt know, the teenage climate change activist Greta Thunberg gave an impassioned speech at the United Nations, shaming the grown-ups for not acting decisively to curb climate emissions.

And a lot of people didn’t like it, and there were a lot of aspersions cast on Ms. Thunberg, her age, her asperger’s syndrome, her mental health, and why she wasn’t attending high school instead of addressing world leaders in a well-written speech in her second language (which to me is a good sign you can go ahead and graduate from high school).

In the middle of this, we had the inimitable Father Dwight Longenecker, who likes to wear immensely comical hats in photographs and yet feels he has the business to criticize anybody’s appearance. Father Dwight’s contribution to the discussion of climate change and teen activists was to make a mean joke about Thunberg’s appearance, comparing her to Wednesday Adams.

And he called her “Greta Thornbug.”

Imagine making fun of somebody’s name if your own name is “Dwight Longenecker.”

It would be like if I made fun of somebody for being fat and having a chronic illness.

Why do bullies who themselves have silly names so often go after other people’s names? This is a phenomenon I’ve observed more than once. When I was in the third grade, I was mercilessly bullied by a child named Danny Billberry. That was his real surname. Billberry. And he made fun of my much more ordinary surname, as well as my weight and appearance and everything else about me, all the time. Yet people were surprised and scandalized when I shot back at him by calling him “the Billberry Dough Boy.” Them that live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

And then there’s making fun of a teenage girl’s personal appearance in the first place. Some say you should never poke fun at anybody’s personal appearance and some make exceptions in certain cases. But I think, particularly in light of recent scandals, a Catholic priest remarking  positively or negatively on any teenage girl’s appearance is grossly improper. And then there’s the fact that he made fun of her for having utilitarian pigtails and a dour expression. What did he want her to do with her hair and face while addressing the United Nations on climate change? Should she have shaved her head? Worn a wig? Gotten a perm? Smiled a little because girls are fetching when they smile?

Of course he was widely called out for this, and of course he doubled down. He did not apologize but kept on saying that everyone else was at fault for not being able to take a joke. This is a form of gaslighting and an abuse tactic also very common to schoolyard bullies and those who enable them– everyone told me I should just ignore Danny Billberry, for example, because he was only doing it because he liked me.

Dwight went on to give us us an etymology lecture. “‘Humor’ and ‘human’ come from the same root word. Can we conclude that a person without a sense of humor is two letters short of being human?” That was his whole tweet.

He’s actually not correct about that. “Humor” comes from the Latin “humere,” and refers to moisture as in a kind of bodily fluid– people with different personalities were said to have different humors. “Human” comes from the Latin “homo,” meaning “a man.” They’re not the same root in the least, they just both have “hum” in them. So does “hummus” and “humpback whale,” but they’re not related either.

So does “humility,” by the way. It comes from a third Latin word, humilitas. Humility demands that when a joke doesn’t go over well because it was mean-spirited and bullying, we apologize.

Now it’s perfectly legitimate to be concerned about Ms. Thunberg’s activism– that her parents are allowing her too much stress, that she’s not going about this in the right way, that you don’t agree with her reading of the science involved. You may or may not be correct in your assessment, but those are things to consider. We can have a lively debate about them. If Ms. Thunberg had done a genuinely bad thing, like making the Tomahawk Chop at a Native American elder when she felt threatened while in town as part of her political activism, it would be legitimate to ream her out and ask why her chaperones let her behave like a pig. But she didn’t do that. She did just what she came to America to accomplish. She just gave a fiery speech into a microphone, and did a good job of it.

But mocking a child’s name and hairdo because they tried to do a good thing in a deeply impassioned way and you didn’t like it– or mocking somebody’s name and hairdo for attention because you think it will make you look witty, as I think is the case with Dwight– is wrong. It’s simple bullying with nothing humorous or otherwise good about it. It’s deeply unbecoming of a priest.

Digging in your heels and gaslighting the whole internet when you’ve been called out for being a bully is worse. It’s not humorous. It’s not humane. And it’s shockingly lacking in humility.

He ought to be ashamed of himself.

(image via Pixabay) 




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