In the Day of the Bully

In the Day of the Bully October 11, 2010

Over the weekend, I mentioned to someone that I hate the tv ad for the Chrysler Town and Country–the one where a little boy is being chased by bullies; he dives into the open hatchback of a waiting minivan, and his mother–who apparently knows her son is the target of bullies, but parks some distance away from school–then smiles as he makes his escape and the hatchback slowly closes behind him. Still smiling, and oblivious to the fact that thwarted bullies do not surrender, but only slink away to regroup and plan vengeance, the mother drives away while her victim son taunts the bullies by smugly sticking out his tongue.

Every time I see that commercial, my skin crawls. Having once been the bullied kid in the schoolyard, I understand all too well what that smug kid is going to face the next time the bullies see their chance, and it drives me insane that someone at Chrysler (or at the ad agency they employ) thinks any part of that commercial, from the parked, seemingly oblivious mother, to the s-l-o-w autoclose of the van’s hatchback, to the tongue-taunting of the poor victorious-but-doomed kid is cute, or reassuring, or should make one want to buy their product.

Nothing so well demonstrates the relentless mindset of bullies, and the harm they do, as the recent and tragic rash of suicides by their victims, from Pheobe Prince to Tyler Clementi to 13 year-old Hope Witsell. Once a bully (or bullies; such cowards almost always run in packs) has identified a target–a potential prize–there is no such thing as surrendering the chase or walking away until they have had their day. And bullies have unrelenting energy; they will lie about their victims, try to trip them up, physically intimidate them. Some–if they are particularly adept at bullying or have a peculiar inclination toward the vicious, will invest a little time and energy into pretending to be the hapless victim’s friend, awaiting the chance to betray and humiliate the victim before the largest possible audience of mindless, guffawing creeps, who will applaud and validate the dubious wit of the bully, and perhaps even join in the abuse.

Chrysler’s ad worries me; I dread the thought of some kid seeing it and assuming that if he can outrun a pack of bullies he can then turn around and provoke them without eventual retribution.

Bullies do not need motives; all they need is a sense that the target is unpopular, or the scent of vulnerability, coupled with the assurance that no one is watching who will do anything about their aggression.

When we see bullying, therefore, we have to be willing to identify it, and call it out; we have to teach our kids to do so, too – to recognize the characteristics of the bully–lies, intimidation, slander, jeering, distortion, corrosive scorn and a willingness to abuse before an audience–and to name it, reject it and alert others when they find it.

In the day of the bully, running does not help and hiding does not save; the bully only stops when the target is destroyed or its vulnerability has subsided. Unfortunately, in the advent of the cyber-bully, everyone is just a tad more vulnerable than before, and self-defense classes, or the ability to deliver a swift punch to the solar plexus or a kick to the gonads, is no longer enough. The only thing that will stop those inclined toward bullying–whether in games, photos or other media– is society’s own outright rejection of the bully’s tactics, wherever they are encountered, and a corrective to the bully’s lies.

Related: Speaking of bullies and tactics, if we identify the bully as one who willfully distorts and slanders for the benefit of an audience, Deacon Greg Kandra seems to have found one.

Well, there is no denying that the church is certainly vulnerable in the eyes of many, so the “no one likes it” stench will attract some.

But let us keep the characteristics of bullying foremost in our mind; bullying foments hate and humiliation through distortion, and likes an audience when it can get one. Bullying is not mere disagreement, or even passionate disagreement.

Bullying is not saying, “no, I cannot give you what you want, because it is not mine to give, and here are the reasons…”

A reasoned application of the word “no” is not bullying, no matter how strongly you may disagree with that reasoning, no matter how much you may prefer to hear the “yes.” The reasoning may be unintentionally hurtful, but it is not bullying.

That distinction matters, hugely. So does intention.

I’ll be writing more about this in my column, tomorrow.

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