The summer before fifth grade a long-time childhood friend and I decided to go for a hike in the woods. We liked to throw ninja stars, cook ration packs in the creek and catch amphibians. Typical fifth-grader shit.
There was this one day, though, when we encountered the local bully and 5 or 6 of his goon buddies. I had always been warned to avoid this crew, but I remained naive to the evil within these freaks. Upon our encounter, my friend dropped his bike and fled, leaving the scrawny 11 year-old version of me to handle myself. This was not a good position for my skill set.
Now if I can recall correctly, this jerk, lets call him Joe, was 2-3 years older than I was. At this age, where there was a fine line between armpit hair and sounding like a girl, those 2-3 years gave him a pretty ridiculous size advantage over me. Anyway, he and his dirtbag thugs bloodied me up a little. I didn’t put up much of a fight as I was alone and wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible.
I told my parents and friends that I wrecked my bike, and that was that. Or so I thought. For years after this incident, Joe tried his best to make my life miserable at school. I never understood why. I never had a quarrel with him, wasn’t exceptionally popular such as to invoke jealousy, but I had enough friends and success in school to keep me from the black hole of loser-dom. The dude just had it out for me from the start, and as a pacifist, there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.
Recently, news has broke about the alleged bullying of Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin by the notorious thug, Richie Incognito. Incognito has long been known to be a volatile individual, and these accusations seem to have surprised nobody except for everybody involved in the Dolphins organization. How this type of behavior can be shrugged off and ignored by grown adults is appalling (but I guess this should be expected within the realm of professional sports).
While there has been plenty of commentary condemning Incognito’s actions and his teammates’ lack of cognizance, there has also been an alarming extent of defending the situation, with certain players and television personalities suggesting that Martin “man up” and the like. As if a physical altercation, “win” or “lose”, with a man who called you a “half nigger piece of shit” and threatened to kill you (remember that Aaron Hernandez guy?) is really going to accomplish anything.
So needless to say, I can empathize a bit with Jonathan Martin and any others who have been savagely bullied in their lives. Even I, after one year of Junior High football in seventh grade, didn’t return the following year because of Joe’s bullshit.
When it comes to any form of harassment, there are almost always three parties involved- the aggressor, the victim and the witness(es). Bullies seem to have a low emotional intelligence, and often appear to genuinely not realize the impact of their actions on the victim. While they are certainly not without blame, they are also the least likely to ameliorate the situation. Meanwhile, those being bullied often feel inferior and unable to speak up, especially if they receive little support from others. While there is the occasional feel-good story of the kid who finally stands up to his long-time tormentor, many of these tales have much darker endings as multiple studies have shown bullying to be a significant factor in adolescent suicide.
Consider all of the young people, the future teachers and doctors, mothers and fathers, whose lives have been made so miserable by harassment from their peers that they would rather be dead. All of the good memories, their loving friends and families, all overshadowed by the constant hate thrown at them by one or a few insignificant individuals on their path through life. Fortunately for myself and any of you reading this, the good (and perhaps an understanding of the permanence of death) outweighed the bad when we were young and irrational. But it’s a tightrope that many people both adolescent and adult are walking, and sometimes a certain level of peer mistreatment is enough to push them off.
Which brings me back to the third player, the bystander. If you see somebody being attacked with regard to race, sexuality, appearance or any other benign trait, it is your moral duty to speak up. A bully will rarely stop upon their own recognition and the victim often feels powerless to react. Looking back at my situation, I wish I would have punched Joe in the face and told him to fuck off, and maybe it would have worked. But most victims of bullying don’t have that capacity and really could use some support from the rest of us. Even if you are too craven to speak up during the act, simply acknowledging to the victim that what you witnessed was wrong may be enough support for them to cope.
I think that it is important to accentuate the fact that this discussion should never be about the weakness of the victim. When has the answer for child abuse been to tell the child to be a man about it?. We don’t suggest that women (or men for that matter) who are sexually assaulted to suck it up. Why should bullying, something that can have far-reaching repercussions such as depression and suicide, be any different?
Note- Most of my evidence here is anecdotal and I don’t claim to be an expert on the topic. I am merely presenting my personal philosophy on how to handle a situation based off of my life experiences.