Four Years of Bullying
October is National Bullying Prevention Month, a subject I blogged about seven years ago when Rogue came out. My novel featured a oft-bullied undiagnosed autistic girl whose reaction increased both her isolation and the resolve of bullies to torment her for sport. In the blog post I talked about the fact that people targeted by bullies often appear unsympathetic to bystanders and authorities, and the authorities’ reaction can serve at the tipping point for a bullying relationship to lead to violent outcomes — the victim’s suicide, a victim striking back via asymmetrical warfare (like Kiara in Rogue slamming the cafeteria tray in the bully’s face), or the bully killing or maiming the victim.
Scholars at first saw bullying as a relationship between bully and victim. Later, they addressed the crucial role of bystanders in egging bullies on either directly or indirectly or uniting in support of the victim. Most school anti-bullying programs focus on training bystanders to intervene in support of the victim and to create a climate in which bullying is seen as unacceptable. They begin by helping students understand what constitutes bullying — a pattern of deliberate aggression by those who have power against those who do not have power. Bullying thus involves four elements: 1) aggression (which can be physical or emotional and involve exclusion and vicious rumors as well as direct attacks); 2) repetition; 3) intention; 4) an imbalance of power that favors the bully. More recently, those who study bullying have addressed the role of the authorities or “referees.” They are generally the ones who create and codify the imbalance of power, prevent the victim from escaping, and tilt the scales toward the bully once the bullying relationship is established. Schools with ineffective anti-bullying policies are examples of this. They create a heteronormative climate that elevates different forms of privilege, ability, strength, and influence. They require victims to be there, serving them up on a platter for bullies to abuse. Then, when a bullying incident ensues, they both-sides it, looking for ways that victims contributed to their victimization. Typically, the both-sides-ism involves a false equivalence; the authorities consider a victim’s name-calling or weak defensive punch just as wrong as a bully’s repeated violence and terror.
I write about this not only because of National Bullying Prevention Month but also because many of us in the United States have endured almost four years of bullying. Authoritarian political leaders bully their populations — particularly members of their population seen as “undesirable” and use the example of their victims to terrorize the rest into obedience. In this way, the rest of the population serve as silent bystanders, refusing to speak out because they fear they will be next if they do, or egg on the bullies, associating themselves with power with the expectation that the bullies’ power will redound to them. For this kind of bullying to occur once again in the U.S. — I say “once again” because history echoes — it needed many to be complicit. Among the complicit have been members of the current leader’s party who actively joined the bully gang. I would not consider these political and business leaders to be bystanders egging on the bully but henchmen adding their blows to the victims and benefiting directly from their victims’ pain. In 2016, many believed that the Republican Party and business leaders would act as a check on Trump’s power; their spectacular failure to do so is one of the most sobering aspects of what we’ve endured in the past four years. These people haven’t stood by silently. They’ve gone all in, fists and feet flying.
The other big disappointment has been the media, the “referees.” The false equivalence of “but her emails” in 2016 has continued, and every perceived misstep by Black Lives Matter activists or the opposition party is amplified. It feels like the principal telling the bullied student, “Let’s think about all the things you did to deserve this.” These things — if they exist at all, because false rumors are standard operating procedure for bullies and their associates — are trivial in comparison to the bullies’ repeated aggression. Or they’re a weak reaction of the powerless to the insurmountable forces arrayed against them — like blocking streets during a protest.
For many of us, the stress has sapped our joy and well-being. I used to look forward to the months I spent out of the country since 2016. It felt like the only time I could breathe. Now we can’t leave; the bullies in charge have harnessed a deadly pandemic to pin us in place for increasingly violent attacks, ones that threaten both physical safety and economic survival. I have lived in places under dictatorship before, but they weren’t my country, and at the end of the study-abroad, or the summer or winter vacation, I could go home.
We can’t go home now. State terror has come to us, and November 3, three days after the end of National Bullying Prevention Month, is our last chance to stop it.