Sticks and Stones

My niece Kathy describes it as “brutality.” She noticed it a while ago, and said she needed to cut back on television. It was just too brutal, she said, even admitting that her favorite shows were those with story lines centered around violent crime….NCIS, SVU, Criminal Minds. I’ve always liked crime shows, too.

But brutality extends far beyond those crime shows in our TV lineup.  

Nowadays, it goes viral. It attracts viewers by the millions, launches stars and books deals and even gives us a bit of a laugh. Last week, you probably saw the Facebook post in which Simon Cowell rolled his eyes at “Shy Kid” – who it turns out, really can sing. It reminded me of his initial reaction to Susan Boyle: He and Piers Morgan traded knowing glances, as if no 47 year old woman with a dream was worthy of a moment of their time.  And remember Cowell’s cruel ridicule of Jennifer Hudson at her Idol audition? Cowell told her that her outfit looked like something you would wrap a turkey in.

Even though Simon has moved on, America still celebrates each new season of Idol, where audition shows and Hollywood week focus on contestants who are light on talent, but offer a hefty dose of humiliation-as-entertainment to an eager public.  

I hate to admit that I followed “The Biggest Loser” for several years. I watched as Jillian screamed at desperately obese contestants to “move your ass” and “don’t you dare stop, don’t you dare!”  – then claimed a “breakthrough” moment when a contestant collapsed or vomited. Tears weren’t enough. Storming out of the gym wasn’t enough. Jillian, quite literally, brought contestants to their knees. (We excused it, though, if the weigh in for the Black Team was a happy one.)

And of course, reality TV is rife with “alliances.” Suspense builds as we wonder who will be “voted off the island,” or which beautiful girl will receive a rose.

 It occurs to me that a lot of what we see on TV these days is, in fact, pretty brutal. That TV shows instruct us in the fine art of…

Get ready for it….

Bullying.

We didn’t hear much about bullying until the early 2000’s, after the massacre at Columbine High School. The press speculated that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had been ostracized by their peers; that the so-called Trench Coat Mafia was made up of kids who were bullied by the more mainstream student body at Columbine.  In retrospect, according to journalist Dave Cullen, Harris and Klebold weren’t the victims or social outcasts portrayed in the media at the time. In our horror we tried to compose a logical explanation for an illogical act, and came up with bullying: it would have made sense – maybe – if Harris and Klebold were motivated by revenge. We told ourselves that maybe those kids out in Colorado were just too mean. We didn’t dare say it out loud, but may have wondered if some of them got what they deserved.

Since then, the issue of bullying has taken center stage. Schools adopt zero tolerance policies. Parents struggle with what to do when the classic advice of “Just ignore them” doesn’t work. These days the stakes are higher. Technology opens the doors to bullies 24 hours a day. There is no escape. No respite. Kids have died. This is serious stuff.

Has it always been this way?

Isn’t it true that everybody goes through it?  Boys will be boys, you know. Those girls will get what’s coming to them.

I asked some adults (ages 23 to 50 plus) if they had experienced bullying in their lives. Here’s what they said:

  • It was a nightmare.
  • I had to endure a lot of torment on the bus.
  • In 4th grade they made fun of my underwear.
  • I was too smart.  
  • I was raised by a single mother.
  • They made fun of what my mom packed in my lunch.
  • They blamed me for being weird.
  • I was raised without parents….in foster homes.
  • I was short. I was about 4 feet tall until high school.
  • We moved a lot. There was always a bully waiting for the new kid.
  • I never did figure out why they threw rocks or spit on me.
  • Catholic bashing was a favorite pastime.
  • My own sister called me hippo in high school.
  • I was pale skinned and skinny, with large red lips.
  • It became a game for the boys to walk into history class and see which one could hit me in the head and either make me cry or make my nose bleed. There were plenty of takers on that one
  • I wore the clothing mom bought, not what was stylish because I was fat.
  • They stole my lunch. I was scared to report it so I didn’t eat.
  • I was excluded from things…ignored.
  • The boys would put their hand on my seat so when I sat down they would be groping my butt. This happened for a whole year.

And what happened to those bullies as a result? Not much.

  • An older girl just sat there oblivious, gazing out the window pretending she didn’t see a thing going on right next to her!
  • The PE teachers and coaches made it worse – they fostered it and actually set some kids up.
  • I would lie awake at night thinking up revenge tactics, but I never did anything.
  • For months I avoided going to school anyway I could.
  • The school principal denied that anything was happening.
  • I spent a lot of time in the bathroom or making sure I was by the yard duty teacher.
  • The principal took me into a closet and threatened to beat me with a clothes hanger. The bully was the principal’s nephew.
  • My self-worth was so low that it never occurred to me to tell anyone.
  • My home life was so bad that I did not think anyone would listen to me

The bullying victims, even years ago, felt that they had nowhere to turn. Only two people mentioned that they told a parent what was going on. Part of the equation was – and is – that the victims may indeed believe that adults who are supposed to protect them may be as powerless as they are.

I feel a bit of relief that my own children are adults, and less vulnerable to cruelty from their peers. But I feel a pang of sadness that we send such mixed messages to the next generation.

On one hand, we lament that we have to work so hard these days to teach kids to be civil, respectful, good people. But on the other hand, brutality is captivating. We don’t like to admit it, but we have adopted a cultural acceptance of cruelty. We reinforce that acceptance with a click of the remote.

We talk “zero tolerance” – but our walk takes us to a different destination altogether.

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4 Responses to Sticks and Stones

  1. Aviva Rubin says:

    What a great piece. I absolutely agree about the contradiction between our claims to despise bullying and our celebration of the spectacle of cruelty.

  2. Aviva Rubin says:

    One more thing. I want to believe that somewhere we are a society that roots for the underdog. Gets all excited when the “shy guy” belts out stunning opera. But the reality is we only get behind them when they defy our expectations and do tricks for us.

  3. Gerald Salerno says:

    Don’t even get me going on this topic.
    Does art imitate life or does life imitate art? Bullying has always been around but adults responsible for television programing have decided to make it fashionable and then sell advertising time to organizations who reach out to the youth of today telling them that bullying is wrong.
    I love not watching television.

  4. Last night, my son and I were watching Gladiator. This morning, as I read your piece, I made the connection (not for the first time) between ‘entertainment’ and cruelty. I know many people believe that we are channeling our ‘inborn’ cruelty into sport, thereby making the world a safer, better place. I disagree. I believe that we are, in fact, naturally kind – and that this sort of group behavior trains and entrains us to violence. Bravo for writing this post, Lynn. It’s powerful.

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