A lot of people who know me now may find it hard to believe, but I was a bullied kid, and bullied for a variety of reasons. First I was fat. Then I was too skinny. First I was shy and awkward, then when I started to come out of my shell and talk, I was loud and awkward.
I do not say this to get sympathy, as a lot of people have went through much worse. However, I will say that even post -getting a master’s degree from Harvard, running a marathon, and getting proposed to by a handsome Harvard physicist, the pain of bullying never fully heals. When I am back in my hometown and I run by the elementary school I attended from fourth to sixth grade, I do not happily point it out to my fiance, but rather, I seriously want to barf.
I feel the need to write this today because this afternoon, in the words of many Americans, a “bully” officially became our president. Even if you like Donald Trump, and think he will do a great job in office, and you are certainly entitled to that opinion, you cannot argue that he does not meet the definition of a bully. A “bully,” plain and simple, is “a person who uses strength or influence to harm or intimidate others. ” Yes, in other words, stuff like “grab them by the pussy” and the mocking of a disabled reporter are examples of bullying, there is no way around it.
Understandably, many of us are worried about what this means. We fear that “bullies are now ruling the playground,” and we are anxious about what message this will send to children. Growing up, I always thought that by the time I reached my 20s, what I call “junior high bullshit” would be long gone from my life. Sadly, I have learned that “junior high bullshit” exists everywhere, among people of all ages and levels of education.
However, this realization has also given me hope. I used to think that resisting a bully required a lot of skills, power, or authority, but, in fact, we can all resist bullies fairly easily. We may think of bullies as strong and powerful, and Donald Trump taking office seems to prove this point. However, bullies gain their strength and power from bystanders, just as Donald Trump will only gain power and influence if supported by Congress and American citizens. A bully can only have control if others let him, in other words, if those surrounding the bully remain silent or laugh along or say, “that’s no big deal.” If no one laughs at a bully’s taunts, he or she is no longer funny. If people tell a bully to stop making fun of another person, and reaffirm that the target of said bully is “really cool” or even, “their friend,” the bully does not succeed in hurting and isolating that person (or at least not as much as the person would have been hurt had no one said anything)- the bully does not achieve his or her goal.
Nothing illustrates this better than a story from- you guessed it- junior high. A girl in my group of friends was being a bully and her target was another friend of ours. When the bully received an invitation to this girl’s birthday party, she mocked it for being “babyish” and talked about how we all should not go. However, a few of my friends and I got together and said, “we are going to the party.” (This decision was not as simple as it sounds. We were not total saints- we each individually struggled with whether or not going to the party would make us “not cool.”) When the Saturday of the party came around, almost everyone who was invited showed up, except for the bully. We all enjoyed a fun night of games, cake, and laughter, while the bully sat home with nothing to do. This situation taught me that a bully has only as much power as others choose to give him or her. Without our support, the bully was powerless to ruin this birthday. She was no longer “cool” and “in charge, ” though she quite easily could have been had my friends and I given into our fears and made a different decision.
Trump’s ideas cannot thrive without support, or, at least, complicit silence by a large number of people. Already, we are weakening such ideas through events like the Women’s March in Washington DC, with counterparts taking place in Boston, New York, and other parts of the country, and with people making pledges to accompany neighbors who may feel particularly threatened by violence or ridicule in public. We are making the statement that disparagement of Muslims is “not OK,” that mocking disabled people is “not funny,” that joking about sexual assaulting women is not “super cool locker room talk.” However, these actions cannot stop after the inauguration hype dies down. We need to keep calling our representatives, keep protecting those who have been the target of violence, and keep donating our time and money to organizations whose funding may be in jeopardy. We need to do this even when doing it is no longer “fashionable” or “stylish” as it is quickly becoming on Facebook.
Trump is a bully, but it is up to us whether or not living under a Trump presidency means living in “ a culture of bullying.” We need to stop being bystanders in our everyday lives and refuse to participate in “junior high bullshit.” Don’t just refrain from making disparaging remarks about people – say something when you hear one- even if it doesn’t apply to you, it hurts someone else! Don’t exclude people for the sake of popularity- don’t be the person who doesn’t invite a classmate with autism to the party because he “acts weird,” or doesn’t invite the gay couple because that might be “controversial to some people” (all bullshit I’ve witnessed in my life). Don’t say no to a friendship with someone different from you because you are worried about how that will look to other people. Don’t laugh at a harmful joke just to impress the joke-teller and you don’t want to “ruin the fun.” When you do those things, you become the bully too. Just because people of a certain race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion go to your school or work in your office, does not mean they feel welcome. It does not mean sexism, racism, and homophobia are issues of the past.
Speaking from my personal experience as a bullied kid, I can say that it is the bystanders that hurt the most. I have long ago forgiven the bullies. They were just instigators, the pain they caused barely lingers. It is the people who laughed along at a bully’s taunts, the people who said “no, you can’t sit with us at lunch,” the people whom I thought were my friends but ditched me when they realized I wasn’t “cool,” who hurt me much more deeply. “You’re weird” or “you’re ugly” or even, “you should go kill yourself” were just one person’s words, they weren’t so bad. But it was the bystander’s laughs, rejections, and silence that made me feel like those words were true.
One final note- I do not think a person deserves to be labeled a “bully” indefinitely. I do believe that people who formerly engaged in bullying behavior, can reject their former ways and become the allies of those who experience bullying. I hope and pray that this can someday be said of Donald Trump. People accuse me of not “giving him a chance.” I am more than willing to “give him a chance,” but he needs to stop bullying and sincerely apologize to those he has hurt before I am going to stop resisting.
So, stand up, my friends, not just to Trump’s bullying, but to bullying behavior wherever you may see it.