My cousin Amy writes an excellent blog, and her most recent entry was about the use of the word “retard,” which, she argues (correctly), should be considered as offensive as other appellations used not to describe but to hurt people. This made me think about the bullying I was subjected to as a public school student. I was short, relatively smart, and Jewish, and in my hometown, these were all unacceptable. I was in high school in the 80s, and it was quite fashionable to toss around the epithet “fag.” I walked through the corridors of my high school to a chorus of “Fag. Jew. HeBREWWWWW” (the latter I think arising from a history unit on “the Hebrews”). One time I got “A-rab” (the kind with a long A), which actually made me smile with appreciation at a new achievement in the realm of ignorance. With me, it never extended to physical violence (though there were regular fights among students, some drawing blood, all arousing great delight in the student body), I’m guessing because I was so small that the bullies knew they would get in serious trouble for causing me actual bodily harm, which would have been exceedingly easy to do. I’ll add that I was once called “fag” while I was holding hands with a girlfriend, which shows that that word was used only as an attempt to cause emotional distress, not as an actual description of sexual behavior. Incidentally: total number of out homosexuals in my grade at the time: 0. Total number of African American students in my grade: 0. Total number of Jews: 6 (out of 182). And, in case it is relevant, total number of Arabs: 0.
This made me think about something. I’ve met plenty of people who say that they were a total nerd as a kid (that’s me, by the way, and it persists to this day), or that they never did any work, or that they were kind of a jerk, or that they felt lost. But I’ve never heard anyone say, “I was a bully in high school.” I guess there are three possibilities, the first being that I never come across people who were bullies in high school. Second possibility: that nobody wants to admit to having been a bully (or didn’t consider their behavior to be bullying).
The third, possibly related to the first, is that those bullies still are bullies, and we continue to encounter them today. Perhaps these are the people who infuriate us on telephone help lines (when we finally get to a human), the people who deny our claims at the health insurance company, the people who insist that the sudden non-functioning of our faucet has nothing to do with the fact that they were just in our bathroom unclogging our drain and will cost $150 in labor. In the book The Kite Runner (spoiler alert), the character who is a bully in high school becomes a Taliban executioner, and finds great fulfillment in his career.
I don’t know how universal it is for some adolescents (and younger kids, too) to try to wound their peers with injurious words and fists. Does this happen in New Guinea? Norway? Peru? Tanzania? Canada? And then, is it something we outgrow? Maybe social sectors are carved out early in life, and that somehow helps the species to thrive. But perhaps our modern society has come up with a brilliant defense against the thriving of the biggest jerks, since, at least in my experience, the bullies from way back when have not exactly risen to the top of society’s rungs, but maybe that’s just because I come from a small town.
I am not sure if bullying is a way to get attention (the negative attention it ends up garnering could hardly be much of a payoff, but maybe it is better than no attention), a way to feel superior to one’s peers, or if we are just innately a nasty species. And I’m sure that there are many examples of adult bullying that become so subtle that they begin to be called “business acumen” rather than bullying (would Gordon Gekko have been a bully in 11th grade?). Perhaps bullies learn extremely valuable skills that make them millions in the end. In that case, it would be fascinating to hear from these former bullies. Did the CEO of Morgan Stanley used to walk down the halls in high school yelling “faggot” at the pimply kids? I can’t imagine that Bill Gates ever yelled “HeBREWWWWWWWWWW” at anyone, but maybe the prevalence of bullies leads to the existence of Gatesian nerds who create great wealth for the world thanks to their having been bullied, and so society finds its balance in the end.