How we talk about bullying matters and so I want to comment about something I keep seeing on facebook. It’s a status update people are copying-pasting because they are “against bullying.” The meme goes like this:
“That girl you called a slut in class today? She’s a virgin. The “gay boy” you punched in the hall today? He committed suicide a few minutes ago. The boy you called poor? He has to work every night to support his family. The girl you pushed down the other day? She’s already being abused at home. That girl you called fat? She’s starving herself. The old man you made fun of because of the ugly scars? He fought for our country. The boy you made fun of for crying? His mother is dying. You think you know them. Guess what? You don’t!
Re-post if you are against bullying”
Though of course people mean the best when posting it, the meme itself reinforces bad ideas. Take the first two sentences. Together they imply that the problem with calling a person a slut is that the person might not actually be a slut. The person might be a virgin. It reinforces that “virgin” is the virtuous situation. Would that the meme was: “That girl you called a slut today in class? She enjoys sex. So what?” or “what’s her sex life got to do with you?”
Moving on. Why is “gay boy” in quotes? Does that imply that we don’t know his sexual orientation or does it imply that he’s not really gay? A stronger line would have been “The boy you teased because you believe him to be gay and disapprove? Tough luck, it doesn’t matter if you approve or not, you’ve got to behave decently towards all other people.”
The problem with the suicide line is that bullying can be devastating even for those who do not commit suicide. Is bullying somehow okay if the person has the courage and strength not to kill themselves? Bullying is wrong because the person might be weaker (or stronger) than you thought?
The meme could have said, “the boy whose poor – yes, his family’s on welfare, what’s it to you?” but instead the line had to be followed up by something reinforcing the virtue of paid employment. He works every night to support his family.
Implied by the meme being fat is okay, as long as one is trying to starve oneself. Don’t tease her, she’s already internalized the “truth” that her body is wrong and is trying her best to fix it. Of course there’s two possibilities here. The girl could genuinely have too high a body-mass-index and be unhealthy, but that’s between her and her doctor to do something about, not anyone else. Or the the girl could simply fail to live up to the unrealistic expectations we put on women. Either way, the meme seems to suggest that whether or not the girl should be teased lies in the girl’s secret starving herself and not in the fact that well behaved people don’t take an interest in others weight.
Is there any reason a person could have scars or be crying that does justify them being teased? Does a person’s mother have to be dying to justify crying? Do we get to tease the person whose scars are self-inflicted or the boy who is crying over a television show with a sad ending? Are there gender stereotypes being reinforced in the idea that it is a boy being teased for crying, rather than a girl?
The premise of the status update is that teasing is wrong because we don’t know the whole story. My eight year old argues “does that mean if you do know the whole story you can tease someone? No!”
Of course a person could say, we never know the whole story, so we never have permission to tease. That’s a lousy reason to not bully. It implies we could if it weren’t for a technicality – the possibility we might wrong, the person might not fall into the category we think they do, or because they might be in too much pain to handle it.
The meme reinforces certain concepts of right and wrong. At the same time it rejects bullying, it encourages silent judgement. We can do better than that.