Joel Bain

Storyteller. Author. Editor.

Read well & respond often.

Bullying: Our Celebrated National Pastime

I once was a teenager who held an absolute hatred for all other teenagers outside of my family. Though I was not one prone to showing it, it was something that lived within me. For whatever reason, I had adopted a mindset that the worst thing you could do when you were angry with someone was for you to show them by acting that anger out. Admittedly even to this day, it is something I work to overcome, but it is something I developed early on as a "coping mechanism" in the face of bullying or taunting from my peers. The worst bullying I received was when I was a youngster playing ice hockey on a house league team. I always believed if I didn't show a reaction or tried to laugh it off, I could deceive them into thinking their words didn't affect me and that they would instead find another victim. I'm familiar with the most of the common names that teenage boys like to launch at each other, such as "faggot," "dipshit," "dickwad," "homo," "gay," etc. Even today, I am very uncomfortable with people using such words against other people, particularly homosexual slurs since they seek to chip away at a young boy's sense of masculinity. Bullies try to attribute a stereotypical feminine trait to the boy and this is engrained in him as being undesirable. It also marginalizes a part of our society who are in fact homosexual as being undesirable. I don't believe it's possible to use these words without as a byproduct condemning homosexuality as an inferior lifestyle. I suspect that many use these words without realizing what they are doing, but this is what results from their repeated use.

Bullying is something that has been around since the beginning of time. Individuals have been trying to elevate themselves in the minds of others at the expense of another person's reputation or standing in society. Many seem entirely mystified why bullying is so prevalent in our schools, especially since such a significant effort is being made to combat it in these centers of learning. The strange thing is that while I don't want to believe bullying should be something that we consider a necessary fact of life for youngsters growing up, I can't help wondering if in the present state of society, we should accept it for the time being until we get serious about combating bullying in all forms.

Hear me out! We as a society find bullying among our youth to be among the most horrific and it is almost universally condemned, but what is ironic is that we accept adult forms of bullying as being commonplace and a necessary part of life. We see this most clearly with those are famous, whether they are entertainment stars or politicians. Both people struggle with a constant battle to maintain relevancy in society. For some entertainers, they help their cause by outdoing each other with outlandish stunts that top the previously most shocking thing we have ever seen. For others, it involves attacking competitors on the tabloid scene. While most celebrities would tell you they abhor the media spotlight, they must also acknowledge that they derive some benefit from it, even if they sacrifice their privacy as a result. I should note we also see bullying manifest in professional sports, but I will touch on that later.

 American President Barack Obama being slagged for allegedly being a Muslim, Communist, Fascist, and Peace-loving Hippie all in one attack ad

American President Barack Obama being slagged for allegedly being a Muslim, Communist, Fascist, and Peace-loving Hippie all in one attack ad

Where we see bullying as most profoundly acceptable is in the political arena. Politics have often been described as a blood sport, but this merely neutralizes the offensive nature of politics and seeks to make its savagery normalized. I think most recently to the 2008 American Presidential election. Campaign workers of both sides worked tirelessly to find dirt on their opponent. The goal: mercilessly slag and dishonor him or her before the television cameras. Politicians were demonized for whom they associated with whether it was their pastor or their advisor. Endlessly, each side attacked each other, seeking to bring the other down, while simultaneously elevating themselves. I get it, politics is a competition for the support of the people, but must democracy be this way? What sort of messages do we send to our children if we cheer an attack on our political opponent that maligns him and his family?

Schoolyard bullying often seems much more innocent than the things we read in the papers or online during a political campaign. And granted, while schoolyard bullying targets children when they are in a vulnerable stage of their life, the fact that a politician is a grown adult doesn't in my mind validate one's right to demean, humiliate, or embarrass their opponent.

Like most other people, I'm saddened whenever I hear about another teenager has committed suicide as a result of the endless taunting and bullying by his peers. Unfortunately all too recently, we see a victim being tormented for his or her sexual orientation or alleged sexual orientation. For a teenage to lose all hope and feel as though there is no way he or she can survive another day of his or her humiliation, it breaks my heart. I volunteered for six years as a youth leader and mentor and I've heard the stories and sad tales of kids bullied far worse than me. Luckily for me though, a male role model stepped into my life when I needed him the most. He pulled me out of the hole I had dug myself into.

While I was fortunate to have someone invest themselves in me, not all kids are so lucky. Neither does the world around these kids give them much hope that it gets better, especially when one of the biggest anti-bullying advocates right now is himself a bully to others. Make no mistake, former Republican presidential primary candidate Rick Santorum would never receive my vote in an American election, but even if I disagree with his policy choices or views, I think it is unfathomable that one of the key founders of the "It Gets Better" anti-gay bullying movement, Dan Savage, would embark on a smear campaign against Rick Santorum. Savage called upon his column readers to create a neologism for Santorum's last name; the winner of which he chose as, "the frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex."

 Dan Savage

Dan Savage

The story goes that Dan Savage, the openly gay sex advice columnist who writes the famous syndicated "Savage Love" column, challenged his readers to respond to Rick Santorum who had stated his opposition to gay marriage in the United States. Savage created a contest to devise the most lurid artificial definition for "santorum." Rick Santorum is a Republican, so it wasn't exactly surprising he didn't endorse homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle. According to Santorum, the United States constitution doesn't provide for a right to privacy, particularly in sexual acts. He said those who claim a right to privacy thereby claim by proxy a right to bigamy, polygamy, incest, or adultery. He continued by saying he views homosexual relationships as "antithetical" to healthy strong families. Suffice to say, Santorum doesn't agree with homosexual lifestyles and is against legitimizing them through giving gays and lesbians a right to marry.

 Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum

In response, Dan Savage ended up choosing the previously mentioned definition and sparked a Google-bombing campaign to have the winning definition show up as the first Google search engine result for a "Rick Santorum" search. If you search it now, you will find a website designed to be a thorn in the side of Santorum's political aspirations with the definition. Savage's hatred for Santorum didn't stop here. He continued to say on Bill Maher's Real Time on HBO that he wished that "[Republicans] were all fucking dead." He later retracted, saying he had made the mistake of drinking wine before coming on the show, but he continued in the same segment by saying that sometimes he thinks about "fucking the shit out of Rick Santorum……he needs it...Like, let’s bone that Santorum boy," for which he made no apologies. Now Savage defenders would say I missed the context of his comments, but even then, I believe the context makes it even worse. Savage was responding to comedian Marc Maron, who said he hopes the husband of former Republican presidential primary candidate Michelle Bachmann, who has had his sexuality questioned in the press, "takes all that rage that comes from repression and denial into the bedroom with her…and I hope he fucks her angrily because that’s how I would." Savage's comments followed this statement, seemingly trying to defuse any notion that maybe Maron's comments could be construed as sexist by making an equally offensive statement about a male politician.

I understand how hurtful and offensive the Republican anti-gay positions are towards the LGBTQ+ community, who still are seeking nationwide legalization of gay marriage in America. Here in Canada, it is legal across the country and it is viewed as a symbol of pride for many Canadians, since in the mind of many Canadians, it shows how open-minded we as a Canadian society are. Yet, I can't remember the last time we ever told our kids that the best way to respond to a bully was to bully him back and teach him a lesson for crossing you in the first place. We can still condemn the views of Santorum and other Republicans without resorting to bullying! What type of message do we send our kids when tactics like Dan Savage's are not condemned, but instead replayed on the news cycle as funny and amusing? If a woman against pornography had openly condemned Hugh Hefner and his Playboy enterprise, and Hefner responded by saying that sometimes he thought about "fucking the shit of her...because she needs it," I would hope Hefner would be routinely condemned by not only media but by society for being offensive and sexist, and in my opinion, for appearing to advocate sexual violence against women. But here with Dan Savage, since he is a gay man, who as a result of his sexuality has been persecuted and marginalized by society, he is free from condemnation. It would seem that we legitimize this bullying as if it were a perverse bastardization of affirmative action.

How as a society do we expect our children to ever move beyond bullying each other, if in this case the co-founder of the "It Gets Better" movement unashamedly makes offensive and vulgar sexual remarks about his opponent? It sounds just as offensive as one teenage girl cover another teenage girl's Facebook wall with the word "SLUT" or "WHORE." We are anti-cyberbullying, but Savage gets a free pass in this case? The fact that Savage started the "It Gets Better" campaign with his husband, Terry Miller, is as about as ironic as the idea of Hugh Hefner hypothetically leading a campaign against the sexualization of women.

If America is going to open its mind toward gay marriage, I can't believe that it will come through seeking to mock and humiliating opponents of gay marriage. The Civil Rights movement for African-Americans was not based on this, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would've never advocated such a policy. The struggles are not identical and they are based on different issues, but the notion that through fear you can create respect for the LGBTQ+ community is non-sensical. I appreciate that many in the LGBTQ+ community are tired of fighting for their rights, but the minds of free people are not changed easily. Even with the success of the Civil Rights movement, some minds have yet to be changed about the equality of a black man with a white man.

With society's fascination with celebrities, our teenagers are reminded almost daily that bullying is commonplace in adult life by the way we caricature the celebrities we loathe and hate. Female celebrities are cut down for being too fat, too slim, and are endlessly judged by their figure and their sense of style. This is hardly any different from what occurs in the hallways of our high schools, yet there is no condemnation of such behavior in the media. Few male entertainment celebrities experience the same level of humiliation and degradation that female stars do, but in the arena of sports, it is comparable. Tim Tebow was viewed as a polarizing figure, when in reality, he has done little but be open about the role of faith in his life. LeBron James was among the most hated men in sports for the way others perceived him to have snubbed the Cleveland Cavaliers for his new team, the Miami Heat. Among the vilest things that one can read anywhere is on Twitter, particularly about sports stars. Most of the tweets are very unintelligent and overwhelmed with vulgar, disrespectful comments that deny the humanity of the athlete himself. And yet again, we hear little condemnation for this sort of behavior as a society. Trash-talking in sports only reinforces the notion that bullying is an acceptable form of adult behavior among professional athletes. As a sports fan, I can appreciate the role of trash-talking by an athlete to get another athlete's mind off the game, but the danger is that many of our young kids don't appear to differentiate between what is acceptable in a sporting event and what is acceptable in life. Should there be a difference? Probably not, but as a society, we seem to say there should be.

Is it any wonder that our children are tone-deaf to our repeated efforts to educate them about the dangers of bullying? In our media-saturated society, we see socially acceptable forms of bullying throughout society, whether it be in politics, political activism, entertainment, or sports.

Since we are so quiet on attacking the bullying that is pervasive throughout our adult society, it would seem that maybe the best thing for our kids is to learn how to stand tall and strong against bullies from a young age. In which case, maybe the effort of anti-bullying education should be refocused on giving our children valuable lifelong tools for dealing with bullies and accepting them as a fact of life, rather than trying to tell our kids that bullying shouldn't exist? How often do we have conversations with our children about specific tools they can use when they are being bullied?

Our children need to know we have their backs when someone else attempts to tear them down. For me, the difference was a role model investing himself in me and showing me my life mattered. Bullies often convinced kids they are worthless blobs of human flesh. If you don't believe your life matters, why should you believe it will get better? Truthfully, I wish the kids I've worked with never had to endure the pain and suffering that results from being victimized, humiliated, and mocked by bullies, but I can't pretend I am very surprised when our most vulnerable generation doesn't listen to what we are telling them. We do the opposite. Do as I say, not as I do.