Musings from George

Bullying, sports, and middle school
March 26, 2014, 6:45 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

Age brings perspective, and occasionally some degree of understanding. In high school we read The Lord of the Flies by William Goldman, which was named by TIME Magazine (remember when we read magazines?) as one of the hundred best English novels of the last century. I recognized some of our middle school behaviors, where bullying cascaded down through the classes, and where the newly re-formed social structures (mixing kids from three different elementary schools) gave everyone reasons and excuses for bad behavior. New cliques punished “outsiders”, eighth-grade boys who had been bullied extracted their revenge from a new crop of seventh-graders, and the onslaught of hormones generated the first real competition for prized goods (between girls and for girls). I have to admit that just about everyone was involved to a varying degree as social groups dissolved and reformed. Between food fights, fist fights, and Kill the Guy with the Ball there were many opportunities to hurt someone with words or with blows.

High school sports have their own particular form of bullying, a lesser version of the hazing that occurs in the military. Nominally it results from the cascading of duties (who has to put the goals in, or pull the lane lines) but realistically it includes physical and mental abuse. The spectacular cases that make the news headlines (a drum major in the south, a football player in the midwest) are not hard to understand — just a much more vicious extension of the rabbit punches or bruises that we used to give and get.

College brings a new degree of autonomy much closer to the Lord of the Flies than our relatively safe high school. A student can finally get access to all the alcohol they want without fear of parental retribution. No one is going to note, nor intervene, when things are going terribly awry. The inmates are truly running the prison (or dormitory, or fraternity). This is really where testosterone drives a constant fight between the sexes, and where ignorance enables bad behavior. 

So why do people become bullies, or stop being bullies? I have encountered bullies in the workplace who clearly wanted revenge for years of abuse — they were finally in a position of power, and enjoyed making people dance to their chosen tune. I have encountered misanthropes, who just enjoy watching others suffer. There isn’t a sense of balancing a score card as much as enjoying power and being on the other side. This is the police officer who rapes and murders; the boss who intimidates and terrifies; the bureaucrat who could help, but won’t. The psychological damage that they experienced as a child (for being fat, for not being athletic, for being “inappropriately” feminine or masculine) returns as a desire to hurt people. Any person, all people.

Do we grow up? Yes. I have been to high school reunions, where the bullies and the bullied are all happily successful and can look past their childhood. I can say that the kids we hazed in high school have grown into wonderful human beings who could break my neck, but instead shake my hand. I can say that in the working world we don’t have to put up with the dysfunctional tyrants, and can choose who we work with (okay, within reason — those in the military or the government have been dealt a tougher hand).

A high-ranking military official was recently given a light sentence for a long-running affair with a subordinate. These are the border-line cases of bullying where I really think rules should apply, and that abuse from a position of power needs to be considered a terrible crossing of the line. The Catholic church has likewise spent too many decades hiding abusers rather than punishing and isolating them, and the new change at the top is welcome news to everyone who has ever known a victim of sexual abuse (I’m going to guess more than half of us know someone well who has been abused). So let’s all commit to calling out the bullies, to standing up for the bullied, and for prosecuting those in power who take advantage of their position to hurt people … in any way, shape, or form.



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