Beware of the Bullied
© 1999 Michele Toomey, PhD

We are used to the warning that alerts us to the risk of angering a bully, but we seem caught unaware by the violent reactions of the bullied. Upon reflection, however, it is quite logical that the availability of guns levels the playing field, or should we be more accurate and say, the warring field.

In the past, the adage, "Boys will be boys" encompassed fist fights and verbal or physical beatings where the strongest or dirtiest fighter established his manhood by winning the fight. The loser was ridiculed and left to slink away in humiliation and defeat. Adults were told to let boys fight it out as part of the ritual of coming of age. We have a long tradition of legitimizing bullies and disdaining or neglecting the bullied. They are supposed to learn to handle the situation and not whine about it. Their manhood comes in "taking it" without a whimper.

But then there were guns. The element of surprise coupled with the deadly force of automatic weapons freed the bullied to become the bully. Now we take notice. They have deviated from their role which was to accept their lot, feel diminished, become alienated and keep it all inside, suffering in silence. Eventually they would grow from the experience and be better for having endured it. But, the bullied have turned the tables. If they are to be participants in the violence of the bullies and the bullied, they'd rather be the violators, not the violated. The bullied now use their anger and hurt to fuel rage and fantasies of revenge. They have arrived at the pitch of emotion that demands that others pay for what has been done to them. In exacting from others the price of fear, injury or even death, their own feelings of humiliation, alienation and hurt are resolved and their stature restored. Even if they kill themselves, the avenging bullied believe they will die as men who got even and proved their worth.

We actually deserve this outcome. It is the natural outgrowth of our tradition of proving masculinity through violence. If we want a different outcome we must be willing to change our tradition. Obviously, this is not an easy solution. We would rather punish the out of line boys or blame other things, and never change one thing of ours. The tradition is a national one. To really begin to bring about systemic change, we must change our American tradition of awarding status and proof of masculinity to bullies and to boys who endure bullies without a word.

What will it take to change our tradition to offset the violent change that the bullied have now begun? We must do some national soul searching and come together not in shock or grief or anger, but in determination to do our part and dare separate masculinity from violence. We watched the brutalization of young servicemen on television news having their chests repeatedly pierced by the prongs of their air force pins. We saw the bullies proving themselves as they caused pain and suffering and we saw the bullied proving themselves by standing passively and allowing the torture to occur without crying out or trying to stop it. We didn't cry out or try to stop it either. Not that anyone sanctioned the actual behavior, but the underlying tradition is what we sanction and therefore the practice continues behind closed doors. We must join forces and in one voice condemn our mythology underlying the belief that manhood and violence are one.

This will never happen, you may say, and you may be right. But if that's the case, then let's at least be honest about it and stop pretending we don't know the origins of the escalating violence among our male youth. We don't want them to go so far as to kill each other, that we can agree on, but we taught boys the glory of violence and now we wish the bullied wouldn't mess up the order by getting violent back. Hazing only works if those being hazed take it in silence.

If, by some chance, we could unite and refuse to be silent or to cultivate silence in the face of bullying, the counter-tradition that the violent bullied have already begun could be turned in a non-violent direction. If you are today's youth, you need to join together to confront the bullies, or, if they are too frightening to confront directly, then report them to the appropriate adults and ask for help in stopping the abusive actions. As we are well aware, the first counter tradition must come from the ranks of the bullies and the bullied. If peers are silent, nothing really meaningful can be changed. So, the tradition of "honor among thieves", translated "honor among thugs" must also be challenged. To believe that asking for help to stop violent abusive behavior is "squealing" is to sanction abuse. Hardly an honorable tradition.

In our non-violent counter-tradition revolution, therefore, the code of silence has to go, and we must dare to risk being ostracized initially for daring to speak out and breaking the code. If we join together, we will become the dominant group that we are proud to belong to and the ostracized will then be those who silently accept bullying. As Charles Grodin of MSNBC has suggested, even an anonymous reporting would make a significant difference in the wall of silence. If we are to make a change, therefore, it must start with breaking the code.

That is only the beginning, however, not the end. Without firm and skilled action that stops the bullying once it is made known, the momentum to speak out will quickly lose its steam. The courage and commitment that reporting bullying requires will take too high a toll if it is not effective. We won't have many chances to show that our intolerance for bullying prompts us to take whatever action is needed to stop it. Ineffective posturing and lip service to the countering of this tradition of violence will only dig us deeper into defeat, so if we embark on the path of intolerance of abusive behavior we must not waver or sell out. We must commit to it for the long haul. Tradition will not be changed easily, quickly, or smoothly.

It is important to note, therefore, that not only must we beware of the bullied, we must beware of pretending to stand up to the bullies. Actually, it would seem, the new millennium is finding us at the crossroads of our principles and at a face to face confrontation with ourselves.

We are not only on the brink of a new millennium, we are on the brink of selling ourselves out to violence. Rather than worrying and preparing for whether our computers will be snarled January 1, 2000, why aren't we worrying about the choice we are being forced to make regarding our belief that masculinity is linked to violence?

Ironically, as we stand on the threshold of a new century, the most important force to beware of is the one underlying our own mythology. Yes, beware of the bullies and the bullied, but first beware of the belief system that told them they were justified in their violence.

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