When I was a kid, I got bullied a lot. Elementary school wasn’t too bad, but the bullying in junior high was relentless. There were days when I’d go to class and some kid would stand up and make fun of me for the whole hour. The teacher would sit at his desk and watch – it’s okay though. I gave them permission by laughing and going along with it, at least some of the time. And the students had permission from the teachers, who never tried to stop it from happening and occasionally joined in themselves. It wasn’t a fun time for me, though I hid it well.
Sometimes I’d get worked up enough to fight back. We’d have a little fist fight, after which everyone would leave me alone. Eventually, the bullying would start back up, and I’d retreat into my shell until I couldn’t take it anymore. Rinse and repeat. It’s a strange cycle for someone who generally came out on top, but I just couldn’t do it. It wasn’t me.
I dropped out of school in the tenth grade. I’ll never forget my last day. Most of my school life is a sort of washed-out blur, but the last day was interesting. My school required me to take a walk of shame. I had to visit each of my teachers and have them sign off on a paper with my final grade. I think mine said: F F F C F F. It was funny to me, even then, that someone would bother to give me an F when I’m dropping out. It was even funnier that I had somehow managed to swing a C.
I might have been leaving, but mentally, I had checked out a long time ago.
There was a girl in my high school math class I had sat next to a couple of times in junior high. She did a little of the bullying, which always bothered me, because I didn’t think it was in her heart. Somehow, that made it worse. Her attempts at being snide would come off as back-handed compliments. “I see you found some clothes that look good on you, finally.” But her friends were vicious, and she always joined in with them.
I can’t remember her name, but I remember her standing there when I got the signature from my math teacher. Someone asked if I was really dropping out. I’m sure I was gloating, almost beaming, that I was making my escape. I wasn’t even sure why I was doing it, because the bullying had stopped. We all grew out of it over the summer. Even so, I was done.
She looked at me with sad eyes and said, “I’m sorry.” To this day, it’s one of the sincerest apologies I’ve ever received. I told her thanks and got out of there as quickly as I could.
Even though I didn’t appreciate it at the time, that apology really meant a lot to me. And it meant more to me as the years went by. When I think back to when I was hurting the most, her apology colors it, takes the sting out of it. When I forgave them and took responsibility for the problems I had caused, it was easier because of her. I wish I was blameless, but I wasn’t. I acted out too.
I got interested in martial arts a few years later. Training helped me get over the shame I felt. Sparring and grappling, even in the gym, gave me practice standing up for myself. I even started visiting different martial art schools and sparring with their students. It’s a dangerous hobby – many people would rather hurt their opponent than feel like they lost to someone trained by another teacher. Martial arts let me feel like I had reinvented myself. I stopped feeling ashamed, because I didn’t feel like I was that person anymore, even though I am.
In martial arts, I ran into some of the same problems — the aspects of my personality that made standing up for myself hard when I was a kid came back to haunt me in the sparring ring. The thought of physically hurting someone made my skin crawl. I had an abundance of empathy — hurting someone was hurting myself. I didn’t come into my own as a weekend warrior until I accepted that fact and developed a style that none of my coaches would advocate: kicking people in the legs, gentle takedowns and throws that don’t cause injury, controlling people on the ground, and applying chokes. I always tried to hide behind my striking in a way that would only hurt people that charged into it, and even then, I was always sorry when it happened.
My strategy let me win without hurting people, and as I got better at it, I became more willing to spar people that didn’t care about my health or feelings, because I knew I could handle them without hurting them (it’s always hard to stop an equal who’s going hard without doing some damage).
When I was a kid, I never hurt animals (and still don’t directly). I walked around bugs. One time I burned a spider with a magnifying glass when I was in elementary school. I still regret it. As an adult, I went through a period where I was an ethical vegetarian. I still try to buy meat that’s raised and killed humanely.
I’m telling you all this about myself so that you understand how fucked up the next part is: despite my natural temperament against violence and the empathy I was born with, I still thought about shooting the place up. I thought about it a lot, and I wasn’t joking.
But carrying it out wasn’t in my nature. I knew how much it would hurt my family, and the families of the people who got shot. I didn’t even really want to shoot the bullies. Thinking about it made me feel terrible, because of my inborn character – a temperament not everyone shares. Despite what I went through, the positive life at home I had gave me the tools to endure and recover. Not everyone has that.
Unfortunately, being overweight, awkward, lisping, or vulnerable because of an aversion to violence aren’t the only reasons for peer abuse, even if they were my reasons. Kids get denounced and bullied over all sorts of things. Things like: being irrational, being cruel to animals, wearing their heart on their sleeve, or being impulsive and violent but too small to fight without a weapon…
That’s just how some people are. The world is full of sadists and sociopaths, most of who grow up to lead perfectly invisible and productive lives. My point is this: when you bully someone, you don’t know who you’re dealing with.
They might be the next shooter.
So why do kids bully one another? I think it’s because the behavior is exalted. It’s natural for people to enjoy seeing others denounced. They don’t burn you at the stake if you’re in the group pointing the finger. There’s probably some bit of evolutionary psychology that explains this impulse – an impulse stronger than cheap talk like, “Please don’t be mean.”
Going on a rampage with a gun isn’t the only way someone hell bent on revenge could do a lot of damage, but I’d argue that it’s a part of our culture. Many of my favorite movies are white male serial killer fantasies: Boondock Saints, Falling Down, Reservoir Dogs. I love action movies where the killing is justified: Rambo, Die Hard, Django Unchained. The bloodiest anti-hero comic book characters have huge fan bases: Deadpool, Punisher, Wolverine. I don’t think these movies made us violent. Other countries with less violence have the same movies. I think we make and watch these films because we identify with them.
Killing is entertaining to us with a little distance.
Even people who don’t like those movies still enjoy a good killing. Every time some maniac blows himself up or shoots up a school, I turn on the 24-hour news and watch the guy become an overnight sensation. True life crime stories and documentaries are extremely popular. The fastest way to become famous is to kill a bunch of people, and the more you get, the longer they remember your name.
Bonnie and Clyde, Jesse James, Al Capone…
And not just your name. People want to know who you are, why you did it, what you’re about, what you like and dislike, what kind of music you listen to, are you left or right of center, left or right handed. If we didn’t try to bring order to the world by advertising all these facts about the killer, they wouldn’t become famous, which for a lot of these guys is a big motivation.
So, what about the killer does matter?
The shooter gave up his future in a fit of rage and despair, and that’s really sad. His family will have been torn apart by what he did, and that’s sad too.
Rampage killings of all kinds, school shootings included, aren’t anomalies; they are a symptom of the culture we’ve built. We exalt bullies. We don’t help outcast kids have happy lives by giving them the attention, training, and therapy they need. We give the worst of our killers fifteen minutes of fame. We love watching, so long as we aren’t watching someone we know. There might be a perfect antidote that congress could give us — some combination of mental health screening, security, and gun control that would make it impossible for one citizen to turn a gun on another while maintaining our privacy and civil liberties, but I don’t know what that is or how to do it.
And even if it did work, some people would still find a way to cause mayhem and destruction.
There are things we can do, right now, without waiting on legislation. The first and easiest is to stop giving fame to shooters. Don’t share their name. Don’t share their picture. Don’t pass out their manifesto. Don’t parade them around with a televised trial. Bury them. Let them suffer the consequences of their actions in obscurity. One day soon, we can boycott media outlets that publish the killer’s name.
We can step in to help kids having difficult childhoods and stop the random bullied sadist from taking out his frustrations with an AR. See something / say something shouldn’t just be about pipe bombs, pressure cookers, and hand grenades. For some reason, we like to denounce kids who don’t fit the mold. We can’t help the victims of peer abuse unless outsiders take upon themselves to see them, help them escape, and give them the skills, counselling, medicine, and the mental or physical protection they need to thrive.
Bullies can be treated with more care too. Just because a kid is being mean to another kid, doesn’t mean he isn’t suffering. He might need help, and the reason he needs help might not be obvious.
An awful lot of what passes between people, kids especially, are just unexamined reactions. Most bullies and enablers are good people in any other setting but indulge in these very human drives when something triggers them. Kids that are outcast don’t want to stay that way, no matter what they tell you. If they have a weakness, mental or physical, due to some deficiency in their lives, they can be taken out of the bad situations, helped, and trained. If the kid was perfectly healthy and got picked out at random, then definitely resolve the situation or get him or her out of it.
Most of us don’t live in an honor culture where you give a kid a stick and tell him to whip ass or die trying. When our kids lose an unfair fist fight, we don’t go duel the other kids’ parents. If a bullied kid can’t resolve the problem on his own, he needs help. Letting the situation run until he becomes desperate or crazy isn’t helpful.
I don’t know if all my ideas are right, but what I do know is that the problems of bullying and rampage killing aren’t problems that can be fixed by slapping down a bandage. We need greater empathy, more active and interested helpers, understanding, and less voyeurism.
No neglect for bullies.
No shame for victims.
No fame for shooters.