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Some thoughts on bullies and their targets
January 24, 2013 - Betsy Bethel
Not long ago, Assistant City Editor Heather Ziegler railed against practical jokes — and jokesters — in a blog on this website.
"Perhaps my distain for such amusement," Heather wrote, "stems from being the butt of some of these pranks over the years. Anyone who has been the target of such events remembers them forever — just ask them. And usually the purveyors of these jokes pick on someone more timid or different than themselves. I guess I see it as the ultimate step in bullying."
Practical jokes are indeed acts of bullying. Someone or several someones choose a target for whatever reason and set out to publicly humiliate that person. The target is usually someone physically weaker, younger and/or somehow different from the attackers — smarter, heavier, thinner, from a different background, socially awkward, less popular — or sometimes more popular and therefore a threat to the attacker who feels the misguided responsibility to "bring him or her down a peg."
These attitudes are born in insecurity. Another friend in the newspaper industry, Wetzel Chronicle Editor Amy Westfall Witschey, posted on her Facebook profile yesterday (and I reposted it on mine): "I wonder if people who constantly belittle others know that they aren't to be revered, but pitied. We all know their comments don't mean they're smarter, just more insecure, than others."
We all know people who do this. It starts in elementary school. A small group of parents and I were discussing bullying the other night and how to help our children — most of whom are elementary age or younger — combat it. We concluded that bullying never goes away — it happens throughout school, in the workplace, in community groups, in neighborhoods, even at church. We must teach our children how to deal with bullies just as we teach them proper grammar and what the 50 state capitals are. Our group members talked about the importance of imparting to our children values based on the biblical commandment to love one another and the Golden Rule — to treat others as you'd like to be treated. I try to remind my 6-year-old daughter Emma of the Golden Rule every day before school. It's how I was raised and I feel you can't go wrong living that way.
But no matter how kind you are, you can still end up a target. "Nice" people often do. Nobody likes to be picked on or be the butt of a practical joke. I have been there. At a Christian camp once, an older boy played an elaborate joke in which he got me alone (or so I thought) and pretended he was going to kiss me but instead blew a raspberry in my face — and just then the bushes erupted in laughter as his buddies emerged. Heather is right. You never forget that kind of humiliation.
So in addition to teaching our kids to treat others with respect and kindness, we also have to teach them to stick up for themselves and others. Our kids need to feel they are loved and deserve to be treated with respect. They need to know deep down that they have value in our eyes — and, more importantly, in God's — and that value cannot be stripped away by any prank, lie, social shunning or humiliation. If our kids truly believe that, they will, in effect, have an invisible shield to protect them from bullies. They may become a target, but the barb of the joke will bounce right off instead sinking into their psyches. They also will most likely not become bullies themselves because they will feel no need to put others down in order to feel superior.
Bullies come in all shapes and sizes, genders, ages and ranks in society. They love to wreak havoc at the expense of others so they feel important. Look at Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the guy who supposedly conned Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o into believing he loved a girl he'd never met. But that wasn't enough, he then allegedly went so far as to trick Te'o and others into mourning for this girl after he faked her death. She never existed. Tuiasosopo got no financial gain out of this ruse. He probably got a colossal power trip at the expense of Te'o (if you believe Te'o was duped and not in on it, which he continues to maintain). The FBI says no crime was committed, but imagine if it had happened to you. How humiliated would you be? And angry? I wonder about Te'o's gullibility and willingness to fall for someone he's never met, but stranger things have happened. Messing with someone's emotions like that might not be against the law, but it's wrong and I hope Tuiasosopo feels some remorse.
Is there someone in your life who constantly puts others down, plays mean-spirited jokes, spreads gossip, incessantly pokes "fun" or ridicules you, your kids or others? Bullies often have a false sense of belonging because people are often too timid or lazy to do anything about them. Once they get one laugh, they step up their efforts. Let's stop laughing. Let's not be afraid to risk our own popularity, risk becoming a target ourselves. And let's teach our kids to do the same. And then, let's hold each other and our society's institutions accountable for doling out effective consequences.
Bullies might always exist. But maybe their number and the severity of their impact can be reduced. Maybe, for instance, if the kids who were involved in and/or witnessed the alleged rape in Steubenville had been taught to respect themselves and others, this nightmare for the victim, these kids, their school and their city could have been avoided.
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