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Want to Stop the Bullies? Stop Acting Like One.

Does anyone else find it ironic that Dan Savage and Perez Hilton have become so vocal against bullying? Bullying is integral to their personae. If they were devoted to calling out hypocrisy in a kind of Dexter-style verbal assassination approach, they might have more credibility, but I question whether their motivations are even that honorable.

Whether providing sex advice or standing up for gay rights, Savage throws slurs against trans people, people he judges to be too heavy and others. Until spring 2009, he even used that mainstay of middle school culture, “retarded,” although by the request of a reader promised to start using “leotarded” in its place. Of course, Perez Hilton’s fame is the result of his daily attacks on celebrities, regardless of how much power or sanity they have.

I have enough of a sense of humor to appreciate that some people make money doing things like they do. But I have enough plain ole sense to question their motivations and whether their efforts deserve much support. To be clear, they aren’t the worst offenders. They’re not stalking particular college students and blogging about them or posting video of their private lives online. But the bullying inherent in the work they do to make considerable amounts of money has become insidious in our culture. They didn’t cause the problem, but they certainly support it, which makes it hard for me to believe they can be part of the solution without undermining it.

Of the two of them, I keep looking for reasons to respect Savage. Maybe that explains why I’ve spent so many words questioning his significance in my last post and this one. When he’s at his best, he ditches the naughty sex-columnist act and just gives straightforward observations with an unapologetic tone that is far more provocative than anything he’s ever said about cock-sucking. But then he makes a wisecrack, apparently to entertain Keith Olbermann, and softens the blow. It’s as if he doesn’t take himself seriously.

Honestly, I’ve been guilty of hiding behind a bully’s persona, too. It’s what I had to do to survive to find out that “it gets better.” What worries me is that so many of the adults Savage is encouraging to post videos were in the same position. We had to tough things out, and that made us tough. We put up walls, monitored our own behavior, and as we got older, we not only avoided showing signs of weakness, we got in a punch or two when we could. Queer kids today still have to do that, but we need to be careful that we don’t just advise them from a safe distance to keep toughing it out. Don’t we want them to have it better and easier than we did? I know I do.

Posting a video is not enough. It’s a generous act, but not everything. Not even close. And for a kid who’s truly isolated, it definitely won’t be enough. If we really want to make things better for kids, we need to model behavior that builds relationships. We need to be there for young people–literally, in person–when possible, and we need to use any power we have as adults to change the dysfunctional systems that perpetuate bullying.

Which means that we have to keep working on ourselves and the systems we live within (many of which involve kids, too). We’ve got to take care of ourselves and one another. Just because we’ve survived to adulthood doesn’t mean we’re thriving. We’ve been through what they’re going through. For some of us, we’re willing to talk but reaching out makes us feel too vulnerable. We’re motivated to help, but the act of helping takes us back to those experiences. There’s fear and anger in those memories. If you haven’t explored those feelings and are afraid to go there, get some help for yourself; you deserve it. If you’ve got a handle on those feelings, risk the discomfort of reaching out.

In the years I’ve been working with college students, I’ve learned that they want to talk or at least know you’re available in person. The know-it-all thing is a facade. They’ve got to let down their guard, but letting them know you care encourages them to do that. If you can be there for them, get there as soon as you can. There will be a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. Just be yourself: the grown-up who won’t ever forget what it’s like to be a kid. Who wants them to grow up to be that kind of grown-up, too.

6 Responses

  1. I totally agree with you. Thanks for sharing all your advice / comments and info.

    Best regards

  2. This is excellent; thank you so much for writing it.

  3. Good piece of writing, Jim. Bullying is the hallmark of an ugly soul, one that retains its identity only in an animal-like awareness of itself and the world. An identity that recognizes force and fear to be the inspiration for life.

  4. Really insightful reframing of the whole discussion! Thanks for making me think about these issues in more complicated ways.

  5. Every time I read this I like it more. Thank you.

  6. […] to violence, I’ve heard very few adults consider that kids become desensitized by watching the adults in their lives use bullying as pedagogy and/or avoid dealing with what actually affects kids. Despite so much recent news about […]

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