There’s a common misconception that teasing, insults, and other abuse is non-violent. At the very least, it is every bit as harmful as a physical attack.
Let’s look at physical violence. Physical violence can cause great harm – for instance, death. Not much can be more severe than death. But let’s put violence that causes death and lifelong physical injury aside for a minute (I’ll come back to this though).
Let’s look at what a physical attack causes. Let’s say a woman is beaten by her husband. She may physically heal, but that’s hardly the full extent of her wounds. Her other wounds – which won’t heal easily – may be depression, low self-esteem, inability to participate in intimate relationships, sleep disturbances, increased illness, heart disease, social withdrawal, inability to trust, and suicidal thoughts and/or attempts. These things aren’t because of the black eye or the broken arm (after all, you can get physically injured without suffering these other effects in sports or other activities). Rather, they are due to the emotional component of the abuse. The physical component, if any, of the abuse is merely one manifestation of the control and power exerted over the victim.
Now, don’t get me wrong: it’s wrong to physically harm your spouse. I don’t mean to minimize the physical aspect at all. I also recognize that some physical abuse causes life-long physical harm – but even abuse that doesn’t is harmful and potentially deadly. In addition to the physical aspect, there is an emotional aspect – and for most victims of physical abuse, the emotional element remains long after the physical wounds heal. And the emotional aspect can still exist even without physical harm.
Growing up, I was sexually molested. I was not physically harmed by this, but that doesn’t make the abuse any less awful. The awful part wasn’t the physical, it was the emotional. It was the feelings of humiliation, worthlessness, undesirability, shame, and powerlessness. Even later, it affected how I perceive and react to loving touch. It is why using a shared bathroom or locker room is nearly impossible for me every day (this has real health effects – try going through a day in society without using a shared bathroom!). But it’s the emotional aspect, the feelings about myself, that were most horrible.
Even worse for me than the sexual abuse was the emotional, non-sexualized, abuse I experienced every day. Once in a while, I also experienced physical abuse. I was burned, hit, choked, tripped, chased, punched and a few other things. But as horrible as those things were – and they were truly horrible, particularly when I thought, “they might actually kill me this time,” I wonder if I would have had an easier time if it was “just” this type of abuse.
It wasn’t just that type of abuse, that’s what was horrible. The above would have been bad enough. It was the constant barrage of hate. It was everything from being the last person picked for the team in PE (the last person picked for every team) to people pointing and laughing at me just for the hell of it. It was the sneaky manipulation by others to get me to say or do something humiliating or incriminating. It was the exclusion from the life others had. It was the constant reminders that I was different, whether that was because of my voice, my laugh, my perceived sexual orientation, my size, my awkwardness, my social naivety, my overloads, or whatever else they picked up on (I’m convinced there was no area of my personhood that was untouched).
That was bad enough. That could push someone to suicide.
Added to that abuse was the response by those who could have stopped it – the adults and the quiet bystanders. Either they approved of the action (awkwardly laughing at what the bullies did, or even just staying quiet and saying nothing) or they just plain responded with complete ineptness.
What was some of the advice? “Think about your friends.” I was supposed to remember that not everyone saw me the way the bullies did, because, for instance my friends liked me. Yes, that’s probably true, if I had friends. Of course admitting I didn’t would have increased the shame – one of the most powerful emotions – even more. Or “stand up for yourself.” That works fine with physical attack, assuming you can do so (I couldn’t), but it is both useless and even counterproductive when dealing with the covert bullying – the bullying designed to produce a reaction, that the outsider would see as Joel overreacting to something and proving he is either crazy, violent, or disruptive while the bullies did “minor” if any infractions. Other times, they asked me to talk it out with my bullies, to see if I misunderstood them. Sure, that works great when you have a beaten down powerless person with less verbal skills dealing with a cunning, verbally advanced bully – it’s not a fair negotiation in the least. Or I got to learn I was even worse than I thought when I was told it was my behavior that could change to stop the bullying. If only I didn’t laugh that way (I did change the way I laughed; it didn’t help), if only I tried asking the bullies to play with them, if only I told them that their statements make me feel unhappy, or whatever other stupid behavior modifications they wanted me to make.
What they didn’t do was equally telling: only rarely did the bully face punishment, but it was never severe or significant (in fact, I was the one nearly expelled and confined to a small room for a week after one incident – the bully was told he actually did good). After all, he only said words, it was Joel who overreacted. And, yes, the only time the bullying was dealt with was those times when I supposedly “overreacted” (hint: it’s not overreaction to react to the 10,000th time someone does something “minor”). It is sad that the only time some people will get heard about their bullying is when they react violently. The outcome of that is never good for anyone.
In other words, the people “in charge” reinforced what the bullies said. I was different and broken. And the bullies were just normal kids that maybe I misinterpreted or misunderstood. After all, bullies are masters of manipulation, appearing as innocent youths doing nothing unusual. Unless there is physical violence. But usually they didn’t leave marks.
Nobody was on my side. Nobody.
Sure, you might say my parents were. And, sure, they were. But they didn’t know what to do and couldn’t stop it. And by the time it got severe, I could no longer talk about it. It was shameful and humiliating to be bullied. Talking about it made it even worse.
So, nobody was on my side. To be on my side, you would have needed to actively help, not teach me how to deal with things, tell me I’m okay, or arrange mediation with the bully. No, if you wanted to be on my side, the only credible currency would have been direct actions by you that addressed the real problem: the evil actions and words of the bully. Not my reactions to them. Not my perceptions. Not my laugh or other traits. No, you needed to deal with the bully’s behavior while simultaneously affirming that I was a victim that didn’t deserve that, but who would see justice done. You lost the minute you started helping me “respond” to bullying. I needed justice, not social skills.
But there was no justice.
That is the problem. And that is what we need to change. The teasing and taunting and manipulation and humiliation is harmful, in most of the same ways physical violence is. It lasts for a lifetime for many people.
And that gets to the next point: it is deadly. Just like physical violence. Too many kids and adults end their lives way too soon because they are just sick of feeling the shame and humiliation, and seeing nobody on their side.
Let me tell these suicides, which people read about without a second glance in the newspaper. Let me tell you a few things.
It wasn’t the victim’s fault. It was the bully’s fault. No, the bully didn’t tie the rope, load the gun, or count out the pills. But the bully did mercilessly demean and take away the victim’s human worth. He did it so incredibly effectively that even the victim believed it.
Second, it’s not a victim’s weakness. I understand why too many people have killed themselves over constant teasing and taunting. I don’t understand why more haven’t – which is probably the bigger question. I see survivors of emotional abuse similar to how I see the one person who walks away with scrapes after the loaded airliner crashes into a fireball killing everyone else on the plane. Somehow, even with all the other good people on that plane dying, someone got through it alive. They probably didn’t do anything differently than the other people on the plane. The cruelties of fate let them survive while the others parished. Suicide is similar – I’m sadly less surprised that people abused kill themselves than I am surprised that some people who are abused don’t. But it’s not weakness that too many die anymore than it’s weakness that people die in the fires of a plane crash.
It’s a miracle that I survived. I don’t know why I survived but others didn’t. I know it isn’t my strength or character, because plenty of those who died had at least as much strength and character.
I want to pause for a second and say that while I used an example from my personal life, this affects others too – not just kids. Too many disabled adults, LGBT adults, homeless, women, and others face emotional abuse at the hands of a few bullies and tons of supposedly good people unwilling to lift a finger to stop the hate.
Finally: It can be stopped. Yes, it can be stopped. All it takes is for us to stop giving bullies the benefit of doubt, stop requiring physical harm before responding, stop standing by cowering in fear of becoming the next target. We have to recognize that what appears to be a mean, but minor, statement by someone may in fact be the tip of the iceberg – both for the victim and the perpetrator. The “relatively innocuous” statement of the bully may be the words that, added to the rest of the victim’s life experience being abused, are now too much for him to carry. And they may be the one statement you saw the bully make, while you didn’t see the thousands of others. So you can’t let “minor” statements slide. You have to respond.
You also have to show the victim you are on their side. If you’re in authority, use your power for good (start by not conveniently excusing yourself of power and claiming to be powerless when you’re not! Many of us have privilege and power in situations even when we’re not directly supervising someone). Second, even if you aren’t in authority, you can stand up. Yes, there’s risk there. But you are making a choice: either the victim’s life – and, yes, we’re talking life – is not as important to you as your own safety and comfort, or you think that the victim isn’t really being abused “too badly” (thus their bullies are doing nothing that is “really” wrong – think about the message this sends for a minute), or you can take a risk and do something – anything – to let the victim know you’re on their side.
I could tell you what a decent human being would do. But, from my personal experience, I know decent human beings – that are willing to actually act – are in very short supply. I do hope you will be one though. You just might save a life.