Is bullying inevitable? Or can kids learn how to make room for difference?

There’s this NBC Chicago post on Facebook about a kid who was bullied for having a My Little Pony lunch bag, for which the school’s response was to ban his lunch bag. The comments are a predictable mix of great (‘this is victim-blaming nonsense’) and awful (why are the parents letting their boy take a girl’s lunch bag to school?). And yes, I know, you’re not supposed to read internet comments. But it was interesting to see how the responses fell into two camps, which reveal two different assumptions about the world:

Assumption 1: bullying is inevitable, so the best thing you can do is teach kids how to avoid being targets. The role of teachers and parents is to help victims survive in a bully’s world.

Assumption 2: kids are capable of learning how to be decent to one another, so the best thing you can do is teach kids to respect other people. The role of teachers and parents is to protect all kids by helping bullies become better people in a world where good community matters.

I sure as hell know what world I’d rather leave behind to my children.

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So how do we deal with dehumanizing “encouragement”?

My take on the dehumanizing encouragement towards people who seen to be “less than us” in some way, seems to resonate with many folks who have been the targets of that kind of “encouragement”. It leaves me wondering, now what? What’s the best way to disrupt that stuff? For the ones who find themselves targeted in the moment? For those of us who are not the direct targets but who are present when it occurs?

In the case of the fat-phobic, supposedly-encouraging Facebook post, predictably, there are a whole lot of non-fat people who see absolutely nothing wrong, because the writer’s intentions are good. if you read the comments of the stories discussing this, there are all kinds of people who can’t be bothered with, say, the perspective of the one who was singled out in the first place, but instead go straight to defending the perceived intent of the one who wrote it. He was trying to be complimentary! Jeez, this is what you get for trying to encourage someone. Right, because what matters most here is that we not accidentally discount the feelings of the guy who did the harmful thing – as opposed to the one who was (accidentally?) actually harmed in the first place.

Eff that. 

But clearly, “good intentions” are the first line of defense when it’s pointed out that someone’s encouragement isn’t encouraging. So any response needs to be ready to deal with that, ready to hold onto the clear distinction that it’s not about what you meant, it’s about what you did. That feels important. But beyond this, I’m not sure I have any good ideas about how to effectively transform the situation, beyond simply stopping it. Although maybe stopping it is sufficient. Ideas? What would you say in the moment, as the target, as an observer?

“You disgust me” and “you inspire me” are two sides of the same coin

(Trigger warning: fat-phobia, ableism)

Maybe you’ve read this thing on Facebook:

image

And maybe you read the response from the guy in the photo. (If not, you totally should.)

So, I’m totally aware that I am not a person who has experienced being targeted by fat-phobia (add to that, I’m a dude, and there seems to be a major gender aspect to how fat-phobia plays out in general and in this article in particular). I feel privileged to have been able to participate in thoughtful conversations about this on Facebook and recognize that I’m more of an outside observer than if I were in the target group.

That said, I’ve been thinking about how closely related “you disgust me” and “you inspire me” are on the spectrum of “I don’t see you as fully human”.

Think about how disabled people are often marginalized by nondisabled folks (you disgust me!) until some nondisabled person makes the oh-so-generous leap to being ‘truly inspired’ by what that poor autistic person is able to accomplish despite being so obviously deficient.

Then we have the above post, which literally connects the language of ‘you disgust me’ to the language of ‘you inspire me’ — all in the service of some non-fat person making themselves feel good for not taking the shitty “normal” perspective on fat people. (See?? We were all supposed to be disgusted, but look – I’m inspired! You inspire me! In all of your deficiency.)

In either case, “you disgust me” and “you inspire me” both seem to reveal that the one expressing those sentiments does not view the recipient as fully equal, fully worthy. Which makes me sad, and more than a little angry, that folks like me can’t just let other folks be.