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No On 2: Counseled Out

I Was a Teenage Bully

I don't particularly want to write this, but I keep composing it in my head when I'm supposed to be sleeping, so here goes.

I am a physically small person. I was beaten up with ease by people bigger and stronger than me a few times and threatened by people bigger and stronger than me countless times.

More importantly, my dad died when I was nine. I got screwed. Most kids I knew had two living parents.

I was also, from 7th grade on, a kid with no money going to school with the richest kids in my city.

So I protected myself with the weapons I had--sarcasm and a quick wit.

I considered any use of these weapons to be justified. After all, I was a victim in life and not popular with girls. (At the time, I blamed them for not seeing the generous, faithful heart I concealed under a snarky, indifferently-groomed exterior.)

Many years later, I look back at some of my behavior during this time with shame. I bullied people. I thought I was the underdog for all the aformentioned reasons, and yet I had the power to make people laugh, and I often turned this against people who "deserved" it.

People were afraid of me. 

Many of the people I was mean to were far more privileged than I was, and they still are: when you come from wealth, you don't have to do much to stay comfortable in life, and your family usually won't let you fall too far.

But I was not justified in being mean to them. And, in fact, in that situation, despite their numerous societal advantages, I was the one with more power, and I was indiscriminate in its use.

I'm thinking of this because of something that happened on the internet this week. I'm not going to refer to it by name because I am afraid of having a social media mob summoned against me.

But, to be brief: someone wrote something very stupid and hurtful. And they did not respond graciously to being yelled at. And a mob was summoned, driving them into social media silence and quite possibly killing their publication.

Here's what stood out to me. The first is that the offender, in a private email that was shared with Twitter, asked why they were being attacked like an enemy when they were not the enemy.

I know that the conventional internet wisdom is that whenever someone offends you, it's your right to go in guns blazing and denounce them in the strongest terms possible, at which point they must grovel abjectly or be mobbed into silence.

But the offender's question resonates: is this how you would talk to a friend? 

When someone you know and like says something a little off, how do you approach them about it? With some compassion and empathy, or by denouncing them in the strongest terms possible? 

Perhaps you've never said something that hurt someone's feelings. But if you did, how did they let you know?  

I'm not suggesting not being vigilant about injustice. I'm suggesting perhaps approaching individuals who mean no harm but cause harm anyway with empathy and kindness before rage. In other words, talking to them flawed human being to flawed human being. Treating people, even ones who have said something stupid, like they are people. (Note: I'm not talking about trolls who pop up and say outrageous and/or threatening things in order to provoke and/or silence you. I'm talking about people who unintentionally hurt your feelings by saying something ignorant and hurtful.)

I know about the concept of tone policing. I don't, however, feel that anyone has a lifetime license to be unkind to people. I thought I had one in high school. I got screwed over, so people who had more than me deserved what they got from my anger.

But here's the thing: they were still human beings. They deserved kindness and empathy because of their humanity. And I feel bad about the times I was mean to them. If you feel that someone's identity means they do not deserve to be treated like a human being, I would like to encourage you to examine that point of view closely and see if it holds up to scrutiny.

A final note: no matter how you identify, if you have the ability to get hundreds or thousands of people to angrily denounce someone who offends you, then you are the one with more power in the situation. If you have more power than someone else and you use it to humiliate and silence them, then you are actually the bully. Trust me. I was a teenage bully.

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