Monday, August 18, 2014

Beware of Wishing for What You Deserve

I'd seen this meme before, but today when someone passed it along I figured out how to say what is wrong with it.

That girl you called a slut may not be a virgin; she may in fact sleep around quite a lot.  But that doesn't entitle you to bully her.  The pregnant girl may not have been raped; she may in fact be a "slut."  But that doesn't entitle you to bully her.  That boy you called lame may not have to work hard every night to support his family.  But that doesn't entitle you to bully him.  That girl you pushed down may not be getting abused at home, but that doesn't entitle you to push her down.  That girl you called fat may not be starving herself; she may be binging on Hostess Twinkies every night.  But that doesn't entitle you to bully her.  That scarred old man may never have worn a uniform; maybe he got his scars in a fight in a bar over some trivial squabble he was too drunk to remember afterward.  But that doesn't entitle you to bully him.  The crying boy's mother may be perfectly healthy; he may be crying because he didn't get the new Xbox he wanted.  But that doesn't entitle you to bully him.

Implicit in this meme is the suggestion that it's only bad to bully people who don't deserve it, and that it's okay to bully people who do.  Who gets to decide who deserves it?  Insofar as I'm right about this, whoever composed this meme is not really against bullying: they just don't want the 'wrong people' to be bullied.

For example, I found this in a book* by a supposed expert on bullying, telling how to prevent it.  Here's one of the author's supposed successful cases:
Claire had very long hair and a low fringe.  No-one could see her face.  All the other girls wore headbands and called her ‘shaggy-dog.’  The moment she wore a headband and had her fringe cut, the teasing stopped [176].
I'll admit that making such a change may be an easy way to stop oneself from being bullied.  But it's hard to imagine a more classic example of blaming the victim, while leaving the bullies free to police others. Bullies may try to hide behind the bigotry of the communities they live in, justifying their behavior by claiming that their victims deserve it.  Just being different in some trivial way is seen many people, including adults, as a punishable offense.  The aim of the meme I'm dissecting is to try to get rid of difference, to persuade bullies to see the sameness in people they might pick on.  (I'm probably being too generous, though: the meme's last sentence shows that it isn't really directed at bullies, but at people who are "against bullying" -- and aims to bully them into re-posting it.)  That, from everything else I've read on the subject, completely misunderstands the psychology of bullies.

Here's one of the same author's recommendations:
Get fit:  Many targets look weak and wimpy.  Don’t spend your free time in a library or hidden inside a computer.  You need to play outdoors, exercise, go to the gym, play sport or dance.  Even walking for 20 minutes five times a week makes a difference.  Then you can gesticulate, duck, run quickly or protect yourself physically [217].
Sure, exercise is good and important.  But as one who spent his free time in libraries as much as possible as a kid, and still does, I object to the implication here that people should deal with bullying by appeasing the bullies, adopting their supposed values, and becoming like them.  The key words here might be "look weak and wimpy"; bullies pick on people they think are safe targets.  And you can't always get away from bullies by running or ducking, especially if they gang up on you.  Again, this recommendation blames the victim and justifies the bully.  So what if a person looks "weak and wimpy"?  That doesn't entitle anyone to bully them.

Even many people who'd never think of picking on a child seem to think there are people who deserve to be picked on.  Fat-shaming is a very popular pastime among adults of all political persuasions, for example; so is shaming the old, or the sexually active, or the insufficiently gender-compliant.  (Many people also seem to think it's okay to post bigoted stuff on the internet, because they aren't doing it face to face.)  They might indignantly and self-righteously denounce those who bully one group, but they're glad to find people they think it's all right to persecute.  (Even children aren't really safe.  In Alfie Kohn's newest book, he shows that a disturbing hatred of children is widespread and acceptable among liberals and conservatives alike.)

Here's a mild example that showed up this morning, from a grammar-obsessives' page.


The cartoon is funny in a number of ways, but it relies on some stereotypes about language and language users that really need to be dispelled.  The primitive (or the highly educated and intelligent person, for that matter) who speaks broken English, for one.  In his or her own language he or she will be perfectly articulate -- a real caveman would not have spoken broken English ("What woman have?") but a correct form of his own -- but in a new language he or she can only communicate with difficulty.  (Of course, we have no idea what the languages spoken by Stone-Age cavedwellers were like.)  This is one reason why I think everybody should have to learn a new language at some point in his or her life; it might be that struggling to assemble a proper sentence in a strange tongue will promote empathy for foreigners who've done the same with one's own.  But probably not.

Besides, many modern languages don't have pronouns, or use them differently than English does.  Spanish, for example, has pronouns but doesn't use them as much as English does: verb conjugations convey the information that pronouns do in English.  So in Spanish a sentence without a pronoun -- No hablo ingl├ęs, I don't speak English --is perfectly correct.  I know that the speaker is speaking in the first person from the conjugation of hablar.  According to this Wikipedia article, Mandarin Chinese speakers "infrequently" use first-person pronouns, though "their usage is gaining popularity among the young, most notably in online communications" -- perhaps because of the influence of other languages which use them more.  But I've also noticed well-educated Americans from the middle and professional classes who regularly drop first-person pronouns, e.g.: "Have to say that this appeals to me a great deal."

So, the cartoon above is harmless in itself, but it's based on assumptions about people who don't speak Standard English for whatever reason, and in the context of a grammar-obsessives' page it feels less innocent.  After all, people who don't speak or write "correct" are stupid dolts who deserve to be mocked and discriminated against, because they're ignorant and uneducated and probably Republicans.

As the political philosopher Michael Neumann wrote a few years ago, "Where ‘respect’ means not beating people or putting them in jail or driving them from their homes, it is a fine idea. But you shouldn’t do those things even to people you hold in contempt. To call this sort of restraint ‘respect’ is to disguise clear moral values in gummy slush."  When I quote this to many fine educated liberal people, they don't seem to get it (though yes, some do).  Some squinch up their faces uncomfortably as if they're thinking, But then what random strangers can I pick on?
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*Evelyn Field, Bully blocking.  London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2007.