Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Trump Era; or, The Reign of the Bullies

I remember being bullied.

Anyone who thinks that bullying is just a normal phase of growing up, part of the process of learning to navigate society, never had to endure it. It’s hard to articulate to adults what bullying is, because it’s part of the invisible social fabric that kids weave among themselves. These kids exist to succeed and rejoice, and these kids exist to be ridiculed. Everyone in the middle is scrambling to get into the former category and stay away from the latter. Laughing at a bullying victim is a demonstration of one’s own superiority: See? I get the joke. I am not like that pathetic victim-thing. I am powerful. See how I laugh.

The victim-thing isn’t human, as such. Its feelings do not elicit empathy, but scorn. Getting it to cry is like winning at Pop Goes the Weasel—a gleeful release of built-up tension as the group watches its self-control crack. A truly skilled player can get it not just to cry, but to rage. That’s extra points: anger is seen by adults, and punished. The overarching authority in its ignorance reinforces the abusive, profitable social order. It’s hilarious.

Adults, at least when I was a kid, just did not get it. My teachers were in my classroom every hour of every day, and didn’t see what was happening to me. They saw an awkward girl unable to play well with others, like this was an inherent quality, part of my temperament. She just cries all the time. She can’t seem to make friends. They didn’t see the steady diet of dehumanization and provocation I got fed to elicit that behavior. Like poking a dog with a stick until it bites you, my classmates poked at me until I broke, over and over and over again.

Metaphorically. They never hit me.

Oh, how I wished they would hit me.

I used to fantasize about it. A bunch of them ganging up on me at recess, stealing my glasses, tripping me when I went to retrieve them, kicking me in the stomach and the head. That would have been so wonderful. Because violence would have been real, tangible, something the adults could see as evidence of what I’d been trying to tell them: I’m not safe here. They might have believed me. They might have taken me seriously.

Of course it never happened. There were just words. And, as I was repeatedly informed, although sticks and stones could break my bones, words could never hurt me.

And of course they didn’t hurt me. My bones were fine. It was my spirit that got broken. I just curled into myself every time I was spoken to. I just kept my eyes on my shoes when I had to interact with a classmate. I just submitted, broken and docile, any illusion of my own equality thoroughly shattered. When I was seated next to a popular boy who didn’t want to be my tablemate, he told me to talk out of turn until one of us got moved. I did it. When I had to be the third person on a bus bench seat, I rested only half of one thigh on the cushion, effectively crouching in the aisle so as not to crowd my higher-status seat companions. On one occasion when a teacher caught another student kicking the trash can full of dodgeballs I was bringing in from recess, and gave the kid a brief lecture on (I paraphrase) not being a dick. I stared at the teacher in astonishment. He clearly didn’t get it. That was what I was for. I knew my place. So did the kicker. The teacher didn’t get it.

The teacher dwelt in a magical world of basic human decency. That, I learned, was adult conduct. I adored adults. Adults were always kind and polite. Patronizing at times, sure, but they never demeaned me and then laughed in satisfaction at my tears the way my peers did. Adults lived by a different code, one in which petty cruelty was a major faux pas, where a fit of crying indicated a failure of the community, where empathy was expected from everyone. I wanted so badly to make it out of middle school and into a world of adults, where I’d be safe.

Well, now I have. And for the most part, it’s been a blessed relief. Adults are sometimes cruel or hurtful, but usually it’s accidental, and often they apologize. Adults are often comfortable with announcing “We shouldn’t do that; it’s mean,” and their words are mostly heard and respected. Adults who fail to follow these rules are quietly, restrainedly shunned. Bullying embarrasses no one but the perpetrator.

But now . . .

But now, now, now . . .

Donald Trump has been elected to be the president. And all the bullies who never discovered the tranquility of adulthood, who still endeavor to make themselves powerful by making other people cry, have emerged from their online lairs to impose upon society their sixth-grade model of how it ought to work. And the President of the United States, the teacher in this national classroom, the authority figure, the standard-keeper . . . he is a bully, too. Go ahead and cry. See how he laughs.

This feels exactly like middle school. I can feel it in my bones—an uncomfortable, humming tension as I ache to hit something and struggle to restrain myself. It’s in my stomach, too, as the nausea of terror, and in my spine, which tries to curl down towards my feet in defense and submission.

Do you know the desperate panic that floods your bones as you scream “I am human! I have feelings! What you’re doing to me is wrong!” at a crowd of people who simply do not care? If you don’t, you may soon. We are entering the Reign of the Bullies.

Are there still adults out there? Are there enough of us to stem the tide of violent words? Do we have the numbers and the collective will to assert that honor is for the compassionate, that dignity is included with admission to the human race, that picking on people is about as acceptable as picking one’s nose?

Please say we can do it. I can’t face sixth grade again. Not alone.