Bullying has been much in the news lately. In particular, the case of Jonathan Martin of the Miami Dolphins has created a lot of furor.
Before getting to any other thoughts on the matter, I’d like comment on some of my own experiences with bullies, and thereby show that there are different kinds of bullies. (My examples will not be exhaustive of the different types, at least I don’t think they will be, and will be someone repetitive. So be warned!)
Of hand, I can recall dealing with six bullies during my lifetime. (I do not count my mother in this list. I’m not sure she fits, and I don’t think we have 43 years to discuss the matter.)
WARNING: Long post follows.
[What follows is a long set of personal reminscences – I have placed a bracket below stating where these end, in case someone wants to skip ahead. Not only will I not take it personally, I won’t even know about it!]
The first I remember encountering was in third grade. There was this small boy in the class with a propensity to meanness and the willingness to use force. One day while standing in line for recess, my turn with the bully came. He got behind me in line and started flicking my ears. Flick, flick, flick. For some reason, after a few flicks I turned around and slugged him, just as hard as I could, right in the gut. He never bothered me again. I’m not really a violent person, had never been in any fights before this, and was only in two after this. I really don’t know why _I_ did what I did, I just know it worked.
In fifth grade, there was another playground bully. This kid had the whole greaser look going on, probably inspired by Sha Na Na. One day during recess, I was sitting down doing something or another, and he came over with his little entourage. He started giving me shit verbally. So I spit on his shoe, stood up and just stared at him. I was taller than him, but only marginally so, and much skinnier. He had a reputation as a fighter (although I never actually saw him in a fight, so who knows), I really didn’t, but what I did seemed to confuse him. “Did you just spit on my shoe?” “Yes.” He walked off. He had no idea what to do with me! And that was the end of that.
Two bullies confronted, two problems with bullies fixed. Yeah, baby, let’s hear it for sticking it to the bully by confronting them!
And then in six grade (which was still part of elementary school in that time and place), I had a bully in my class. For almost the whole year, I had to deal with this bully. In the end, I did not confront the bully, pretty much had a nervous breakdown, and eventually got moved to another class just a few weeks before the end of the school year. Perhaps I should have punched the bully, but that is easier said than done. You see, the bully was the teacher.
In junior high (grades 7 through 9 at that time and place), I encountered another bully. This would have been in eighth or ninth grade. We still have tackle football in junior high, and one of the football players was a real bad ass, a guy that loved smashing people. And I got smashed. Nothing personal, I wasn’t really singled out (I don’t think), I just happened to be there when he got the urge. A couple of times I got shoved around a little. But the big incident was when he and one of his buddies came up behind me after gym class, grabbed me by the shoulders, pulled me backwards and down and smashed my head into the sidewalk.
I was in bad shape after that, and it came to the attention of the coaches. I got brought into the office and was asked to explain what happened. I did so. And I was told that if anything like that happened again I would be suspended for fighting. WTF?!
What do you mean, “WTF?!”, younger self? It’s completely apparent. My adversary was a star member of the football team, and the coach wanted to move up to high school coaching, and if you want to do that you need to win. And you win with quality players. The coach couldn’t have some pencil-necked geek getting his star player in trouble. I managed to successfully avoid that guy for the rest of junior high and high school. (One good thing about being one of the smart kids: Most of the football players had rocks in their heads, so we were NOT on the same track!)
Under no circumstances was I going to solve this matter by confronting him. This guy was (a) humongous, (b) loved violence and (c) was not right in the head. In high school he developed a reputation for violence on and off the field. As a defensive lineman, he was really big, and was as big as NFL lineman of that era. He also liked to fight, and it was a common occurrence for him to single out the toughest guy on the opposing team, and fighting him after the game. One time, he ran into a guy that was tougher than him. This guy smashed his face in, knocked him out, and then smashed his face in some more before other players separated them. Later, friends of the guy from my school jumped the other guys and fucked him up but good, was the rumor.
So this wasn’t a guy that I could confront physically, and I couldn’t do anything to the guy by appealing to authority, who was squarely on his side. Sometimes in life, the bullies win, and all you can do is try to avoid taking much damage. I count avoiding this guy for several years as a win for me.
Incidentally, the guy was such a block head that he did NOT have a college football career. Even the junior colleges in Texas and the Great Plains states wouldn’t touch him, he had such a reputation for violence and stupidity. He was class of 1986, so you can think about how dumb this guy had to be to not get picked up by ANYONE for a college career.
The fifth bully I encountered was a little turd of a man I worked for a couple of months shortly before I turned 21. I had been in a bad car accident a few months earlier and had been smashed up pretty badly. When I finally got back on my feet and was ready to work again, I got a job as a cashier at a grocery store. I walked with a noticeable and bad limp, even with a cane, so I couldn’t work as a bag boy or stocker. So I got to work with all the girls. Woo hoo!
Anyhow, the front end manager was a real … I was going to say horse’s ass, but that is unfair to ALL the assholes of the world, not just those of horses. The guy was a piece of work. He was nasty, rude and intentionally mean to everyone that worked with him, including his bosses. I didn’t understand how he got away with it then. Later I found out he was the son of one of the big shots in the company, had been moved from store to store, and was only still with the company because no one wanted to tell his father that the son was a monster. Ah, so that’s how the world works!
Anyway, one Saturday night we were short. One of the cashiers hadn’t come in to work. And about two hours before closing, the other cashier closed her drawer, locked her register, and walked out the door. She had been getting shit from the manager all night, and finally walked out. My understanding was that she had been working for the company for many years. Didn’t matter, she quit, didn’t even tell the bastard she was leaving. So I got to close on a Saturday by myself.
After closing, I took out my cash drawer, shut down my register and went to the manager’s roost. And I stood there, clearing my throat and saying “excuse me” and knocking for at least ten minutes. Mind you, the roost was open, more like a raised cubicle than an office, so the manager, who was all of six feet away from me, could not have missed my presence. And after ten minutes of this, I said, “Fuck you, I quit, here’s my cash drawer” and limped off on my cane. As I walked to the back to clock out, he came running out of the roost (finally), got in my belly button (he was about five foot nothing), and started screaming at me. I was a this, and a that, and something else besides, and I couldn’t quit because he was firing me. You get the idea. All the stockers had come to the front of the store by then, and now the manager got a bright idea. He backed up and said, “Go on, asshole, take a swing at me! Do it, I’ll kick you ass!” And so on.
As I said, I had a bad limp at the time, and had some trouble walking without my cane. At that, I knew that if it came to a fight, I was going to cave his head in on the floor. And I could see that the stockers knew it too. I don’t think they would have rushed to stop me. But the trap was that the guy wanted me to swing at him so he could call the cops on me. Or maybe he even thought he could take me. I was really banged up. But I really did crap bigger than him, so I wasn’t scared, physically.
But despite temptation, my good sense got the better of me. I turned and walked away. This was another case of the bully winning, and there was no way it could have been otherwise. But I walked out with my self-respect intact. This wasn’t school, I had the choice to leave, and I took it.
The sixth bully is a different kettle of fish altogether. He happens to be my brother-in-law. I first encountered him when I was five, when my sister (who is 12 years older than me) started dating him. He is twenty years my senior, six feet tall, and built like a gorilla. And from the get-go, he started giving me the shit. He likes to give crushing hand shakes. I’m now 6’1″ tall and weigh in well over 200 pounds. Back then I was five, and scrawny. I got the same crushing handshake then that I got as a full grown adult. I won’t bother recounting all the other things. But they were there.
And the funny thing is that I didn’t realize he was a bully until my wife told me, I believe just a few years ago. She realized it the first time she met him, but it took the missus hitting me over the head with the clue bat for me to figure it out.
Long story short, he became the executor of my mother’s estate, and tried to cheat me out of my inheritance, which would have put me and my family on the street. I’m not going to go into the dreary details, but eventually the threat of lawsuits forced a proper resolution. After about 37 years of knowing him, I finally won, and only by threat of lawsuit. I eventually won, but given how long it took to get the best of him, I can’t say the bully lost, exactly, either.
[end of personal reminiscence]
Not all of these bullies used violence. In fact, the worst of them didn’t use any violence at all. Instead, they used their positions of power to abuse those that seemed, or were, powerless. The physical bullies in third and fifth grade were easily handled by confronting them. The physical bully in junior high was untouchable, because he was much my superior in a fight, and those in authority had HIS back.
But my teacher in sixth grade, my boss at the grocery store and my brother-in-law didn’t have to get physical, though the two men tried at times. And those three, along with the encounter with the football player, were the bad ones. And the case with the football player was as bad as it was because authority was on his side, not because he would have stomped me into the ground in any and all fights.
Bullying isn’t about beating someone up. It’s not about pushing them around. It is abuse of power. In the simple case, it is the tough guy on the playground threatening to beat someone up. Those cases are often, but not always, easy to handle just by standing up for oneself. Most bullies aren’t interested in actual fights, they just want the thrill of power abused.
But standing up for you cannot help you if you are trapped by circumstance. If your teacher is a bully and you’re in grade school, you are completely fucked. If you are in school and the bully is a meathead star athlete with carte blanche from the coaches, you are fucked. If your boss enjoys abusing you, you are fucked UNLESS you are willing to leave your job. If you’ve got a contract, you might not be able to walk away and keep working. Telling someone to walk away is easy, but actually walking away from one’s job, or even a career, isn’t easy. If someone has you by the short and curlies in a legal matter, you might be fucked unless you can get the law on your side. And I don’t think I need to tell anyone likely to read this that the law often sides with the powerful against the weak, simply because the powerful have all that power.
Which gets us to the Jonathan Martin case. The details still haven’t resolved themselves, but it appears that the General Manager of the team, one Jeff Ireland, had some of his players abuse Martin because he wanted Martin to toughen up. I suspect that Richie Incognito will, in fact, win his grievance against the Dolphins by showing that he was doing what the management wanted done. Jeff Ireland reportedly told Martin’s agent that Martin should handle the situation by punching Incognito.
I suspect that Martin, who seems to be fairly bright, figured out that he wasn’t being given the shit by his linemates simply for their own kicks, but that management wanted it this way. It’s tough going to work when you know your boss hates your guts and wants bad things to happen to you.
But for all that, Martin has been cast as the bad guy by a great many people. In fact, lots of people complain that Martin is nothing but a big pussy. This coming from people who probably would wet their pants in Richie Incognito looked at them funny, and from people that certainly lack the mental and physical toughness to play big time college football and then start 23 games in the NFL. (And I mean simply that they lack the toughness. Of course they don’t have the physical ability, as the NFL is a rarefied field of athletic endeavor.)
This last annoys me. It’s one thing to say, “Martin is not tough enough for the NFL.” That is a statement that may well be true, and is defensible. Calling him a pussy implies that the person making the claim DOES have the toughness. Yeah, right, big boy. Most of these people wouldn’t last a single practice.
This isn’t about initiation rights. Agnostic posts about this on his blog Dusk in Autumn. (Warning, Dusk in Autumn is not a blog to be read by the faint of heart!)
Normal initiation rites are highly circumscribed in what they do and do not allow to happen. The participants must adhere so rigidly to the formulas that we speak of thoughtless and mechanical processes as “ritualistic.” That doesn’t mean that the initiates won’t suffer pain — often they do. However, what they’ll suffer is predictable from the ritual tradition. Any one of the pain-givers who wanted to escalate would be seen as violating a sacred tradition. This keeps sociopaths in check, and the predictability provides a certain amount of trust on the part of the initiates.
The fixed formulas also ensure that what is happening to the initiates has already been endured by the tormentors themselves, back when they were the grunts. “I had to go through it — now it’s your turn.” Fair is fair.
Hazing has neither of these features because it is not a rigidly defined and adhered to set of formulas. What is being suffered by today’s grunts was not necessarily suffered by their tormentors back in their time. As a new teammate, Andre Royal didn’t have his eye socket smashed in with a sock full of coins. That’s something that he cowardly inflicted on another without enduring it himself first.
And hazing is more free-form: those who deviate from the tradition by escalating will not be shamed for violating a tradition that is more sacred and important than their individual fleeting whim. If anything, it sets up a contest among the senior members to see who can push the envelope the most in dealing out pain to the initiates. Which one of us seniors can out-lash the others? And which one of us can come up with the most creative individual performance in lashing the grunts?
Agnostic makes interesting points about hazing rituals rising and falling with times of inequality.
All of which leaves me surprised at how many people are siding with the abusers not just in the Martin case, but in bullying cases more generally. I especially find this annoying from conservatives who spend all their time bitching about the government pushing people around, and then turn around and side with the powerful in other cases, claiming that bullying is the American way. Okay, then, don’t let me hear you bitching about Obama sending the IRS to abuse his enemies. That’s the American way according to you guys. so man up and quit being a bunch of pussies.
I’ll also note that many of the people I’ve seen cheering on bullies on line are people that love spouting Christian pieties at other times. Of course, had they been there when Jesus walked to Golgotha, they would have spit on him and laughed, and generally sided with the Romans. Note that the fault here lies not with the religion, but with the practitioners. But man, does the phoniness chap my ass!
It’s late, and I’ve lost the train of thought I had, if I had one to begin with. I could wait and edit this tomorrow, but instead I’ll just hit the ‘Publish’ button, and see what kind of response I get.