Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bullies, Grammar, and What to Do About Them Both

There’s been a bit of a manufactured foofaw in the press lately about bullied LGBTQ teens committing suicide. (I say “manufactured” because it recently hit the lucky three-deaths-equals-a-trend sweet spot, and choosing to report on something just because it’s hit exactly three events always seems rather disingenuous to me. It doesn’t make something a non-issue—just artificial in its coverage.) But beneath all the hand-wringing about how persecuted these kids were, and how we need to get every remotely oddball teen out of the small towns and into a nice, safe city where everyone’s magically tolerant of everyone else, there’s another angle nobody seems to be mentioning.

In every news account I read, the dead kids are described as “being bullied”. As someone who makes her living from words, I notice grammar like that. This statement is in what’s known as the passive voice—that odd little syntactic setup where the subject of the sentence receives the action rather than performing it. So, in the sentence, “Fred was bullied,” the subject is Fred and the predicate is was bullied—but Fred didn’t do the bullying. Someone else did. Who? We may never know. All we know is that Fred got the short end of the stick in that sentence.

Grammatically, there are only three good reasons to use the passive voice in professional nonfiction writing (which, yes, includes journalism). The first is in scientific and technical articles where the author, for reasons of professional modesty, is not permitted to come out and say that he or she performed the experiments, did the research, and reached the conclusions now being laid before the public. That’s how we get sentences like “The medications were administered.”

The second reason is that the writer does not know who committed the act being described—for example, “Bob was killed an hour ago.” We probably don’t know yet who killed Bob, but if the body was just found and the death declared a homicide (let’s say Bob was stabbed seven times in the back), it’s only responsible journalism to say that Bob was actively killed by another human being; he didn’t just slip in the bath or choke on a hot dog.

Finally, the third reason we use the passive voice is because we know who did something—we just can’t or won’t say. Sometimes confidential informants are involved; sometimes an individual has been accused of a crime but not yet tried, and the writer doesn’t want to be sued for libel. So even if George was found standing over Bob the Dead Guy holding a bloody knife and babbling, “I did it, I did it, I’m not sorry, he deserved it, I did it,” a wise journalist will merely say that “Bob was killed” and “George was arrested.” After George gets convicted or pleads guilty to the crime, we can say that George killed Bob, and it’s bye-bye passive voice.

But here’s the thing about using the passive voice in the deaths of these children. These aren’t scientific articles. No one is being accused of a crime in these cases (at least not yet). And in many cases, we know who did the bullying—at least in a general sense. Perhaps it would be legally actionable to identify the bullies by name, but we could at least say something like “Other kids bullied Fred.” See how much stronger than “Fred was bullied” that sentence is? And it makes the bullying seem somehow less like it’s Fred’s fault—which is as it should be. And yet nobody’s saying it. Nobody’s saying that other children, many of whom grew up alongside these now-dead kids, tortured them on a daily basis until the victims finally decided that being dead was better than being alive. Or that these other children now have to live with the guilt of what they’ve done—or worse, live without that guilt, because they believe the dead kid got what was coming to him.

Yeah, these are the kids I want running the world in another ten or twenty years.

I have a dog in this fight, I’ll admit. I was bullied in school for about seven years straight. I remember being nauseated every morning at the thought that I would have to get up and face my classmates’ contempt again. I wasn’t doing anything especially wrong—I just happened to have the wrong hair color (one kid actually told me she wasn’t allowed to be friends with non-blondes) and I used too many big words. Everywhere I went, people made fun of my hair, my glasses, the way I talked. And nobody in authority did anything about it. I complained to teachers, to the principal, and was blown off. Consistently.

“Oh, you’re just imagining it.”

“They’re just high-strung.”

“We don’t want to damage their self-esteem.”

“Someday you’ll be a software billionaire and it won’t matter.” (This last is a direct quote—and considering that I was struggling mightily in computer class at the time, not a very funny one.)

After five years, my parents tried to pull me out of that school, and I wouldn’t let them, because I couldn’t stand the idea that the bullies would think that I was running away. That they’d won. That they could do this to anyone else they didn’t like.

So for my last two years, I got in their faces. (After all, what were they going to do, bully me?) When they made fun of me, I mocked them back, harder and meaner. I hung signs on my backpack to protest the school’s (lack of a) disciplinary policy, and made sure that parents saw them for maximum embarrassment value. When I saw younger kids being picked on by younger bullies, I went after them hammer and tongs. I cultivated words as weapons. I learned to box. My stubbornness became my strength, and for a while there I pretty much lost my middle gears between passively accepting abuse and viciously returning it tenfold. I thought of this new side of my personality as the monster in my head, and I hated it, but I needed it, too. When I graduated from that school, I swore not to speak to my classmates again, with two exceptions for fellow nerds.

On my first day of high school, a 250-pound football player followed me around, making fun of my vocabulary. I went home and hit the heavy bag with a vengeance, and began plotting ways to sneak a knife into school. It’s a good thing I was writing Masks, because it made me my first friend around that time, which is probably the only reason I didn’t actually stab anyone. And it’s a very good thing that my new friends were willing to stand by me against bullies—having a small army of girls at my back meant I only had to retaliate when someone really deserved it, and I only had to slug one fellow student between ninth and twelfth grade. Thanks to them, I grew my middle gears back.

But from the descriptions I’ve read, these kids who died recently weren’t as stubborn as I was. They weren’t as angry. And honestly, I’m not sure I’d want them to be. It’s pretty horrible to go through childhood and adolescence thinking up ways to cripple people before they can cripple you. Kids should be free to be themselves, as long as they don’t hurt anyone in the process, and to do so without fear of being tortured by monsters, or becoming monsters themselves. They should have a third option. And while I recognize that the world isn’t perfect and you can’t always get what you want, bullying isn’t a disease or a natural disaster. It’s a behavior, one that’s tolerated and even encouraged by the adults who raised and taught those bullies, and by the other kids who stand around watching as it happens.

To which I say—bullshit. The kids who died deserved better than they got. And if I have anything to say about it, their living comrades—gay, straight, and just plain weird—will get it.

To the kids being bullied—it does get better, I swear. I have two pieces of advice. First, decide who you want to be. Not who they want you to be—who you want to be. As strange, beautiful, and brilliant as you want. Choose courage, or wisdom, or laughter, or anything else you want to be part of this person. Then work on becoming that person, come hell or high water. Hone your skills. Develop your spirit. Grow. It’s all easier when you can feel yourself becoming someone you respect.

Second, find friends, good ones—and accept nothing less until you find them! Find a place (mental, physical, spiritual, or other) where you’re truly loved, even if it’s a weird place or you have to search a long time to find it. It’s a place worth finding, and a necessary one, and just the search will keep you going for a while. Once you find it, too, things get better, usually better than you could have imagined they’d be. Such places exist. Never believe they don’t. Keep looking. I’ve found several already, and—this is the important part—you only need to find one.

To the kids doing the bullying, I have nothing to say. You aren’t reading this anyway. Call me when you’re ready to rejoin the human race.

To the adults who raised and trained the bullies, who tolerate their behavior—good luck sleeping at night. I’m a mild case. I never actually killed anybody, or even tried to kill myself. Now imagine all the other kids who weren’t as lucky as I was … and remember that the ones that live to adulthood will be running your retirement facilities. Don’t like it? Then step in. Tell someone no. Do something. You’re adults. Hell, some of you are mandated reporters. You have no excuses.

To the kids standing by and watching this go on—step in. Trust me. Just step in. I know it’s a scary thought, but once you get past the scary, there’s very little to actually be afraid of. In my experience, any given school has only a few hardcore bullies, and a lot of enablers. If one or two people stand up and object, the bullying stops. If they keep objecting, the bullying really stops. One or two people is all you need. If you see it going on, you’ve already got one person right there—you. If the grownups rely on mob rule to control the students, use it against them. Create a mob for civility. Make friends with the losers. Eat lunch with them, and talk to them like they’re normal people rather than charity cases. They may not become your best friends (although I guarantee at least a few will), but everyone who sees you doing the right thing will remember it. They’ll trust you. They’ll want to be friends with someone who does the unpopular thing because it’s right. You’ll be a better person, and better off, for it. And oh, yeah, you’ll have some of the best friends in the universe.

There’s a scene in Masks where Rae hears the voice of the coyote in her head, whispering suggestions—simple, violent ways to permanently solve her problems. She has to fight against what seems to be a part of herself that nevertheless wants her to do terrible things. The scene is rooted in fact. I still live with the monster in my head that I created to deal with the monsters around me. It’s gotten quieter over the years, as I’ve gotten used to stuffing it back into its dark hole. It never completely goes away, though, especially when I walk into a room full of strangers and my stomach turns over in the old, familiar way.

But I am able to beat it back, mostly because someone took a chance on me. When I was in ninth grade, Amber Kabelitz, one of the sweetest girls in the school, befriended me. She didn’t have to, but she seemed to like my stories, and by extension me. She ate lunch with me most days, and soon other kids joined us. Bullies just couldn’t be mean to Amber; it would have been like stomping a kitten. Being around Amber meant you had to play nice. And all she did to change my life was eat lunch with me.

People think bullying is impossible to stop, that it’s a fact of human nature. It’s not. It happens because no one can be bothered to stop it. The trick is remembering to bother. After that, the sky’s the limit.

As one of my favorite writers likes to say, “We have done the impossible, and that makes us mighty.”

1 comment:

  1. I cried.

    I had to deal with a lot of bullying... Like any reasonably intelligent person seems to. And it's still something that pushes most of the buttons I have.

    There's a part of me that didn't survive it. And there's a part of me that has been permanently changed. Things I don't like about myself that I have and can't(or haven't been able to) remove because of my experiences in school.

    And an ever present fear that haunts my every step, sentence, action, thought and move.

    The way bullying is NOT handled in our schools is additional evidence that the fact that we haven't been contacted is the surest sign that there IS intelligent life in the universe. Because things like this, and things like I experienced and things I've seen and know continue make me wish I could avoid most of the human race too.