Talking Back to Bullies
I was a small child, with arms as thin as other people’s fingers my Granpa used to say. I also had all the social grace of a troglodyte at one of Jane Auten’s fancy dinner parties. I was bullied and constantly teased. My mother told me they just wanted attention, so I should ignore them and they would go away. The problem with this theory is that it is predicated on the assumption that the bully in question wants my attention. In fact, the bully wants the attention of their peers. Whomever they consider that to be, it is most certainly not the target of their ridicule.
In ninth grade, I decided this theory was not working in practice. I walked into freshman history class, just as I had a dozen times before. But this time when Ricky asked in his oh so smug tone “Hey baby, my place tonight, right?” I answered “Sure, Ricky. You bring the whipped cream. I’ll bring the handcuffs.”
Now, to understand the full impact, you’ll have to realize that this was coming out of left field from a previously deathly silent fourteen-year-old wisp of a girl … impacting smack in the face of a cocky but no less virginal fourteen-year-old boy … in front of the entire class … who all stopped mid-laugh in stunned silence as the then-current class clown and all-around cool kid turned bright, steaming red and began to stutter.
Ah, what a victory to savor. And savor it I did, with a silent sashay to my seat in the front of the room. Ricky left me alone after that.
Of course, sometimes words are not enough and Ricky was far from the only bully, just the most verbal. There was also Matt, whose MO was generally passive aggressive, but also more towards physical confrontation. In wood shop, there were a limited number of stools to sit on. Since that day I was carefully painting the clock I had spent all week building, I made sure to get one. As I returned from washing out my brushes, Matt holding court on my seat, in front of my clock, back to me.
The day before I might have asked him to move. He would have ignored me or refused or dared me to make him, while his cronies giggled on and I stood there alone, powerlessly fuming. Today I said nothing. I just dug my strong, sharp fingernails in the deepest part of his shoulder tendon. He was on the floor on his knees in two seconds, and two seconds after that, I had successfully reclaimed my seat with my back now to him. His buddies picked him up and they left without a word exchanged between any of us. Matt left me alone after that.
After these two little incidents and a few more minor skirmishes, high school became much more pleasant for all parties involved. Matt and Ricky even matured into moderately respectable adults. We were on polite speaking terms by the time we all graduated.
I think of this now due to recent events. I am trying to find a way to navigate conflicts in my current world without resorting to such juvenile methods. As skillful means go they worked well with teenage boys, and though I regret the use of force in the one case, it certainly was effective. Sadly, grown men (and women) are more dangerous and less easily trained.
One lesson I believe is applicable in both circumstances is that those with power will act to preserve that power. They will discount the wishes and opinions of those with less power than they simply because if those people were worth respecting they would have achieved power of their own by now. I realize these are blanket statements that do not apply to every individual. In addition, even those who act in this manner may not realize they are doing so. They are simply exercising their power to do what they believe is right, honestly and truly right.
What makes them stop and take notice is when the ones being harmed by their behavior stand up and exercise their own power. Utah Phillips, a folk singer, story-collector, and storyteller once said that we’re all born free and everybody knows it. When somebody tries to take it away from us, the level to which we resist is the level to which we remain free. What we forget is that we have the power to resist.
Buddhists are generally assumed to be pacifists and generally I find most are peaceful people even when they eschew the label. We spend a lot of time talking about love, kindness, compassion, and not harming others. This might lead one to believe that Buddhists aren’t very powerful, that they seek not to be powerful, or that if they are, they exercise it only in the best of ways or not at all. It might lead one to believe that all Buddhists get along.
Yet in the end, Buddhists react in many of the same ways to power as everyone else, regardless of whether they have more or less. Those with more power exercise it as though they deserve it and those with less defer for the same reason. Very often there is not much wrong with this paradigm. Those with more power may also have more experience, more wisdom, more knowledge, in which case they may also know best what is to be done.
However, to assume this is always the case is a serious error as well as a logical fallacy. If it were true, bullies would not exist. Experience shows us this is not so. And it seems that no mater how ‘mature’ we become, there are always bullies – those who exercise power simply for the sake of exercising power – those who assume that because they have power, how they choose to use it is always correct. How and why they came to posses that power is immaterial to the outcome of such actions, but it does have some bearing on the present dilemma.
How does one confront a bully who doesn’t know they are a bully? How does one communicate the illegitimate use of power legitimately obtained? How does one help them listen, see, and understand?
I am struggling with these questions and struggling with my urge to kick someone or lash them with a sharp tongue. These tactics worked well enough in high school, but I fear they’ll not get the job done here. Now I must think strategically, skillfully, and hope for the enlightenment of the buddhas. Did the Buddha ever kick anyone?