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October 9, 2010 / Katie

Saying “ouch!” when you get stepped on; on bullying and silencing

I have had a rough couple of days online.  I’ve had the kind of experiences that make me want to deactivate my facebook and take an internet hiatus.  I know at least some of my readers know what I’m talking about, since I’ve heard you saying similar things.

But I’ve spent too much of my life running and hiding when I felt disrespected or condescended to.  So instead, I’m going to talk about what’s going on.  There are a couple things, not all of which I’m sure I want to talk about, but today I definitely want to talk about bullying and Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better Project” (IGBP).

So here we go.

I posted on Facebook a couple days ago a link to a blog post by femmephane called Why I don’t like Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better Project” as a response to bullying.  It’s worth a read, as well as her first and second follow-up posts (which she made once she had received a lot of traffic—and criticism—on the first one).  She brings up some really important ways that the IGBP is still problematic.

I posted it on Facebook, hoping that people who were interested would read it and dialogue with me about it.  A lot of what she said resonated with me pretty clearly, and touched me in quite a raw place.

Even though I was not an out LGBT kid in high school, I still had a hell of a time in school, being bullied in the myriad ways that kids experience bullying for being too fat, too smart, not smart enough, not rich enough, not hip enough, not obeying gender norms, etc. ad. nauseum.  I was bullied more quietly and passive-aggressively, more often treated as invisible than outright harassed.  And honestly?  I wouldn’t have wanted to hear a bunch of people who I don’t know from Adam or Eve telling me that it was going to get better; and while I don’t know if this needs to be said, I want to be clear that I recognize that  just because it wouldn’t have helped me doesn’t mean that it won’t be helpful for some.

Also, I have to ask, with others, “what exactly gets better?”  My experience wasn’t that it got better.  We still live in an incredibly misogynist and fatphobic world, and the bullying I experienced as a teen has perhaps morphed into the more “sophisticated” passive-aggressive bullying of adults, and I have some more choice about who I do and don’t spend my time around, but I put in hard work, on a day to day basis, to remain sane and reasonably happy despite a society that would have me hate every fiber of my being.  And it can’t be that it’s way worse for me as a fat woman.  Clearly others who are speaking about this, some of whom I’ve linked to, feel the same way.

So when I posted it on Facebook, I wasn’t engaging in some purely intellectual exercise.  I was talking about my own experience, I was posting something that touched me in a deep place.

The response I got was overwhelmingly hostile.  I wish I could screen cap it for you, but in a frustration yesterday I deleted it because it just hurt too much.  Essentially, though, the basic message I heard loud and clear, despite a couple of “likes” and affirming comments, was that I was nitpicking, my concerns weren’t important, that people should just shut up and be grateful that someone somewhere is doing something.

Well, I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t fall all over myself apologizing for daring to speak my truth.  For refusing to shut up and stay silent.

I vented about this on my private blog and one of the comments I received included the following quote:

I love thinking critically and dismantling oppressions, and I think that is such valuable work: I am glad people are doing it. But lately I am tired of relentless ragging on anything and everything.

I’m just going to copy and paste the majority of my comment in response to her, because the more I think about it, the more important I think it is:

I’m intrigued by your distinction between “critically and dismantling oppressions” and “relentless ragging on anything and everything.” I am wondering, who gets to decide which is which? Was the article I posted participating in the former or the latter? And whose voice(s) matters in defining it?

Clearly, most of the commenters on my Facebook post thought that it was “relentless ragging” on people just trying to help but I felt that it was “critically dismantling” the privilege in Dan Savage’s actions.

Who gets to decide? Who gets to decide what is an important topic for discussion?  Who gets to decide whose concerns and experience is valuable fodder for conversation?

And ultimately, isn’t actively trying to silence someone, itself, a form of bullying?   Bullying and silencing are intimately intertwined.  Bullying requires silence to continue.  It requires that the bullied, and the onlookers, and the people in charge (teachers, etc. in the case of kids/teens) look the other way, don’t notice, don’t step in, do nothing to stop it.   Often, do nothing to prevent it from happening in the first place or behave in ways that actually encourage it*.

Many people experience bullying.  Not just teens.  And not just GLBT folks.   Folks who experience a variety of oppressions experience harassment and bullying throughout their lives, and as a result, many experience chronic physical and mental illnesses and yes, some turn to suicide as a last resort.  This is terrible, and we need to work to make things better.  Today I became aware of The Make It Better Project, which is a grassroots effort that says, “We aren’t waiting until high school is over for our lives to get better… We are taking action now! Join us!”

Awesome.

See the thing is, “doing something” about bullying may mean different things to different people, and that’s okay.  But if in the process of trying to help you step on someone else (even if inadvertently!) it’s reprehensible to tell them off for saying, “ouch!”

———————————————

* This could be a topic of a whole new post, but luckily, Spilt Milk has already handled it beautifully.  Get thee hence to read her piece!

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5 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Samia / Oct 9 2010 8:10 pm

    Thanks for this. Sooo much. :)

  2. Twistie / Oct 10 2010 1:34 pm

    As someone who suffered more than her fair share (if there really is such a thing) of bullying in her school career, I can’t imagine anything that would have made me more angry then than someone trying to randomly convince me that things would get vaguely better at some vague time in the future. That might have actually sent me over the edge to try suicide.

    What I wanted – what I desperately needed – was someone to step in and DO something to fix what was happening right then.

  3. Allysa / Oct 12 2010 12:27 pm

    I really responded to the it gets better videos and I’d like to share why with you. I was bullied in junior high and highschool I was also depressed and convinced and terrified that it was always going to be like that. I needed someone to reach out and tell me that change was possible and inevitable. Are things always going to get better for every person not necessarily but they will change and quite possibly to get better. You can never find that out if you don’t live to see it. That is the value I see in this message. Is it perfect? no. Does the message have value? yes. hopefully it can start conversations about how we can make things better now. I’m sorry if this comment is a little disorganized this whole issue makes me very emotional.

    • Katie / Oct 12 2010 12:39 pm

      Hi Allysa,

      I really appreciate your willingness to share, and I am so glad to hear that the IGBP was useful for you. I know that it was for many, and for that I am grateful.

      There is room for all of us to help in our own various ways. To those who are helped by the IGBP or feel moved to participate in it, more power to them, I just also think it’s important to recognize its limitations and the ways that others are standing up and saying they need something different.

      I think this is your first comment here; welcome to my blog! I hope you will stick around and continue sharing your experience.

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