No, scratch that. I really don’t want to talk about bullies. I don’t want to wade into this quagmire and make my voice known. I don’t want to risk alienating friends and family, or new fans that just discovered me this past weekend. I don’t want to make myself a target, I don’t want to lose business over politics. I would much rather post the video clips I took from my awesome weekend at Lexington Comic Con and then head back to bed.
Today I must talk about bullies. If I don’t, then I am nothing but a hypocrite.
To give you a bit of background here, this past week was “Dr. Seuss Appreciation Week” in my son’s kindergarten class.
Monday was silly sock day, so he wore two mismatched socks and was super proud to have participated. I did not bother to remind him that he wears mismatched socks regularly just because he likes to be funky already. It was a special day and I let him enjoy it.
Tuesday was crazy hat day, but we overslept and forgot to grab his hat as we ran out the door. He made a striped hat out of paper at school and wore that instead.
Wednesday was some sort of silly outfit day, where you were supposed to wear silly clothes. He was the most excited about this one, as it meant that he could wear his orange pants with the giant monster/dinosaur tail to school. He has attempted to wear these pants to school in the past, but I have always made his change clothes before we leave. I do let him wear his sock monkey hoodie now and then, which has a tail attached to the hem, but that sort of thing he can easily take off if he wants to do so. The monster tail I feared, would make it difficult to sit in a normal classroom chair.
The point being, these are probably his favorite pair of pants. They are probably the silliest thing he owns and he was thrilled to be able to wear them to school and show them off.
He was less thrilled as we walked to the truck after school.
“Did you have fun at school today?” I asked, as I often do.
“No,” he replied, and I was stunned that I did not have to pry more information out of him. “Another boy made fun of my tail and kept picking on me about it.”
“A boy in your class?” I asked.
“No. Another class,” he said.
“Well, he was probably just jealous that you had a tail and he didn’t,” I supplied weakly, realizing as I did it, that even now we tend to make excuses for those who act outside the acceptable social parameters.
We refuse to think that there is anything really wrong with someone who is picking on others, or insulting other people, or generally acting hateful. We chalk it up to jealously, or misunderstanding, or having a bad day, or just being a boy. We never seem to come right out and say, “Well that person is being an ignorant jerk and needs to stop.”
My son had the answer though. “No. He isn’t jealous. He just likes being mean.”
This wasn’t what was troubling him. He could handle someone being mean. He knows that there are bad guys in the world. Granted, he assumes that the badguys he sees on Batman and Power Rangers are real. He doesn’t realize yet that bad guys really just look like everyone else. That wasn’t the problem.
“But what I don’t get,” he said, “is why I still have to be his friend.”
We were at the truck by this point, kids buckled in and me about to pull out of our parking space. Instead I turned off the engine and turned around. “You don’t have to be his friend,” I replied.
“Yes I do,” my son bemoaned. “He is at my school, so I have to be his friend. Even though he is mean and picks on me.”
“No. You don’t have to be anyone’s friend. Especially someone who is mean and picks on you.” I could tell he didn’t quite grasp this concept, so I tried another tact.
“In your life, you are going to make lots of great friends. You are going to meet people that like you, and get you, and have fun being around you. This is good. But you are also going to meet folks that for whatever reason don’t like you. That is ok too. You don’t have to be friends with everyone. You don’t have to like everyone you meet.”
“I don’t?” he asked, sounding slightly more relieved at this revelation, I had just given him permission not to like everyone. I had told him it was ok to not be friends with everyone you meet.
“Absolutely not,” I said. “However, you can’t be mean or hateful to people you don’t like. Here is the deal, you don’t have to be friends, but you do have to treat everyone with respect and fairness.”
“What do you mean?” he asked. My daughter sat silently in her seat, but I knew she too was listening.
“Everyone has a right to exist. It doesn’t matter what they look like, where they live, or what they think. They exist. And you have to respect that. You have to respect the fact that their life is different than yours, and their opinions may be too. You have to respect that they have a voice, and the right to make their feelings known. And you have to treat everyone fairly. Just because you do not like someone, does not mean that you should try to punish them.”
“Oh. So I do have to be their friend…” he slumped in his seat.
“No. Respect them and treat them fairly. But if they don’t do the same to you, or your friends, walk away. Leave them alone. You don’t have to like them, you don’t have to play with them, you don’t have to listen to them, you don’t have to just stand there and take it. And if they won’t let you walk away, then you make sure you are louder and you fight back with all you have got, and if you can, you go get someone who can stop them. Like a teacher. Got it?”
“Got it!” both kids responded in unison.
“Respect and fairness. That is all that matters.” I said again, and started up the car.
He chose not to participate any more in Dr. Seuss week. I did not push him on that decision.
That really is what I believe.
Everyone should be treated with respect and fairness. Even when they disagree. Even when they say things that hurt us. Even when they are wrong. We always have the option to alienate them, to walk away.
But if we don’t? What if, like my son said, there are some people who just like being mean.
What do we do when someone talks louder, makes threats, stirs up trouble, picks on people, and there really is no way to walk away. What do we do when we are faced with a bully, and we know that turning the other cheek is not the answer anymore? What do we do when people start to get hurt?
Because let’s face it folks, bullies can be stopped, but they can also do a lot of damage on the way. It can go way beyond hurtful words, as history has shown time and time again. One bully with a pulpit can become a mob. One mob can become a movement of hatred. And hatred, unchecked, can kill. Hatred, unchecked, can become the new normal. Hatred, unchecked, can become a way of life.
A way of life that leaves a lot of people in trouble, a lot of people in fear, and a lot of bullies in power.
There really are people that just like being mean.
There are bad guys out there. Not ones dressed in flashy costumes with witty monologue who will be taken down by Batman by the end of an episode. But bullies that look just like everybody else, and no Batman to stop them. Bullies who threaten those who disagree, who turn everyone “else” into the enemy, who feed on hate and have the money and the power to make hate a reality for everyone.
And personally, as an American, as a human being, as a father – I have a problem with that.
Our very country is founded on standing up to bullies. What else do we call King George? An oppressive, ignorant bully. And years later, what else do we call Hitler, or Mussolini? Dangerous, hateful bullies. What else do we call Saddam Hussein, or the Taliban, or ISIS? All bullies.
Our forefathers fought back against these bullies. They stood up, they shouted louder, and when they could not walk away, they did what they had to do to protect themselves, their families, and their fellow men. My grandfather was a bomber pilot in WWII, he was shot down and spent years in a German concentration camp. I have lost numerous friends who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. I respect greatly my brother in law, and all others who fought and still fight to protect and defend the ideals this country was founded on.
We are a country that fights back against bullies. When we can no longer walk away and ignore them, when the words turn to actions and the action is powered by hate, we stop it. That is who we are. We are the good guys.
But we also make excuses for bullies. We pretend that they are jealous, or they don’t really mean it. We pretend that their aren’t really bad guys. Certainly not famous ones with what sounds like it might be a good business plan.
And he doesn’t really mean it, right? It is all just a show. He doesn’t mean what he says about taking people out on stretchers, or shutting down the press, or suing anyone who disagrees with him. He doesn’t really mean it when he tells people to “rough them up” or “punch him in the face.” He doesn’t really mean that all X are evil, Or that he will force the rest of the country, the rest of the world, to do things his way. He is frustrated like the rest of us and so he says what he thinks, and that is refreshing!
When you respect a man for saying hateful, violent things, it means that deep down inside, you might be thinking them too.
When you respect a man for picking on those less fortunate, and mocking those who are different, deep down inside you might be wishing you could do that too.
And you know what, I respect your right to think those things. I even respect your right to say those things, in the proper forum, so long as you respect everyone’s right to exist, to think their own thoughts (even those you disagree with), and to voice those thoughts as loudly as you have voiced your own.
We all have a right to live. We all have a right to thrive. We all have a right to pursue happiness.
And we all have a responsibility to recognize a bully, reject his ways, and show our children that what applies in kindergarten applies to the rest of mankind, for the rest of their lives.
I haven’t named any names. I don’t have to. We all know who I am talking about, and that very fact shows why this is a problem. We can ignore it. We can pretend it does not exist. That it is not real. That he doesn’t really mean it. We can walk away, turn the other cheek, hope that it is all a show… Or we can talk louder, we can push back, we can shed light and force ourselves to see reality. Maybe we can do it before someone gets hurt. Maybe we can do it before hate and fear becomes a way of life. Maybe we can stand up, like we tell our kids to do, and say no to bullies
I haven’t named any names, and I don’t have to.
Instead, I will close with a counter example. This is a video clip from 2013. Please watch it. Put all thoughts of politics, and partisanship, and disappointment aside. Turn off for a minute your party, your fears, and your conspiracy theories. Watch how a leader, like him or not, can absolutely treat people with fairness and respect. This is what we should demand, not just from our public figures, but from ourselves and everyone around us. This is what it means to be an American, a human being, and a father…