When my daughter was young I could insist she wear a jacket. I haven’t been able to make her wear a hat since winter 2009, but I stood firm at a coat. When she suddenly resisted wearing it, I discovered someone made a mean comment about her coat. It was a singular incident by a child who probably just forgot how to use her filter that day. Was this child a bully? No. Did she make my daughter feel like shit? Yes. Did this girl act like an asshole? Kinda. My daughter let it go and there’s never been an issue with this girl since because I burned her house down.
Of course I didn’t. But that’s how the one little incident made me feel and I can’t imagine the torture parents of bullied children (not to mention the kids!) live through every day. I have no idea how the parents of truly bullied children hold their shit together because if my kid had to face a relentless tormentor every day, I would be cracking the knuckles on my hammer hand and taking off my earrings with the other.
The problem is that I remember everything. This coat thing was a silly little incident with no permanent damage, but I remember. I remember the coat, the month, the comment, all of it. I wanted to go down to that school and say assholish things to this girl myself.
I have some personal experience with bullies as well (I’m also familiar with the activity of assholes, being an on-again/off-again member of that club myself). High school was a good experience for me; I was “popular” – not “Steff” in Pretty in Pink popular – but I did okay. Before that I was in a small middle school and my time there was not always pleasant. I didn’t know what each day would bring because the target was always moving. One day it was my hair, the next it was my clothing. There was nothing several girls couldn’t find fault with and something as insignificant as what I packed in my lunch would draw comments and taunting. I was physically hurt, my locker defaced, and ugh. It was shitty, okay?
It was a repeated, relentless practice of humiliation which hurt me emotionally and physically over many months, brought about by nothing more than a bully’s urge to inflict suffering. Waking up every day with dread in your stomach is no way to live. It changes you. You constantly feel like you’re going to barf and you make no uncalculated moves. The way you walk to the bus stop, when you answer a teachers question, how you brush your hair, what soap you use – your life is not your own. You are merely a body – a vehicle – functioning as quietly as possible in order to remain under a radar which happens to be manned by a control room of fucking monsters.
Bullies are assholes, no question. But the converse is not always true.
A bully uses coercion and intimidation to blow fear into every corner of your life for a sustained period of time. An asshole merely makes it unpleasant or uncomfortable for a limited period.
The girls in my sixth grade class were bullies. Even today, thirty years later, I hope they’re eaten by bears.
But what about people who critique your work in less than flattering terms, or tell you you’re a bad mom for because of (insert something they would NEVER do here). How about the stranger who calls your kid a brat or looks at your shopping cart full of toaster strudel and a jumbo bottle of lube and gives you major stink-eye? Or the guy who laughs out loud when you have trouble fitting into your airplane seat? Or the kid on a bike who cuts you off and, when you unroll your window to see if he’s okay, calls you a whore? Or the pizzeria who forgets your double cheese every single time even though you are clear and explicit about its importance?
Assholes, every one.
Every person deserves the freedom to live their life and seek joy in ways they see fit, in safe conditions free from reprisal or unwarranted antagonism from others. We all experience unkindness at one time or another and most likely we’ve all contributed to these situations too, whether overtly or by omission. There are bullies out there – lots of them, who deserve to be eaten by bears even – but when we dilute the meaning and alter the definition of the word by calling everyone who has an opinion or acts like an asshole a bully, it loses its potency. Remember the good old days back in 2008 when “douche bag” still had some sting? We had a good thing going there with and we screwed it up through overuse, and now the internet scrambles for saltier words with more panache.
I implore you to really think about the meaning and the difference between “bully” and “asshole.” Because only you can prevent “bully” from becoming the “douche bag” of tomorrow.
*this is an edited version of a post which I first wrote at MamaPop.com. Sadly, it’s still all true and my tormenters have yet to be eaten by bears.