The “Family Members, Friends, Neighbors” approach to Mental Illness: Analysis of 2013’s National Conference on Mental HealthPosted: June 7, 2013 | |
“We all know somebody — a family member, a friend, a neighbor — who has struggled or will struggle with mental health issues at some point in their lives.” – President Obama, June 3rd, National Conference On Mental Health.
It will not shock you to learn that I really, really care about mental illness. After all, approximately half of all the blog posts I’ve written since fall 2012 have been about mental illness. It’s an issue of some interest to me!
And in most of those posts I’ve talked about how stigma and stereotypes about mental illness need to end, how the issue deserves more (intelligent and nuanced) national attention, how we need to create more access to mental health services, and, perhaps most importantly, how we need to change the way society respond to mental health issues.
A few days ago – on Monday, June 3rd – President Obama convened a National Conference On Mental Health at the White House. The Conference was ostensibly called in response to the Newtown shootings, although Newtown was never referenced by name. It brought together advocates, elected officials, medical professionals and others (including Hollywood actors) together to discuss the state of mental illness in the United States today. Both the President and the Vice President gave speeches, as did Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary for Health and Human Services. The conference included a panel on reducing stigma associated with mental illness. Two prominent Hollywood actors – Bradley Cooper, who played a man with bipolar disorder in Silver Linings Playbook and Glenn Close, who has family members with mental illnesses – also spoke.
The conference did almost everything I could want. There was a panel about reducing stigma. President Obama specifically said that mental illness doesn’t lead to violence (!!!). Everyone – including the President – pointed out that one in five Americans will suffer from a mental illness, and less than 40% of them will ever receive treatment.
You would think I’d be pleased.
And I was!
… okay, I was only kind of pleased. In fact, as I read coverage of the conference, I found myself getting increasingly frustrated. Because, for all that the conference was supposed to be about mental illnesses, it turned out to focus far more on *sane* family members and friends of the mentally ill, rather than on people with mental illnesses themselves.
This tendency was exemplified in the President’s speech, when he stated: “We all know somebody — a family member, a friend, a neighbor — who has struggled or will struggle with mental health issues at some point in their lives.”
Note the construction of the sentence: “We all know somebody – a family member, a friend, a neighbor – who has struggled with mental illness.” The person with mental illness here is always someone else. They are always removed from ourselves. They are the people we help, the people we are sad for, the people we want to save. The people who are sick, the people who are hurting, the people with the problems – they are categorically not us. They are other.
They are, moreover, specifically not the implied audience of the sentence. The implied audience is the people who “know somebody’ with a mental illness. Obama probably wanted to evoke sympathy for people with mental illnesses. But in doing so, he reinforced the trope of the mentally ill as the “other” – as people who aren’t worth speaking to, and about, directly. Despite the fact that one in five Americans suffer, or will suffer, from a mental illness, and thus make up a fairly sizeable portion of the audience.
Thing is, I do actually know a family member, a friend AND a neighbor who has struggled with mental health issues. You know who else has struggled with mental health issues?
It’s frustrating, as someone with mental illnesses, to feel like conversations about mental illness include everyone except people with the illnesses themselves. It’s incredibly frustration to hear public speakers talk directly to everyone except me – even when they’re talking about something that directly affects my life. And yeah, it’s pretty damn annoying to feel like my “friends, family and neighbors” are more important to this conversation on mental illness than I am.
The otherizing component of the President’s sentence is not a difficult problem to fix. Example: “We all know somebody — a family member, a friend, a neighbor — who has struggled or will struggle with mental health issues at some point in their lives. Indeed, many of us suffer, or will suffer, from mental illnesses.” See the change? It’s a small one – from “them” to “us “- but a crucial one. Suddenly, people with mental illnesses aren’t just other people to be taken care of by their friends and family – they are us. They are a part of the discussion.
And you cannot have a constructive conversation about mental illness without centering the voices, needs and experiences of people with mental illnesses themselves. Not people who KNOW people with mental illnesses. People with mental illnesses. The people, in other words, who are most affected by the problem.
There were a few moments in the President’s speech where he spoke directly to, or about, people with mental illnesses. But they were overwhelmed by addresses to, and anecdotes about, “friends and family members.”
President Obama’s construction of mental illness in his speech was, unfortunately, emblematic of a wider problem at the conference: it seemed much more aimed at those fictional “family members, friends and neighbors” than it was towards actual people with mental illnesses.
None of the actors, elected officials or advocates invited to speak identified as mentally ill. Only one woman on a six-person panel on reducing stigma actually had a mental illness – and thus some first-hand experience. Why are people with mental illnesses so badly represented at, of all places, a National Conference on Mental Health? For fuck’s sake, somewhere around 20% of the country has, or has had, a mental illness. It can’t be that hard to find speakers and experts from that population.
Contributing to the problem, speakers continually praised the efforts – or the struggle – of the “family members and friends” of people with mental illness, while simultaneously failing to mention the struggle and efforts of people with mental illnesses themselves. Vice President Biden, for example, talked about a friend whose son had a mental illness. President Obama talked about former Republican senator, Gordon Smith, and how his son’s suicide led him to start a campaign designed to change attitudes about mental illness. There were very few mentions of the struggles of people with mental illness, or the work or advocacy they were doing (be that work “getting out of bed in the morning” or “starting an organization”).
I don’t think that friends and family members of people with mental illnesses don’t struggle, or that their struggle isn’t important. I don’t think that friends and family members of people with mental illnesses don’t do great things to help, or that those things aren’t important to talk about. What I object to is centering their experience and their work at the expense of the experience and work of people with mental illnesses.
In one of the more frustrating moments, Biden mentioned that his friend felt like he was holding a string to his son, and if he tugged too hard, the string would break and he would lose his son forever. Biden ended by saying: “That is how a hell of a lot of people feel.”
I’m sure they do… but a hell of a lot of people feel like they’re the ones on the end of that string about the break. A hell of a lot of people feel like they’re about to lose themselves forever. Why aren’t we talking about them? Why aren’t we centering their experiences? Especially at a Conference supposedly addressing their issues? Why would you choose to center the stories of people who have a secondhand experience with mental illness, rather than the stories of people who have a firsthand experience with mental illness?
Because the Conference wasn’t really about, or for, people with mental illnesses.
Once I realized that the conference wasn’t about people with mental illnesses, many things were suddenly clear. . Like the presence of Bradley Cooper and Glenn Close. When I saw they were on the guest list, I was all: “WHAT THE FUCK ARE BRADLEY COOPER AND GLENN CLOSE DOING THERE?” But now I understand! It’s because they know people with mental illnesses!
And that’s the important thing to highlight!
No disrespect to Bradley Cooper and Glenn Close. I like Bradley Cooper and Glenn Close! They seem cool. But like everyone else at the conference, their experiences of mental illness are second-hand. Glenn Close has two family members with mental illness.And Bradley Cooper played a mentally ill character in a film. How’s that for a tenuous connection?
(since I’ve played not one, but two characters locked in insane asylums, I am eagerly anticipating an invitation to deliver the keynote speech at the National Conference for Reforming Our Psych Wards. I am QUALIFIED.)
(I am not qualified. Do not invite me.)
As Bradley Cooper himself put it: “I’m sort of here by accident. It’s not that I didn’t know about mental illness. I think it’s just that I just didn’t see it as a part of my life.”
Couldn’t the White House have chosen to invite someone for whom mental illness IS an inextricable part of their lives? Did no one even consider inviting a Famous Person ™ with an actual mental illness? They are out there! They exist! What about Rachel Maddow, who has discussed her problems with depression? Or Demi Lovato, who often talks publicly about her eating disorder, addictions and bipolar disorder?
Why would you invite Bradley Cooper, who PLAYED a man with bipolar disorder, when you could invite Demi Lovato, who actually HAS the illness? Or Catherine Zeta Jones? Or Carrie Fisher? Or Emilie Autumn? Or Francis Ford Coppola? I’m not kidding when I say there are lots and lots of celebrities with mental illnesses that the White House could have chosen to invite. How about Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Brooke Shields, Hugh Laurie, Halle Berry or Janet Jackson?
I understand that the point of inviting Bradley Cooper and Glenn Close is to enlist star power to the Conference’s cause. But how much more effective would that star power have been if the stars had actually struggled with mental illness? And could speak from a place of personal experience?
The narrative would shift from “this horrible thing happens to some people and we should help them” to “this horrible thing happens to me.” And that’s a crucial shift, because it forces people – the media, politicians etc. – to stop treating the mentally ill as “other” and start treating them as “us.” It is much harder to objectify, otherize and stereotype people with mental illnesses when they are the featured speakers at your conference.
(As an aside: I would argue that the comic-blog-thing Hyperbole and a Half published a month ago was more influential culturally than the entire conference, precisely BECAUSE it focused on Allie’s personal experience with mental illness. I’ve shown that post to SO MANY PEOPLE and been like “this is exactly how I experience depression” and seen a mental lightbulb go off.)
Moreover, if we assume that the Conference was supposed to help people with mental illnesses (a fairly naive assumption at this point, but bear with me), inviting stars who actually have mental illnesses would have been far more effective than inviting Cooper and Close. Seeing successful, respected people who suffer from similar diseases is inspiring – it shows that mental illnesses are an illness, not a destiny. When I read about, say, Rachel Maddow’s struggle with depression, I feel hopeful. She’s a woman I admire a great deal, and hearing her talk about her illness makes me feel, in the most visceral way possible, that my depression isn’t a sign of weakness or of incapability.
Inviting Cooper and Close sends the message that mentally ill people can be the friends and family of great people. Inviting Maddow, Lovato, Autumn, sends the message that mentally ill people can be great people themselves. Which sounds like a more effective message?
Okay, so, it’s frustrating that the President and the Conference won’t speak directly to people with mental illnesses. It’s annoying that they’re incapable of inviting speakers who actually have mental illnesses, rather than people who have friends and family with mental illnesses? But is it anything more than annoying?
Yep! There are some pretty grim consequences to the trope of highlighting “friends and family” of the mentally ill at the expense of actual people with mental illness. I mean, aside from otherization and erasure (HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, like those aren’t grim consequences in and of themselves, oh, I do make myself laugh).
First, it adds to an already-potent cultural myth that people with mental illnesses are so addled and deranged that they can’t possible voice their own experiences, or participate in discussions about their own illnesses.By choosing to highlight the “friends and family” (and actor-portrayers) of the mentally ill rather than the mentally ill themselves, the conference reinforced the idea that people with mental illnesses are incapable of advocating for themselves. They are incapable of speaking for themselves. They are incapable of solving their own problems, or of being responsible for wider social change. They are problems to be solved (by sane people), not problem-solvers.
There’s a long history of giving families and governments the power to control the lives of people with mental illnesses, because we assume that people with mental illnesses are irrational and incapable of making intelligent decisions. Reinforcing that trope is dangerous as fuck.
Second, the “friends and family” approach makes it seem like people with mental illnesses are only important in the context of their relationships. In the President’s speech, we are defined not as individuals, but within the structure of relationships with “sane” people – the “family member, friend, neighbor” who knows us. This makes us secondary players in our own illnesses: our conditions are important not because they’re destroying our lives, or making every day a struggle, but because they’re making our loved ones miserable.
If you’re going to try to improve the state of mental illness in the USA, please, don’t do it because you want to spare my parents, my family, my friends, my neighbors. Do it because you care about how it affects people with mental illnesses.
I have a family. I have friends. I have neighbors. I have loved ones. But that’s not why I deserve to be treated as a human being. That’s not why you should reduce the stigma around mental illnesses, or increase mental health access, or change societal attitudes.
That’s not why people with mental illnesses deserve help.
Not to mention the fact that some people with mental illnesses DON’T have family or friends. I’m serious. Some of them are kids in foster systems. Some of them are kids with abusive parents – they have family, but their family is the source of their mental illness, not their support system. Some people with mental illnesses don’t have friends. Some have lost their family. Some are far away from the people they love. They are still valuable people. And they are worth our time and attention, regardless.
There was a lot of good stuff in the conference. People pointed out that mental illnesses aren’t inherently linked to violence! There was an entire panel about reducing stigma! There was talk of improving access!
Unfortunately, the conference’s potential was marred by its lack of focus on people with mental illnesses. In a conference where people pointed out that one in five Americans will suffer a mental illness in their lifetimes, there were shockingly few people with mental illnesses, either as speakers, as the implied audience, or as the focus of speeches and discussions. Instead, most of the focus was on “sane” friends and family members of people with mental illnesses – their experiences, their advocacy, and what they could do to help.
And it’s not like President Obama and the other organizers don’t understand the value of personal experience. In my favorite moment of the President’s speech, he talked about Patrick Kennedy: “when he was running for reelection back in 2006, he could have avoided talking about his struggles with bi‑polar disorder and addiction. Let’s face it, he’s a Kennedy. His seat was pretty safe. Everybody loved him. And yet, Patrick used his experiences as a way to connect and to lift up these issues, not hide from them. One day a woman came up to Patrick at a senior center and told him she was afraid to tell her friends she was taking medication for a mental illness because she was worried they might treat her differently. She told Patrick, “You’re the only one who knows aside from my son.”
From this anecdote, it’s clear to me that Obama understands (some) people with mental illnesses have agency, and that having people in prominent positions talk about their personal experiences with mental illness can make a tremendous change.
I just wish that anecdote had set the tone for the conference, rather than the “we all know someone with a mental illness” sentence. If it had, this conference could have been tremendously influential. Imagine a giant panel of superstars like Rachel Maddow, Janet Jackson, Demi Lovato etc. talking about their experiences, their successes, their struggles, and what they think is necessary to change the state of mental illness in the USA. And then a panel of non-superstars – just regular people with mental illnesses – doing the same. Now THAT would have been a conference.
It’s not that hard to change the focus. You just have to stop seeing people with mental illnesses as the “other,” and start seeing them as part of the “us.”
Last year, an acquaintance of mine informed me that although he was pro-choice, he thought other pro-choicers (like me) often steamrolled over the very real tragedy of abortion (the baby-killing) in their eagerness to talk about “abstract right”
And then, dear Reader, I shot him.
… okay, I didn’t shoot him. But I entertained the notion. I also blew up at him, which is something I wasn’t doing that often back in 2011 (blogging has made me such a better, more publicly pissed-off human being).
What I said, as I recall, was “ABSTRACT RIGHTS FOR WHOM, YOU PRIVILEGED DIPSHIT? THE RIGHT TO CONTROL MY BODY IS NOT AN ABSTRACT RIGHT TO ME.”
And then I went on a long rant about how not-abstract the right to have an abortion was.
My acquaintance never responded, which I took as a victory.
I mention this incident not because it was unusual – I’ve gotten into lots of fights about abortion – but because of the argument led me to an epiphany. As I, filled with rage, typed up my response, I finally hit on why, exactly, abortion was such an important issue to me.
So why? Why do I care so much?
Because abortion isn’t just about a woman’s right to choose what happens to her pregnancy. It also symbolizes a woman’s right to control her own body FULL STOP. A woman has a right to abortion because her body is her own – not the government’s, not her partners, not her relatives, not the doctors.
There are very few things less “abstract’ than our ability to control our own bodies.
And, crucially, the right to bodily autonomy is not just about abortion. It’s not even just about contraception, or reproductive rights, or consent.
Not surprisingly, I have a story to explain my point.
So, random fact: I actually first started thinking about broader issues of bodily autonomy when I realized that November was pancreatic cancer month. Yes, I know, that seems random. But there is a reason to the random, I promise.
Pancreatic cancer is arguably the deadliest of all cancers in terms of survival rate. The one-year survival rate for all stages is 25%. The five-year survival is 5%. The median survival rate for metastasized or locally advanced cases (which account for 80% of all diagnoses) is 6 to 10 months. Pancreatic cancer kills almost as many people as breast and prostate cancer, yet receives less than 1% of the funds for cancer research – possibly because very few people survive the cancer long enough to become advocates.
A pancreatic cancer diagnosis is basically a death sentence.
When my maternal grandmother was in her early forties, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She turned out to be somewhat of a miracle case, surviving almost ten years before the disease metastasized to her liver and killed her.
Here’s where this story gets back to bodily autonomy. My grandmother never knew she was a miracle case because she never knew she had cancer at all.
Wait! You say. She was diagnosed! How could she not know? Did the doctor give her the wrong diagnosis by accident, or something?
Oh, ha-ha, I wish. In fact, my grandmother’s husband (my… step-grandfather?) and her (male) doctor thought that my grandmother would be devastated if she found out she had cancer.
So they decided not to tell her. At all.
She was horribly sick for ten years without ever knowing why. And she died without ever knowing why.
I realize there may be people reading this who will think my grandmother’s doctor and husband did her a favor by sparing her pain and grief. My father is one of those people – when we talked about my maternal grandmother recently, he said he “could not find fault” in her husband’s decision to lie.
My grandmother was so afraid of death, after all. It was better for her not to know.
Welcome to paternalism.
You know what? Maybe my grandmother was happier overall than she would have been knowing her real diagnosis. But that was not her husband OR her doctor’s choice to make. It was not their body. It was not their life. It was not their choice.
It was her body, her life, her right to know.
But these men thought they knew what my grandmother needed better than she did. They thought they had the right – nay, the obligation – to control her life.
Let’s think about the very real consequences of their decision, shall we?
My grandmother could not make choices about her own medical care, since she did not know what her actual medical conditions were. Certain procedures must have been unavailable to her, since they would have forced doctors to reveal the secret (there aren’t a lot of reasons to get chemotherapy except cancer).
My grandmother could not make informed choices about how to live her life, since she did not know crucial facts ABOUT her life. She did not know she was living with a deadly illness. She did not know that her prognosis was severe; that doctors thought she would survive a few months or a year, at most. Maybe my grandmother would have made different choices. Maybe there were things she would have wanted to do. But she did not have the information necessary to make those choices. Tragically, she could not even decide how to prepare (or not prepare) her youngest daughter, who was a very young child when my grandmother was diagnosed.
And, although she did not know it, the lie made my grandmother utterly dependent on her husband and her doctor. They were now in complete control of her medical future. They could have chosen not to treat her. They could have chosen to use highly experimental drugs. Her husband could have withheld medication. He could have used his knowledge to manipulate her into making big financial decisions that she would not have made knowing her prognosis.
As far as I know – and I do not know a lot – the doctors and her husband did not abuse their power. I mean, except for the part where they lied to my grandmother for TEN YEARS. Other than that.
But they could have. From the time her doctor and her husband decided to lie to her, to the time she died, my grandmother did not have bodily autonomy. She could not control her own life, or her own body. Other people had that control.
My grandmother died of pancreatic and liver cancer two days before I was born.
Paternalism did not kill my grandmother. Cancer did. But paternalism took away my grandmother’s ability to make informed choices about her body and her life.
And this isn’t just a random horror story. It’s the dominant narrative of our past. Women and other minorities have not traditionally been allowed to control their own bodies. Their male relatives did. Their doctors did. The government did. Their owners did, in many cases. The US government sterilized mentally ill women and native women. Hospitals forced – and continue to force – women to undergo dangerous medical procedures without informing them, or seeking their consent. Hell, for over 30o years, black peoples in the United States were considered property.
It’s not just a historical horror story either. In Kansas, a law passed this year that allows doctors to lie to women about their pregnancies if they believe that the information might lead the woman to choose abortion.
Doctors can lie to their patients to stop them from getting abortions.
Bodily autonomy is not just about abortion. But there’s a reason people get so mad when our right to choose is threatened. We know that abortion is just the tip of the iceberg. We know bodily autonomy is not some kind of contingent thing where you can say “you control your body up to the uterus, but after that, it’s in the government hands.” We know what happened to us when our bodies were not under our control. And we’re not interested in going back.
I’m not particularly angry at my step-grandfather, or my grandmother’s doctors. I think what they did was disgusting and unethical, yes. And I’m rather grateful that I don’t have to interact with my step-grandfather. But I’m not that angry at them. I’m angry at the system that made it okay and normal for them to lie to my grandmother. I’m angry at a system that told them it was okay for them to take control of this woman’s body and life. And I’m angry that that system still exists. That we’re still fighting for the basic right to bodily autonomy today. In 2012.
People are allowed to control their own bodies. Women very often are not.
Rebecca West once said: Feminism is the radical notion that women are people. It’s a surprisingly radical notion.
Any comments that justify the decision to hide my grandmother’s illness from her will be mocked or banned. So will any that engage in victim-blaming by arguing that my grandmother “must” have figured it out. Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t. That’s not the point. Of any comments that talk about how difficult it must have been for her husband to hide the truth from her will? Yeah, it was probably hard. You know what would have made it easier? TELLING HER THE TRUTH.
Comment with care
Psst! You! Readers! is CD around?
No? Oh, FANTASTIC. I’m just going to let myself in, then! You guys don’t mind if I take over blogging duties for the day, right? Right!
Yes, yes, it’s me. The Feminist Batwoman. Champion of Intersectional Feminism and Enemy of Restrictive Gender Roles!
I know. Very exciting. I keep meaning to drop in and blog, but C.D. is kinda paranoid, and she doesn’t want me around. Something about the police putting her in jail for
being harboring a vigilante blah blah blah.
Also, she’s convinced that people think SHE’S the Feminist Batwoman. Which is obviously not true. CD and I have actually never met! How can we be the same person if we’ve never met!
Anyway. I think the problem with C.D. is that she just doesn’t have trust. I mean, I love that woman, but… seriously. You guys aren’t going to turn me in, right? I’m the Feminist Batwoman! I fight for Intersectional Feminism and Gender Equality Throughout the Shadows of the Interwebs.
AND I have a fabulous mask. Why would anyone turn me in?
See what I mean about the fabulous mask?
So now that we’ve established that you aren’t going to turn me in, let’s turn back to CD.
Have you guys noticed that she’s a bit… off, recently? She keeps writing about all this UBER-depressing stuff, and going on long rants and freakouts. Now, as the Feminist Batwoman, I fully support long rants and freakouts, but…
I’m worried that CD has lost her joy.
I mean – did you SEE what happened two weeks ago? The American Election? SHE SHOULD BE OVER THE MOON ABOUT THAT! She should be blogging kitten GIFs and celebratory confetti and explosions ALL THE TIME.
The activist joy should be EVERYWHERE!
So, you know. I thought I would cheer up CD (and bring on the return of the Kitten GIFS!) by reminding her of all of our Great Victories this month.
Maybe if CD remembers all the happy things that happened, she’ll be happier! Can’t hurt, right?
Let’s start at the top:
#1: Mitt Romney, oppressive douchebag and plutocrat supreme… Defeated!
I will not have to spend the next four years tracking down and defeating his Legion of Anti-Roe judges! I will not have to fight his attempts to turn over Obamacare and get us in more wars and cut the budget for food stamps and medicare and medicaid and social security and education. And hey, we won’t have to deal with his racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia and classicism and general… barfiness.
My costume is already SUFFICIENTLY covered in the Barf of Oppression just from fighting to defeat Mitt Romney’s campaign. I’ve had to go to the dry cleaners ten times this election cycle. They’re giving me REALLY weird looks.
Imagine what I would look like if he were president. *shudder*
2. President Obama (a somewhat too-conservative-for-my-taste but generally pretty-decent- president) won. And President Obama is someone I can work with. He’s the man who brought us Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan and Obamacare and who ended Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and who passed the mini-dream act. He saved the economy and made insurance companies cover contraceptives and signed the Lilly Ledbetter fair pay law. He passed a bill that made it a hate-crime to commit an assault on someone based on their sexual orientation; he extended employment benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees and he became the FIRST SITTING US PRESIDENT to come out in favor of marriage equality. Oh, and he extended health insurance to four million uninsured kids (why, in the name of the Holy Batmobile, do we have FOUR MILLION uninsured kids in the richest country in the world? QUESTIONS).
Like I said. I can work with this guy.
All good news so far, right? All news that should make CD happy, right?
It gets better.
3. In Maryland, Maine and Washington, people voted to legalize same-sex marriage. YES THEY DID. We broke the 32-state losing streak (including a loss in my – I MEAN CD’s – home state of Wisconsin) with a three state victory! We finally got a popular victory for same-sex marriage!
(although I object to people’s fundamental human rights being put on the ballot, but if they’re going to be put on the ballot, this is the desired outcome)
Moreover, Minnesota had an amendment on the ballot that would have defined marriage as between one man and one woman. You know what happened? Voters said NO. AGAIN FOR THE FIRST TIME
I’d like to take this opportunity to congratulate my fellow Anti-Oppression Superhero Alliance member, The Queer Question (also known as Renee Montoya), who led the charge in the fight for same-sex marriage. The Question knows how to stop the Forces of Oppression, y’all.
Has CD cheered up by now? If she hasn’t, I have even MORE good news for her (because this election is just the gift that keeps on giving).
4. The next American congress will have the highest number of female senators in recorded history: twenty
(which: it is super-gross that 20 is a HIGH number of women in the senate. But we’re getting better).
And let’s talk about those women! Because it’s not just that we’ve got more women senators and representatives – it’s that the ones we’ve got are incredible.
Elizabeth Warren won a senate seat in Massachusetts. I’m quite fond of that woman. She scares Wall Street half-to-death, and is already fighting the Forces of Economic Oppression. Go Warren!
Tammy Baldwin WON A SENATE SEAT in Wisconsin! Tammy Baldwin is now Wisconsin’s first female senator – and the first openly gay member of the senate in US HISTORY.
I’m a huge fan of Tammy Baldwin’s. She’s been
my CD’s representative for years (since I’m CD is from Madison). Her work in the House was incredible; and I fully expect great things in the Senate.
CD, of course, was terrified that Tammy Baldwin – an openly gay woman from the hellmouth of hippie-liberalville (Madison) would have no chance of being elected in Wisconsin. And I do like proving CD wrong.
Claire McCaskill defeated Todd Akin (aka: “Mr. Legitimate Rape”). She won the Mississippi Senate seat – one that almost NO ONE thought a democrat could hang onto – by fourteen points. Because she is an incredible campaigner and she knew how to let Todd Akin hang himself by his own rope.
And to cap off our list of amazing women senators, Mazie Hirono won Hawaii’s open senate seat, thus making history as the USA’S first Asian American female senator. Whoo!
My good friend and fellow Anti-Oppression Superhero, the Anti-Racist Black Bat (Cassandra Cain) (who happens to be one of the few Asian members of the DC Universe) is REALLY excited about Mazi Hirono’s election.
Cassandra is also rather pissed that it took until 2012 for an Asian-American woman to be elected to the Senate.
The fun doesn’t even stop with senators! The great state of Illinois elected Tammy Duckworth to the House of Representatives. Duckworth served in the Iraq war, where she lost both legs. She is the first female war veteran with disabilities elected to the US House of Representatives.
You will not be surprised to know that Disability Rights Oracle (Barbara Gordon) was thoroughly pleased by Duckworth’s election!
And the great State of Hawaii elected Tulsi Gabbard, another female war veteran – AND the first Hindu member of the US House of Representatives.
But the best part of this election – and yes, we haven’t even gotten to the best part yet – wasn’t just that a League of Awesome Women were elected.
5. It was that the League of Awesome Women (in conjunction with the Anti-Oppression Superheroes) defeated the Evil Alliance of Rape Apologists.
Senate candidate Richard “Rape Babies are a Gift From God” Mourdock? DEFEATED.
Senate candidate Todd “If It’s A Legitimate Rape, the Female Body has ways to Shut That Whole Thing Down” Akin? DEFEATED!
House candidate John “The Rape thing” Koster? DEFEATED.
House candidate Joe “‘there is no such exception as life of the mother” Walsh? DEFEATED. By the way, Mr. Walsh, if pregnancy can’t actually kill women, what happened to Savita Halappanavar?
Vice Presidential Candidate Paul “Rape is just another method of conception” Ryan? DEFEATED.
All congratulations are due to The Consent Culture Batgirl (Stephanie Brown) who took point in the Anti-Oppression Superhero Alliance’s battle with the Evil League of Rape Apologists. I think we can agree she did a pretty fabulous job, no?
So, overall, I think the forces of Anti-Oppression did pretty well this election cycle, no?
We defeated the forces of oppression and darkness and plutocracy! We brought down the Evil Alliance of Rape Apologists! We elected a swath of Awesome Women!
Its definitely party time at the Anti-Oppression Superhero Alliance Headquarters, if you know what I mean!
(No, I don’t mean an orgy. Get your minds out of the gutter).
Party! Party! Party!
And I totally think CD should join us in this great party of activist joy, don’t you? Now that she’s undoubtedly been cheered up by all our good news!
I mean, come on. We won! Time to stop moping and stop ranting and smell the Victory Flowers, no? Or else CD is going to go all Batman, and be angsty 99% of the time, and no one wants that, do they?
It’s time to bring the joy to CD, ANTI-OPPRESSION PARTY STYLE!
I’m just going to check CD’s agenda book and see when she’s got a free slot for the party, shall I? Then we can all persuade her to go.
Huh. Can’t find CD.’s agenda, but… there’s this blog post draft on CD’s computer. I’ll just go ahead and read it (Hey, I’M not Consent Culture Batgirl. Privacy is not my only priority. Also, CD and I are
the same person friends!)
Well, this blog post is disturbing.
And by disturbing, I mean:
Montana voters passed a state ballot measure that puts in place a parental notification law: any person under the age of 16 who seeks an abortion needs to notify their parents. A PARENTAL NOTIFICATION LAW?
Well, HOW COULD THAT POSSIBLY GO WRONG?
OH GREAT, and IT KEEPS GOING.
After helping to pass Texas’ abortion sonogram law, Texas State Senator Dan Patrick is trying to cut off Rural Texans’ access to abortion. Because there’s nothing Dan Patrick cares about more than controlling women’s personal medical decisions!
The head of the Maine Republican party thinks there was voter fraud, because “dozens’ of black people showed up to vote, and no one in rural Maine knows any black people! Mitt Romney says Obama won because he gave “gifts” to women, young people, Latinos etc. Paul Ryan blames the urban vote (*cough* people of color *cough*).
Okay, I know I was complaining that CD seems really pissed off these days? BUT THIS? THIS IS PISSING ME OFF ALL OVER AGAIN.
Scott Walker is trying to end same-day registration in Wisconsin, because the best way to follow up an election full of voter suppression is MORE voter suppression.
In Kansas, the city of Selina passed a proposition that overturns the city’s protections from discrimination for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. The City of Hutchinson also overturned their city’s discrimination protections.
Proposition 35 passed in California. It raises the penalty for those convicted of sex trafficking to as high as life in prison, which SOUNDS great, until you figure out that survivor groups were against the proposition. Why? Because the bill conflates sex trafficking and sex work, which means that both sex workers and sex trafficking survivors could be penalized, put in jail, put on sex offender registries etc. The bill will probably have a much worse effect on sex workers and victims than it will on actual bad guys. Melissa Gira Grant wrote a smarter and longer analysis of the problems with Proposition 35.
… And Oklahoma passed a constitutional amendment that bans affirmative action practices in state government hiring, education and contracting. But that’s okay, because apparently they weren’t using affirmative action anyway! And it’s not like there’s institutional racism or sexism in the USA, because, as everyone knows, we live in a post-racist and sexist society.
… yeah, okay. Maybe there’s a reason CD is still angry. Hell, I’M ANGRY.
You know what? Victory party canceled. We can have a victory party later. I can use the streamers to tie up some misogynists. Kyriarchy-Blasting Wonder Woman can use the helium from the balloons to power her invisible jet. We can throw the confetti in the eyes of the racists.
CD’s right. Our activism isn’t over, not even after this victory. People are still being oppressive asshats. A woman’s ability to choose is still under fire. People of color are still being targetted. Homophobia is still ruining lives. Misogyny is still rampant.
Time to get back to work.
ANTI-OPPRESSION SUPERHERO ALLIANCE, ASSEMBLE!
Oh, uh – before I leave to go fight oppression, could you guys do me a favor?
Could you NOT tell CD that I was here?
Like, keep it all hush-hush?
Also, you really don’t have to mention that I changed my mind and actually, we can’t celebrate yet because there are so many other things wrong in the world we need to deal with.
She doesn’t need to know she was right. That woman is not a gracious winner.
Just keep it… quiet, is my point. Okay? Okay!
Great! I’ll be back soon, faithful readers! In the meantime, I will go forth into the Shadowy Corners of the Interwebs and Fight Against Restrictive Gender Roles and All the Other Forces of Oppression!
Until next time.
- Your Friendly Interweb Feminist Batwoman.
CD HERE. WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO WITH MY BLOG, FEMINIST BATWOMAN?
… oh, fuck. I knew I shouldn’t have
had that half-glass of beer and put on the mask left my computer unattended. The Feminist Batwoman is devious. Super-devious. And in no way related to me. Ignore the shot of my shoulder in the last picture. That’s not my shoulder. I’m not the Feminist Batwoman. Yeah. I had nothing to do with this.
I need to change my passwords. AGAIN.
Anyway. Sorry about that, everyone. I’ll try to
stay away from the mask keep a better eye on my computer in the future.
Although I do agree with the Feminist Batwoman’s point. We did win a big victory this November, and we should celebrate. But we should remember that there’s still a war on. It’s not time to lay down our weapons yet.
As Consent Culture Batgirl always says:
- I’m not ready for this to be the end of the fight. There’s so much ground to cover still. More misogyny and racism and homophobia and ableism and transphobia and oppression to uncover and stop. A new, better society to build.
- What are you still fighting for?
- ETA 2: Okay, FINE, ONE CELEBRATORY KITTEN GIF. But only because of the marriage victories in Maryland, Maine and Washington and Minnesota. And because of Tammy Duckworth and Tammy Baldwin and Claire McCaskill and Elizabeth Warren and Maizie Hirono and Tulsi Gabbard.
Before I begin this blog post, I need a moment for prayer.
Please, please, Cylon Jesus, please let this be the last blog post I ever publish about Mitt Romney. Please let this be the last blog post I ever have to write about Mitt Romney, Cylon Jesus. In other words, please make sure Mitt Romney loses the American election and I never ever hear about him again.
Please Cylon Jesus.
It’s my birthday soon, Cylon Jesus. Very soon. You wanna give me a present?
No more Mitt Romney.
That’s all I want, Cylon Jesus.
Well, that and a pony.
(take care of the Romney problem first, Cylon Jesus, okay, though? #IHavePriorities)
Okay, back to Mitt Romney.
A couple weeks ago, I got in a facebook argument on a friend’s wall. My Awesome Friend had posted an article explaining that Mitt Romney’s 47% speech included a racist dog-whistle (or ninety).
Another facebook dweller (henceforth known as of Acquaintance) was not convinced that Romney’s remarks had elements of racism. We had a nice productive facebook argument about that, and at some point, Acquaintance concedes that yes, Romney’s remarks were probably racist.
So far so good, right?
BUT THEN, Acquaintance goes (and I’m grossly paraphrasing) “Well, okay, maybe it’s racist, but we don’t need to call out the racism. Critiques of Romney’s remarks based on classism are sufficient.”
To be fair to Acquaintance, he’s not the only person guilty of such argumentative doltishness. I’m sure you’ve heard variations of this theme before.
It’s the “yes, okay, Republicans are attacking gay rights, and that’s terrifically sad, but we can’t talk about that, because it’s divisive! And we don’t want to alienate any of our supporters.” argument. Or the argument of: “well, yes, all those anti-welfare advertisements Romney’s campaign is running are highly racist. BUT it only helps Romney if we accuse him of being racist, because then they’ll say we’re playing the race card.”
Or: “Sure, Republicans are talking about taking away a woman’s right to birth control/abortion/her own body. But that’s controversial, so we can’t talk about it.”
So. With a little less than a week left before the election, let’s clear things up.
You know why you should call Romney out for being a racist? Or a sexist? or a homophobe? Or a terribly oppressive douchecanoe?
Because when Romney’s a racist, or a sexist, or a homophobe, he’s attacking PEOPLE. PEOPLE. REAL PEOPLE.
POC and women and queer peoples are PEOPLE. They’re PEOPLE. And when they’re getting thrown under the motherfucking bus by a bunch of asswipe politicians, you STAND UP.
For crying out loud.
When you say racism isn’t important enough to call out, you’re tacitly saying that POC aren’t important enough to defend.
When you refuse to call out the war on women’s bodily autonomy, you’re basically saying that women aren’t important enough to stand up for.
When you let Karl Rove and his minions play the “Ooooh, scary gay people” game without saying anything back, you’re throwing queer people overboard and letting them swim with the sharks by themselves.
I’m white. I have white privilege. I don’t honestly know what it’s like to be a POC and to hear Romney’s racist dog-whistles. And I don’t want to appropriate that conversation. You should read these awesome links instead (they’re a great starting point for understanding the DEGREE to which racist rhetoric has invaded Romney’s speech)
I am a woman, however, and I do know what it’s like to hear politicians talking about taking away my birth control; my right to an abortion. I do know what it’s like to hear men – men who control our country’s policy – say things like “legitimate rape” and “forcible rape.” I know what it’s like hearing that a pregnancy resulting from rape is a “gift from God.”
This is my body they’re talking about. My right to control my own body.
Fuck, it’s terrifying.
I can’t imagine it’s any easier to be a POC listening to Romney’s racist rhetoric.
My point, here it is: This isn’t dinner theater. These are people’s LIVES.
Racism, misogyny, homophobia (to name the big three) kill people. Yes, in the United States. Yes, in Canada. And when they don’t kill you, they still force you to live a life full of micro-aggressions and oppression.
Or they just make you live a life of misery and terror. [ask me about living a life full of misery and terror! I am a woman living in rape culture. I'm a fucking expert!]
When politicians use racism, or sexism, or homophobia, or any kind of oppression in order to gain political points, they’re basically saying that oppressed peoples matter so little that politicians can use their lives as political footballs.
Women’s rights to their bodies are not a political football. The right of POC to be treated with respect and without bigotry is not a political football.
It’s not a game.
And when we don’t call them out, we’re tacitly agreeing. it’s okay if women/POC/queers/minorities are batted around like catnip in front of a kitten! It just doesn’t matter that much.
No, it matters.
And it’s not about Romney. I get that people are like “well, he’s a gross asshole in nearly every way, so we really don’t need to list every horrible thing he does.” I get people who say “well, no matter what we say, he’s never going to stop being an oppressive douchecanoe.”
(which: Fair. I don’t think there’s much that’ll make Romney stop being an oppressive douchecanoe)
But it’s not about Romney. It’s about the people he’s attacking in his attempt to win the Presidency.
You don’t call Romney out because you think Romney will magically learn not to be an oppressive douchecanoe. You call him out because you think the rights of oppressed minorities are worth standing up for. You call him out because you don’t believe in leaving people out in the shark-infested water, getting attacked by a bunch of cynical politicians.
You call him out because it matters to me, damn it, as one of those people being attacked, to hear others supporting my rights. To know that I’m not alone. That someone will fight alongside me.
It’s not about Romney.
And it’s not just about douchebags like Romney either. I think most people who read this blog are progressive or liberal (or else you’d already be sending me hate mail), and it’s pretty easy for progressive, liberal people to go “Oh, yeah, Romney, that racist asshat, I can call him out!”
It’s a lot harder when it’s your heroes. It’s a lot harder when it’s your allies.
I’m thinking of Bill Maher, misogynist supreme, and comedic hero of much of the left. We can’t call him out! He’s on our side!
(no, you really can call him out. And you should)
I’m thinking of Hugo Schwyer, feminist hero. A man who has admitted to having raped a woman and tried to kill his girlfriend. A man who has harassed and dismissed women of color in the feminist movement. A man that many Big Name Feminist still defend. We can’t call him out! He’s a male feminist! Also, calling him out is divisive to the feminist community!
(no, you really can call him out. Also, you should SHUN HIM).
I’m thinking of feminists who ignore women of color, or who act like WOC’s concerns are something to take care of “later.” Or who are blatantly racist and who STILL don’t get called out, because the feminist movement is often REALLY SHITTY about the rights and issues of anyone who isn’t a middle-class western cisgendered straight white woman.
Yes, I love feminism. Yes, it’s one of the great axis around which my life turns.
But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t call feminist out when they exclude women of color, or when they’re racist. No, I should.
Hell, I’m even thinking of myself. I’m a huge bundle of privilege, and I’m still very much in the “screwing up” stage of anti-oppression work. And you know what? If I say oppressive stuff, or write oppressive stuff, or blog oppressive stuff, or if I’m being problematic?
I would take it as a MASSIVE favor if you would call me out. Sure, I’ll feel defensive for 30 seconds, and then I’ll get my head on straight. Other peoples’ right not to be oppressed is more important than my ability to feel comfortable in my discourse.
Now, look. There are good and valid reasons not to call people out.
First, calling people out takes a fuckmetric ton of energy (Fuckmetric tons: scientific measurement right there). It’s not easy. And a lot of times, it’s not safe either.
There are many circumstances where I don’t feel safe calling people out. One easy example: I don’t feel safe yelling at street harassers.
What if they turned on me? What if they hurt me?
There are also circumstances where I’m just too tired to call people out, especially when it’s about something that personally affects me (sexism, stigmatization of mental health issues etc). It’s emotionally exhausting, having to argue for your right to exist, and to be treated with respect.
Sometimes, I just can’t handle it.
So I pick my battles.
The other major reason not to call people out is when you might be appropriating someone else’s fight or adding to oppression. This especially applies to allies.
Be aware of the fact that in many spaces, your voice may be more privileged just by dint of the body you inhabit. Men have more privileged voices than women. White people have more privileged voices than people of color. You want to be sure that your calling people out isn’t, by dint of your privilege, excluding or disempowering the people you want to support.
(random example of me screwing this one up: this weekend, I got in another facebook argument, this time about the importance of Andrew Ti. I waded in to support my friend, who is a woman of color (I’m white). The white dude in the argument dismissed my friend as childish and hysterical. On the other hand, he listened to me and CHANGED HIS MIND. Least you ask, my friend and I were making almost exactly THE SAME ARGUMENT. Word for fucking word. So yeah, my attempt to support a friend turned into another instance of “let’s disempower the woman of color.” Yeah, I screwed that one up)
[also, if you're not already reading Yo is This Racist? You should be.]
So yes, absolutely, there are good reasons not to call people out. But if you’re safe and secure and you know you’re not disempowering other people (except the racists – I fully believe in disempowering racists)?
And you choose not to do it, because of you just can’t be bothered?
Then dude, you suck.
Now, I’m not saying your suckiness is a permanent state. Let us note that I’ve been pretty damn terrible in my life at calling people out.
Yes, I suck!
But I’m working on it.
Call people out, everyone. NOT JUST MITT ROMNEY EITHER.
(Also, Cylon Jesus, if it isn’t too much to ask, I’d love to have my birthday night free of homework and stuff. No? Not possible? Okay, thanks for trying).
(hey, do you guys like the new blog design? I’m obsessed. Now with 100% more rose-red pink! And more feminist Batwoman!)
Did you fear I would never address the Obama/Romney election on this blog? Fear no more! The day of reckoning is here, and my ranting powers are at their full potential.
After all, it’s election time in the USA! Will we manage to survive yet another racist-ass, anti-woman, queerphobic disaster of a Republican Candidate (Mitt Romney) and elect a moderately conservative dude instead (Barack Obama)? Only time will tell!
Is Mitt Romney as horrible a slimeball as he appears? … YES!
Now, I know you don’t need me to tell you that Romney is a slimeball. And I know you don’t need me to tell you that he’s a racist, queerphobic, classist misogynist with big entitlement issues. Those things are pretty damn obvious.
But there IS something I have to tell you. Hell, I put my entire blog schedule on hold for this huge insight into the character of Mitt Romney. It’s GAME CHANGING.
You should probably hold onto something.
Or sit down.
Is a runaway Jane Austen character.
Oh yeah, I just brought in Jane Austen.
I… I think I just lost half my readership there. SORRY GUYS! I LOVE YOU! I PROMISE I’LL STOP TALKING ABOUT REGENCY LITERATURE IN MY NEXT POST. I’LL STOP MAKING VERY BIZARRE SPECULATIONS! COME BAAAAACK.
Then again, the three literature/poli-sci geeks in the room just started fist-pumping. “Austen – Romney FTW!”
And as I am a literature/poli-sci geek… well.
So. Random fact: I am totally obsessed with Jane Austen. I became an English literature student because of Jane Austen. I’ve read every novel Jane Austen ever published. I’ve read Jane Austen’s juvenilia. I’ve taken classes on Jane Austen. I’ve planned book-length projects on Jane Austen. I think about Jane Austen a LOT.
And a couple weeks ago, I was walking to the library, thinking about Jane Austen (as you do), and how interesting it is that her marriage plot, which appears so stuffy to modern readers, was actually radical and revolutionary, because she gave her female characters the right to say “No” to marriage proposals. And isn’t it interesting how this “no” always shocked male suitors? The entire thing really exposes the way the clueless male suitors felt so damn entitled to getting women… wait… you know who else seems to have that massive sense of entitlement to getting people’s support?
And I was all “OH MY GOD, I’VE GOT IT.”
Mitt Romney is the clueless suitor.
I immediately raced to twitter. “Romney,” I said. “Is like every boorish male suitor in Austen’s novels – Mr. Elton, Mr. Collins, Henry Crawford. The suitor asks the protagonist to marry him, and is shocked she could say “no, because, after all, they have MONEY. Just like Mitt Romney runs for president, and is shocked that people won’t vote for him, because after all, he has MONEY.”
I spent the rest of the day tweeting about this. People needed to know. They needed to know that Mitt Romney is a runaway Jane Austen character.
Now, I imagine you aren’t convinced by my brilliant thesis yet. Neither was I, at first. But the evidence kept piling up.
Let’s have a checklist!
1. The Longing Gaze
Jane Austen’s clueless suitors are known for gazing longingly at their object of their affection. In fact, Mr. Darcy’s longing stares at Elizabeth Bennet are so epic, they’ve given rise to the term “Firthing” (longing, silent stares) in honor of Colin Firth, the actor who portrayed Mr. Darcy in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice.
And Mr. Mittens Romney, Clueless Presidential Suitor?
ALSO known for his (vaguely disturbing) longing stares!
2. Sense of Entitlement
Austen’s Clueless Suitors are always shocked that the objects of their affection actually expect them to behave WELL. Notable in the Mr. Collins proposal scene, where Mr. Collins is all “what are you talking about with your “no thank you”? I have everything a woman needs!” Or, in Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford’s total confusion at the fact that Fanny doesn’t love him: “Sure, I behaved like a total manipulative douchebag for the past two hundred pages. But I’m hot! And thus entitled to your affections!”
Or the Mr. Darcy proposal scene, where Mr. Darcy finds it incredible that Elizabeth Bennet expects him not to act like an asshole. Yo, I’m already asking you to marry me, Lady. And now you want me to act like a decent human being?
Next thing you know, these pesky women will expect you to treat them like human beings!
The suitors, in other words, are very entitled.
And Mitt Romney has a very similar sense of douchebag entitlement.
“What, you mean campaigns involve work? And scrutiny? and QUESTIONS? Yo, I’m being nice enough to run, let’s not raise expectations too high, okay?”
The poor man gets increasingly annoyed every time voters or the media dare to presume to ask basic questions, like “where are your tax returns?” or “can we get a press conference over here?” or “would you mind clarifying your position, please?” He seems to expect that we should just go along with his whole “don’t look at my record! Don’t look at my business record! Just look at the parts I want you to look at, and only as long as I want you to look at them!” schtick.
Note Ann Romney’s infamous quote on the subject of Mitt Romney’s invisible tax returns:
“We’ve given you people all you need to know!”
3. Hating Poor People
Jane Austen’s clueless suitors tend to also be giant snobs who highly dislike anyone in a lower class.
Example: Mr. Darcy, to Elizabeth Bennet, the woman he’s proposing marriage to: “Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?”
“There are 47 percent [of Americans] who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. (…) My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Or, translated into Austen speech:
Mr. Romney, courting the American vote: “”Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of 47% of the country? To congratulate myself on the entitlement of Americans, whose conditions in life are so decidedly beneath my own?”
SEE THE SIMILARITIES?
4. Acting like people are lucky to be able to vote for/marry them?
Going along with the “sense of entitlement” thing: Austenian suitors usually act like the women they propose to are LUCKY to have someone so handsome/rich/competent asking for their hand in marriage.
Mr. Collins to Elizabeth Bennet, asking her to marry him: “It does not appear to me that my hand is unworthy your acceptance, or that the establishment I can offer would be any other than highly desirable. My situation in life, my connections with the family of De Bourgh, and my relationship to your own, are circumstances highly in its favor; and you should take it into farther consideration that in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you.”
And Mr. Mitt Romney? Does he ever show any of this “you people are so lucky I want to be President” attitude?
Surely not! That would be too ridiculous! And entitled and…
Ann Romney: “It is time for all Americans to realize how significant this election is and how lucky we are to have someone with Mitt’s qualifications and experience and know-how to be able to have the opportunity to run this country.”
(uh, HUGE CHECK) 3
5. Last, but not least: Super Awkward!
Indeed, Jane Austen’s clueless suitors tend to be catastrophically awkward and stiff (which makes them all the more hilarious).
Mr. Romney, what sayeth you to this? Are you stiff and awkward?
Well, he loves laughter. So much.
And he’s so genuine.
… Your honor, I rest my case.
… I’m telling you. It shocked me too, but it is TRUE. Mitt Romney is a clueless suitor. He has escaped from one of Austen’s novels to our world, and is now plotting his evil evil ways.
As Dani Alexis (@danialexis) reminded me on twitter: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a Presidency.”
Romney: “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My desire to be President will not be repressed.” (credit for quote: @danialexis)
HIS DESIRE TO BE PRESIDENT WILL NOT BE REPRESSED!
… quite a scary concept, actually.
You know what else? If Mitt Romney is actually a Jane Austen character (which I believe I’ve thoroughly proved by this point), it also explains why Mitt Romney has so many problems with women!
Yes, indeed! For, as Mr. Collins tells us: “As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall chuse to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.”
You see, women don’t have a problem with Mitt Romney because he’s from a party of giant misogynists who want to take us back to the stone ages. No! We’re just PRETENDING we’ve not going to vote for him, in order to increase his love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.
I JUST EXPLAINED THE GENDER GAP EVERYONE!
[She really loves him, she's just increasing his suspense]
So basically, we need Mittens Romney to ask women to vote for him a few more times, and we’ll totally change our minds!
… yeah, no.
I mean, I don’t want to make assumptions about anyone else’s political decisions, but… let’s just say I don’t think Mr. Romney’s “courtship” of my vote is going to end any better for him than Mr. Collins’ courtship of Lizzie Bennet’s hand.
Hey, Mittens, sorry, but I’m sending my absentee ballot off to the states just as soon as I find an American witness to… witness me voting.
And the name I checked?
But hey, good luck with your attempt to court all us elegant females!
And all you elegant females? And males? Be forewarned! Mitt Romney’s desire to be President will not be suppressed! He’s going to be courting you pretty hard!
And as a runaway Jane Austen character, I think there’s a good chance he’ll start organizing formal balls.
Mitt Romney Style!
** Before you ask, yes, I am aware that Mitt Romney is PROBABLY not a Jane Austen character. It’s a joke! I know it’s a joke! Moving on.
[Trigger Warning for bullying, violence, homophobia, harassment, suicide]
I usually apologize for long blog posts. I have a short attention span; I’m sure my readers do too. But I’m not apologizing this time.
This post is different.
As most of my regular readers know, quite a few of my blog posts are inspired by my younger brother, R. Mostly because R. is awesome, and has great ideas.
This post is different.
Two years ago, during our winter break, R. and I went on a long walk through the streets of Madison. It was night, it was cold, I had heavy bags, but we were enjoying ourselves. We were talking about important things – books, our parents, movies, school etc.
At some point, I asked R. if he liked having an iPod.
Yes, he said. I listen to it on the bus back from school. After the day is over, I often feel frustrated and upset. So I turn on my iPod and listen to Adele or Coldplay, and it helps get rid of the stress.
Now usually, my brother likes school. I mean, obviously, there are good days and bad days and good teachers and bad teachers, but for the most part, he really enjoys it. He loves learning; he has lots of friends… school is good.
So hearing that R. was often frustrated or upset after a day at school was a huge red flag for me – and I asked him why.
That’s when he told me about bullying.
Discussions of teen bullying have been everywhere recently, from Lady Gaga’s anti-bullying campaign and Dan Savage’s It Gets Better movement, to worries about cyberbullying and the surge of teen suicide attempts. The most recent government survey indicates that 28% of kids in grades 6-12 have experienced bullying. I wouldn’t be shocked if it were more.
I knew bullying existed. It was still a punch in the gut when R. told me it was happening in his school.
I had a very mature reaction to the situation. My brother was going to drop out of school and never, ever go there again. And if that wasn’t feasible, I was going to drop out of college and follow him around with a baseball bat.
…yeah, that was a pretty terrible plan.
Eventually, I realized there wasn’t anything I could do except listen and offer advice. My brother, after all, isn’t getting physically bullied. He isn’t even getting harassed that much – at least in comparison to other students. He just goes to a school where bullying is constant and ubiquitous. He sees it happen every day. Sometimes it happens to him. Often it happens to his friends.
Over the past two years, I’ve listened with increasing horror to my brother’s stories. The kid whose facebook and email was spammed with “accusations” that he was gay. The guy who pushes other kids into lockers. The insults students yell at each other. The teasing. The shunning. The ubiquitous, constant, malicious gossip.
“You’re gay.” “You’re stupid.” “You’re fat.”
It never ends.
No wonder R. needs his music to calm down every day. It’s impossible not to be affected by it.
I can tell. My brother doesn’t enjoy school as much as he used to. He’s more stressed, and it’s not just because of homework or teachers. He often comes home angry and frustrated, needing to talk about the latest catastrophe.
I remember telling R. that Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, bullied a closeted gay student when he was in prep school. I’ve rarely seen my brother that outraged.
Worse was when R. saw the Rolling Stones article about the Anoka-Hennepin school district, where students who appear to be LGBTQ are constantly harassed, teachers are forbidden to offer them help and nine students committed suicide within two years. Reading the article, he went dead silent. After a few minutes, he turned to me and asked, in a tone I’ll never forget:
“How can people let this happen?”
[Although I highly recommend the article, it is extraordinarily difficult to read. Warning for homophobia, bullying, suicide, violence]
Bullying poisons children’s lives. It destroys their safety. Sometimes, it even kills them.
Not to mention that it’s ruining their education. No matter how good a teacher or a school is, kids aren’t going to learn well if they’re constantly scared.
I think the anti-bullying campaigns are good, I do. I’m glad bullying is finally getting discussed in the media. I’m glad people are starting to see it as a valid issue. I’m glad they’re trying to find solutions.
But sometimes, I look at the pundits talking and the teachers worrying and the celebrities campaigning, and I worry that the kids voices are getting lost. Adults have found a problem, and adults will impose solutions.
One of the most important things we can do is to listen to students. To provide a space for them to tell us their stories, their experiences, their ideas. After all, it’s their fight. We’re not going to end bullying without them.
So before my brother left for France, I interviewed him about bullying at his school. I used my computer to record our discussion. With his permission – and his help – I’ve now transcribed the recording, with a few minor edits for length and for clarity.
We need to hear more of these stories.
A few important notes: My brother is entering the eighth grade and goes to school in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s male, cisgendered, white, and currently identifies as straight (I say “currently” because he’s twelve – any conclusion about his sexual orientation is premature at best). I’m a college student now, but I went to the same middle school he now attends, and he’ll be going to my former high school.
Also important: no real names were used in the interview – I swapped out any names my brother mentioned with pseudonymns.
CD: Testing one – two – three. Okay, so… We’re recording as of now.
R: Wait, how does that thing work?
CD: It’s just recording our voices.
R: That’s so creepy!
CD: *laughs* You want to listen to this section back?
R: Sure. *rewind and listen*
CD: Aha! We’re recording again. First, I want to thank you, R. for agreeing to get interviewed by me.
R:… you’re welcome? *laughs*
CD: Yeah, you don’t have to act like we’re in a formal interview… everyone knows we’re bizarre. Anyways. The idea for this interview came when I asked you what kind of blog post I should write next, and you said I should write about bullying in middle school. And I said – well, I don’t know that much about bullying in middle school. Maybe I should ask you.
R: Yeah. That sounded like a good idea.
CD: It was interesting for me over the past two years or so because middle school… was not the best time of my life. But I didn’t get bullied in American middle-school, and I don’t remember other people getting bullied either. Which doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but I don’t remember it at all. I did get bullied in French middle-school and that was really unpleasant; it just didn’t happen when I went to our American middle-school. But you’ve been saying that now there’s a lot of bullying at your school.
R: But wait. Didn’t you get bullied when people made fun of you for being French?
CD: Yeah. But that was mostly in high school, actually. And wasn’t… constant. It just happened sometimes.
CD: Exactly. Which I gather is a big problem at your school too -
R: Yeah, there is a lot of bullying at my school. And the teachers aren’t solving it, even though they’re trying to. They don’t have the right approach.
CD: What’s their approach right now?
R: Doing a two-million dollar anti-bullying program called Hawk talk -
CD: Wait – Hawk as in the bird?
R: *rolls eyes* It’s our school mascot.
CD: *laughs* Oh god. That’s so – Okay, okay. Hawk. So what’s the Hawk Talk?
R: Pretty much – every morning, you get thirty minutes extra with your homeroom teacher. And your homeroom teacher opens up this anti-bullying booklet and then talks about stuff we’ve covered millions of times over the years. Again. And Again. And Again. It’s really cheesy. No one likes it. And then the teacher make you fill out worksheets about what you would do in a bad situation. But nobody actually pays attention.
R: They also have bullying forms, so if you’re bullied you can fill it out. They say it’s confidential, but it’s really not. I’m sure tons of people are afraid that if they’re bullied and they fill out the application, the bully will -
CD: Find out.
R: Find out and… kill them.
CD: Aaaaah! Seriously?
R: Well, not kill them. But you know what I mean.
CD: Yeah. Retaliation. So… what do they talk about, the teachers? Is it just telling you that bullying is bad? Or -
R: Exactly. They just talk about how bullying is bad. But everyone already knows that – and they still do it.
R: They’re covering the same material. Nobody really cares anymore. And bullying hasn’t gone down by a significant margin since they started. It’s not working. So they need to find some other way of stopping bullying.
CD: I though – one of the things that’s really striking for me – when I listen to you talk about bullying, it seems like it’s everywhere. And it seems like it’s everyone, almost.
R: I think a lot of people bully and they almost – don’t realize it. I’ve seen kids saying that the new law in North Carolina that’s prejudiced against gay rights is bad – and then I hear the same kids turn around and taunt other students for being gay.*
[*He's referring to the newly passed North Carolina law that bans gay marriage]
CD: Seriously? Wow.
R: Right? It’s… very weird. People don’t realize they’re being bullies; they don’t realize that they’re being that hurtful. And, you know, if you make enemies of popular kids, they’ll gossip about you. If you made enemies of some people, they spread information throughout the school, and you turn into someone to be made fun of. It’s happened to several kids and – it’s really horrible.
R: It’s – it’s a little like – you know, you make any little mistake. If you accidentally push over a popular girl, she might spread gossip about you to everyone else, and within five minutes, people will be laughing and pointing and you won’t even know why. So that’s a really big problem.
CD: Yeah… *long pause* Now we’re smiling at each other like dolts, because we do that all the time.
R: I’m smiling because you’re weird.
CD: Too true. Moving on. From our conversations – it also feels like almost everyone gets bullied.
R: Um -
CD: Or am I misreading?
R: No, I’d say that’s true. Almost everyone gets bullied, but some people get bullied a lot more than others. Especially kids who aren’t popular.
You know, right now it’s like a hierarchy. When students try to move up in the world, they get made fun of a lot. I see this at school all the time, and I saw it at my last camp. There was a kid who joined a group of people – because at camp, people divide up into groups, which is very similar to what happens at school. He was trying to be friends with them, and they would act totally friendly, but when he left, I would overhear them saying “oh, he’s so weird” and stuff like that. So people started looking at him funny, and more people started making fun of him. I was one of his other friends, and luckily, he started moving away from that group.
CD: That’s good.
R: Right. But that doesn’t always happen. Bullying victims – often they don’t get support, even from friends. And at school, people can pretend to be nice, but they can be horrible behind your back – make fun of you, and bully you.
CD: I heard about one kid at your school – people started spreading a rumor that he was gay, and it was all over – on Facebook, email etc. And everyone was talking about it behind his back.
R: That’s happened two or three times.
CD: It’s happened more than once?
R: Yeah. And I feel horrible for those people, because – first of all, being gay shouldn’t be a bad thing. Second of all – I mean, who is cruel enough to do that? It’s horrible. The poor guy, he’s probably being made fun of all the time. I mean, I’m sure he was really damaged, especially if it was all over facebook. I don’t have a facebook, but I know if you put stuff on facebook, two hundred people know within two hours.
CD: The joys of the internet.
CD: And I know – you’ve been called gay once or twice.
R: I was doing a presentation for Health and Wellness, and I was being falsely cheerful, because I hate Health and Wellness.
CD: *laughs* Ouch.
[I hated Health and Wellness too, for the record]
R: I ended the presentation, and someone shouted out “gay.” But it was really nice – you know, my feelings were hurt, absolutely. But the rest of the class just told that person they were being mean, and to stop it. Which was really nice, and that actually helped me. There are some things where people realize that you’re being bullied and they -
CD: And they tell people to stop.
R: The school slogan is “Name it, Claim it, Stop it.” Name the bullying, tell the bully what it is, and say stop it. Which… sometimes works, but most of the time, the bully totally ignores it. It’s hard – you see some people try to stand up for others, but it’s really hard to stand up against a bully who is popular, or who has a lot of friends who are bullies.
CD: Yeah, because you don’t want to be the one who becomes bullied.
R: Exactly. That’s risky.
CD: It seems like the word “gay” has sort of become – the problem isn’t that people are gay. It’s just a fact of life. Some people are gay, some people are straight, some people are bisexual, some people have other orientations. The problem is that the word has become -
R: An Insult. It’s like saying “you’re stupid.” Or “You dress weird.” It’s pretty much: “You dress weird, talk weird, are really strange” – all in one word. That’s what it’s become, and that’s just not good.
R: Bullying – comes from a lot of things. One of them is, if you’re bullied, the bully might actually be afraid of you. Bullying is a lot like, you know -racism and sexism. It’s a lot because people are afraid of people who are different. So they discriminate. Or they bully.
CD: I know you have a friend who is openly gay. Does he get bullied more than other students, or are people okay with it?
R: Well, actually, he’s not openly gay.
CD: Ah. Hold that thought.
R: Yeah. He has told a couple people – his close friends – and we are totally fine with it. But if he was openly gay… I think he made a very good decision in not coming out. Being openly gay is a good thing. And people should absolutely feel safe enough to do that. But if you’re in middle school, and especially in my school, if you were openly gay – life would turn into a living hell for you. For sure.
R: Absolutely. People you thought were your friends would probably just – be repulsed.
CD: You know what I find really disturbing about this is… we live in Madison. And Madison is like, socialist hippieville. We’re one of the most liberal places in the country. So if even here, it isn’t safe to be gay, or lesbian or bisexual in middle school, that’s really sad.
R: It is really sad. And even when people believe gay people shouldn’t be discriminated against – as I said before, the guy who was against the North Carolina law also makes fun of kids by calling them gay. It’s like – what the hell is wrong with you?
CD: Do you not realize you’re contributing to the problem?
R: Exactly. And you know, I think the adults really don’t discriminate against gay kids – the adults in our school. But with the kids, it’s become this thing. You know, you’re gay – that means you’re different. I mean, racism is still present in the school, but it’s not that present. It’s a very minor problem. Well – what I mean is, in terms of insults – people aren’t made fun of for their race. Now “gay” is the new big insult.
CD: It feels like – if someone were to make fun of someone else for being Black or Hispanic or Asian – that would not be cool. But it’s still sort of cool to make fun of people for seeming gay.
R: Calling someone gay is – now people think of it as, it’s not that big of a deal to say. You won’t get in trouble. If you’re racist towards someone, the teachers will immediately – kill you.
R: It’s over. But insulting someone for their sexuality… you won’t get in trouble. And in some schools, I know teachers aren’t even allowed to express their opinions on that, or help kids who are being harassed for being gay (he’s referring to the Rolling Stones article). They can’t tell someone to stop calling another kid gay.
CD:So – people get made fun of for being or acting gay – whatever that means. What other kinds of things do people get made fun of for?
R: Being gay – or acting “gay” – is the top thing. But, after that, it’s a lot of small thing. Appearance is big. If you dress different, or you dress “weird,” you’ll get teased. If you’re fat, you’ll get teased. Even if you’re not fat, but you just look – different – you’ll get teased. If you do something wrong, you might be teased about it too. Bullying is a major problem in our school, but most of it has to do with gossip.
CD: That’s interesting.
R: People think it’s just a girl problem, but it’s really not. I think the story about girls gossiping more than boys might be sort of true – I don’t know, I’ve never been a girl – but boys still gossip a lot. I think the blame is just about equal. Girls do gossip a lot; boys gossip a lot -
CD: The girls gossiping more than boys might be a bit of a stereotype.
R: I think so. I mean, I know boys gossip a lot. It’s horrible, because the gossiping thing – one thing will spread around the school in five seconds. It goes very fast, because you have tons of people.
CD: And gossip is really hard to fight because – it’s a form of bullying, and it contributes to bullying, but it’s also a way people bond, and it’s often an important part of people’s friendships. You want to be able to tell your friends secrets.
R: Right. It’s a big thing, to be able to trust someone with your secrets. But at my school, you have to make absolute certain, if you’re going to tell someone something, you have to be 120% sure that they’re not going to tell anyone. If you 100% trust them – that’s not good enough.
CD: *laughs* Wow
R: One of my friends told me who he had a crush on, and I didn’t tell anyone. He told another close friend, and that person didn’t tell anyone. He told another person, but he made a mistake, and that person told everyone.
CD: Oh no!
R: In a matter of days, he thought that his crush now knows that he likes her, which… is horrible. Then that makes the whole situation really awkward. And of course, people were making fun of my friend for liking this girl, and they were making fun of the girl too. So yeah. Gossip is huge. And things get twisted as people tell them to each other.
CD: Right. It’s not “Jess likes Samira” anymore, it’s “Jess went up to Samira and asked her to get married.”
CD: I know there were times when you didn’t want to go to school – I mean, okay – there are lots of reasons you don’t want to go to school. But there were times when it felt like the atmosphere was so negative, you just didn’t want to be there.
R: When people are being extremely mean to each other, and bullying is super common, and my friends are being bullied – yeah, I don’t want to be there. One thing that happened recently, for example: a guy who I knew was a bully became friends with my best friend Joseph. And I was… I didn’t judge Joseph, but I was sort of worried. And one day, Joseph was really sad because this friend started to harass him. He started being mean to him, and tease him. Joseph asked him to stop, but the guy didn’t. So Joseph said, if you don’t stop making fun of me, I can’t be friends with you. And the guy was just like – it doesn’t matter, I have lots of other friends. That was really bad. It was horrible, actually. Even after Joseph stopped hanging out with him, the guy just kept harassing him. And Joseph was upset for a really long time. So it’s really hard to trust people.
CD: I can imagine. Question: do people get physically bullied? Like – pushed, punched, poked, whatever.
R: Physical bullying is not that common at all. It’s very rare. It’s the kind of bullying – it’s old school bullying. Back in the day, if you beat someone up, the teachers didn’t care. But now – if you beat someone up, you’re suspended, you’re expelled – you get in deep trouble. On the other hand, if you just call someone names, nothing will happen to you. And that brings me to the other kind of bullying that’s a huge problem at our middle school, and that’s – cyberbullying. It’s extremely common at our school. It’s probably even bigger than in high school. Maybe. I don’t know, because I’ve never been to high school. But I know you have – so was there a lot of cyberbullying when you were in high school?
CD: There wasn’t with me. But when I was in high school, I wasn’t really involved in the online scene. And things like facebook were new back then, so I think people hadn’t figured out how to take full advantage of it for its bullying potential. How does cyberbullying work at your school?
R: Well, obviously the trolls. People who just go on your facebook or your email, and write “I hate you, I hate you.”
CD: You guys already have to deal with trolling?
R: Yeah. And a lot of it is on email. People send tons mean emails to other students. And I’ve heard that on facebook, there’s a lot of bullying.
CD: Like – how? People writing mean things on other people’s walls -
R: That. That, and also, negative information can be spread very fast that way.
CD: Yeah. Like “Hey R. I hear you’re in love with your teacher Mrs. Mendelsohn.”
R: Aaaah. CD… that’s weird. Ewwwwwwwwwww. Anyways. What was I going to say?
CD: How would I know? Oh, right, my secret power as a mind reader.
R: *rolls eyes* My point was that my dad thought I had facebook at one point, and he was worried because he knew a lot of cyberbullying at my school. My parents have received emails about cyberbullying incidents. And on facebook, you’re extremely vulnerable to cyberbullying. And now that everyone has cell phones – it’s texting. People texting all the time, especially mean gossip. So it spreads extremely quickly.
And now, it even spreads to people who aren’t at your school – who are at other schools.
CD; Right. So you could just show up to another middle school, and say “Hi, I’m R.” and everyone would be like “Oh, hi R. We know everything about you! Like how you’re married to Mrs. Livingstone! And you’re in love with… Miguel and you’re gay and…”
R: Exactly. And I think it’s more harmful because when you’re on the internet or your cell phone, people say meaner things. You might not call someone stupid to their face, but you might send them an email or a text that says “you’re stupid” or “you’re ugly’ or “you’re gay.”
CD: Right. So, let’s talk about solutions. Or the current lack thereof. Right now, your school has a big anti-bullying campaign and it’s been going on for what – two years? Three years?
R: Something like that. A while.
CD: And it doesn’t seem to be doing very much.
CD: It just seems to – almost – it makes everyone bored.
R: It might even make it worst, if possible.
CD: It almost makes it cool to be a bully, because the adults are uncool.
CD: Do you think the adults understand the bullying problem? Okay – let me rephrase -
R: One thing I don’t think the adults understand is the hierarchy in the school. Even if the bullying stops, you will be regarded as a lower being and gossip will be spread about you. The problem is that the hierarchy makes people unsafe.
CD: Right. I think maybe – adults understand physical bullying. And they understand if someone were constantly called stupid or gay. But stuff like gossip, I don’t think they necessarily see why -
R: Even when someone is called stupid or gay, I think it’s really hard for adults to stop the bullying. They can’t give the bully a valid threat or a good reason to stop.
CD: Okay. That’s a problem. Actually, now that I think of it: you know the story you told about the kid calling you gay in front of the class? I find it really striking that it was the students who shut him down, not the teacher. Did the teacher say anything?
R: No, she didn’t say anything. She didn’t try to stop him.
CD: Well – urgh. Because if your peers hadn’t stood up for you, it would have made it seem like name-calling was okay.
R: I agree. The thing is, I don’t think the adults know how to help people who are bullied. And I think the best thing adults can do is strengthen the victim. To get the victim to a place where they can feel safe standing up for themselves. It’s not that they need to feel strong enough to stand up for themselves, they just have to feel safe. But right now, our school isn’t safe. Some people are very vulnerable. So we also need to work on ways to get the bully to stop, and that’s… difficult. Bullying is a problem where there might not be a real solution.
CD: I think – I think bullying is a problem that requires a lot of work and it requires a lot of different small solutions.
R: Exactly. I think it’s not something where there won’t be one magic pill that solves everything. Unfortunately. One bullying program is not going to do much.
CD: Are there times where you’ve seen, with your friends or your peers, where you’ve seen bullying get stopped? Like the incident where you were called gay, and your classmates shut it down.
R: Yes. That was one instance where it got stopped.
CD: Can you think of other ones?
R: Unfortunately… no.
CD: That’s bad.
R: It’s possible, but I’ve not been there. I think a lot of people are afraid to stand up. The exception is: when something is really mean, people do stand up. The problem is, when it gets really mean, it’s usually after the bullying has been going for a while. So the victim will be grateful for the help, but they’ll still be hurt. A lot. The damage will already have been done. What you need to do is stop the small stuff. We have to stop it when it starts.
CD: I think one of the things it has to be is – it has to be a really individual commitment. Which is hard. Especially with things like gossip. It has to be an individual decision – something like: “I have decided that I’m not going to gossip.” And then, telling other people, if they try to gossip with you: “Guys, I love you, but I don’t want to gossip with you, because I know that that often hurts people’s feelings, and I don’t want to be part of that”
CD: Yeah, sorry. I know I sound really cheesy right now. There are better ways of saying it. “Let’s not gossip, let’s go play Frisbee instead.”
R: Right. Exactly. *laughs* Playing Frisbee solves all the problem.
CD: It’s how I solved all my problems. It’s not that we need to sit around and say “we love everyone and want to be friends with everyone.” It’s just getting to a place where people aren’t feeling attacked all the time.
R: And the individual commitment – it’s hard to be committed when you’re a bully.
CD: Well, you’re certainly committed to something… you’re just not committed to stopping bullying.
R: No duh. Being individually committed to stopping bullying would really help – if people would just try to stand up for people who are being bullied. And the more people that do that, the less weird it’ll seem when someone stands up.
CD: I think that’s part of it. Right now, there’s almost a peer pressure to bully. Or at least, if you’re not going to bully, not to stop people from bullying. And instead, there needs to be a peer pressure to stop people from bullying.
R: Exactly. More people just need to start doing it. Start trying to stop it.
CD: And I think that’s really tough – don’t get me wrong.
[At this point, we're interrupted by two phone calls. Then our stepsister asks if we want to go to the beach with her. We say yes and resume recording after our beach trip.]
CD: And we’re back, ladies and gentlemen and listeners of all ages and genders. Before I forget – one of the things I said to you while we were at the beach, which I think is interesting more generally is – in social justice, or in anti-oppression politics, we talk a lot about how there are people who believe that words don’t matter. They think the only kind of violence that can hurt people is physical violence. But it seems like that’s really not true with bullying.
R: Yeah…. no. Those people are just wrong in every possible way. So many problems, so little time. I’d say that words hurts people a lot more than violence does, especially these days. Gossip, cyberbullying – those are all words. And they really do hurt people.
CD: And if words didn’t matter, you could just go around and say “Who cares who calls me stupid?” But it does hurt, and it does matter, and it does make a difference.
R: There’s an old saying that “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But that’s wrong, ladies and gentlemen. That’s just wrong. There are things that people have said to me that still hurt, a year or two later.
CD: I agree. I’ve heard the saying re-worded as “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can scar me forever.”
R: Yeah. I think that’s a much more accurate phrase.
CD: Before we left, we were talking about solutions…
R: Yes. We were. And we were talking about how individual commitment is really important. and how we should stand up more for victims.
CD: But standing up for others is hard if you yourself feel vulnerable.
R: It’s a vicious cycle, because you get bullied, so you feel vulnerable. So you don’t stand up for other people. So more people get bullied, and they feel more vulnerable, so they don’t stand up for other people. So more and more people are bullied, and there are more and more victims. You have to get out of the cycle somehow. It’s tricky.
CD: One thing is: if you and your friends – For one thing, you can always stand up for friends that are being bullied.
R: Yes. That’s a lot easier than doing it for people you don’t know.
CD: It’s easier to say “Oh, people are saying mean things about my friend Jess, so I’m going to tell them “no, you guys, this is not okay.”
R: Or you can say “I’m not going to talk to you guys if you say mean things about my friend Jess.”
CD: Exactly. And maybe it’s also a good thing if your group of friends makes a decision that you’re all going to stand up for each other. So everyone knows – in an explicit way – that you guys will always help each other out. That way, if you’re being bullied, R., you know that you can go to your friends Joseph and Tom and Miguel and say “Guys, can you help me?” And you’re not embarrassed, and you’re not worried that they’ll say no, because you guys have already talked about it.
R: Yeah. Exactly.
CD: And even starting with a couple of friends that you know you guys have decided amongst yourselves that you will stand up for each other – that helps. Then when you as a group feel safe – and when you feel comfortable, you can say “okay, that guy over there isn’t our friend, but we know him and we like him. People are calling him gay, so we’re going to go over there and say “not cool guys.” In a less cheesy way. Because your sister is the king of cheese.
R: I mean, that’s the only way I’ve seen bullying get stopped. When friends stand up for you, or when other people tell the bully to stop.
CD: That’s true: from all the conversations we’ve had, and from everything you’ve said to me, it seems to me that the only way bullying will stop is through peer-to-peer techniques. I don’t think a top-down, teacher-and-administration effort will work.
R: It’s never really going to stop. I think we need to reduce it dramatically, and do a lot more to help the victim. It’s a little like – hunger will never stop -
CD: – but that’s not a reason not to try and make it better.
R: Exactly. And I agree – I think adults imposing a program is not very effective at all.
CD: Our stepsister* was telling us that kids actually bully other kids using the anti-bullying program. Like, they make fun of the program, and then they make fun of other kids using the program – or kids who participate in the program, or who try to follow the lessons -
[*Our stepsister is in R.'s grade, and goes to the same school]
R: Yeah exactly. Because they’re like “that’s so stupid.” It’s just another weapon.
CD: So I guess the question I have is – I’m not really an adult, but in your life, I’m sort-of an adult. And as a sort-of adult, I can completely understand that if you were a teacher or another adult, you would want to help kids. You would want so stop bullying. So do you think there are ways to do that without making it worse? Without just saying “bullying is bad, don’t do it?”
R: Yeah, I think there are better ways teachers can help. You know, I think one of the big lies adults tell you in middle-school and high-school is that they’re always there for you. And sometimes, they’re really not.
R: One thing is, if they could make the victim feel safer in reporting. It needs to be confidential, or the victim might be afraid that they won’t be able to tell the teacher without being harassed by the bully again. They need to change the way harassment forms work, so that kids are more willing to confide in adults. Because right now, we feel like if we tell a teacher, it won’t be confidential. And that’s really frightening.
CD: It probably keeps students from looking for help.
R: Exactly. Harassment form – people are embarrassed to do it. We need to make them realize that they shouldn’t be and that -
CD: It happens to everyone. Or – you’re not a bad person for reporting it. Or a weak person. Being bullied is not a sign of weakness.
R: Exactly. And also: a lot of people say “Oh, everyone goes through bullying.” And what they mean is “it’s not a big deal” But even though everyone goes through it, that doesn’t make it -
CD: Everyone used to get smallpox, but we still got rid of it.
R: Yeah, if everyone does it, it doesn’t make it good.
CD: Bullying can have really bad long-term effects on your psychological health.
R: And your emotional health.
CD; Yes. And on society at large. Because we don’t want to be a society that’s just bullies and victims.
R: That’s really really really big. I’ve heard my parents say before: “Oh, it’ll die down eventually.” And I think that’s… *in a very quiet voice* bullshit.*
[yes, my twelve year old brother swore. Everyone clutch your pearls]
CD: It kind of is bullshit. In my experience, bullying is everywhere, not just in school.
R: It’s just horrible. I really hate when people say that, because it doesn’t make the problem better. It just makes the person feel like a jerk – like “oh, why am I complaining, it happens to everyone.”
CD: There are some things where “it’ll die down” is vaguely legitimate. I’m trying to get an example here – if you’re a girl and you’re getting period cramps, you’ll get that once a month and it will die down eventually – actually, I’ve changed my mind. Even if you get period cramps once a month, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever complain about it.
R: Also, bullying is really different from period cramps.
CD: …Yeah. Bullying is like not period cramps! You heard it here first, folks.
R: I remember I was in Paris, and I was talking about some people bullying me, and my parents’ friends said “oh, that happens to everyone. They’re just going through a phase. Everyone goes through a phase where they bully people, and she’ll get over it.”
CD: That’s still not okay.
R: That’s still not okay. And I was like – blink. blink. What? How does that make sense?
CD: Yes. And like we’ve been saying, there are really negative results that come from bullying. For example, if people are bullying you by calling you gay – first, it sets up a thing where people who are gay are uncomfortable coming out. Which is completely unfair, because I’m not uncomfortable coming out as straight, and there’s nothing better or worse about being gay than being straight. No one’s going to bully me for being straight. And of course, the other problem is that bullying people by calling them gay makes it seem like being gay is a bad thing. And it’s not; it’s just a fact of life.
R: Yeah, exactly. It’s just a fact of life. Its like – I have curly hair. And that’s a fact of life.
CD: It’s not something to be ashamed of.
R: That’s what bullying does. It makes people feel ashamed of what they do, what they wear etc.
CD: Who they are. What they like. Who they like.
R: So there are a lot of problems with bullying. And there are not a lot of solutions that are very effective.
CD: Well, I think a lot of the solutions that are effective are very long term
R: But we also need some short-term solutions that help the victim and the bully. While the long term effects are working out. Or else the victim’s just going to keep getting hurt.You know – asking their friends if they’ll stand up. Or asking their friends to just be with that kid and listen to them.
CD: I think that’s somewhere where teachers can really help. Providing a safe space so victims feel safe to come to them and say “Hey, I’m having a real problem with bullying.” And sometimes the only thing the teacher will be able to do is listen, because doing something else would break confidentiality, or would make the student unsafe. Not being able to do anything except listen – that’s not great. But at the same time, it’s really important because listening tells the victim that what they’re going through is legitimate. And it means they have a place can talk.
R: We really don’t have that right now. I don’t have a lot of people I can talk to – especially adults. And I’m not really being bullied, so I can’t imagine what it’s like if you’re being bullied all the time – not having anyone to talk to.
CD: The other thing is – the teacher can also be the person who says “I know R. and Joseph and Miguel are really anti-bullying, so if you talk to them – or I can talk to them for you – I know they’ll go with you to the cafeteria where people are making fun of you and they’ll eat with you.”
CD: I think we have to put a lot of trust in students and in kids to get rid of the bullying problem. That doesn’t mean we can’t help them, but it can’t be something we impose. It does mean that -
R: It has to be the students and the teachers working together. You know, we could implement a program where students who are being bullied at lunch – other kids can eat with them. And other students can volunteer to help other kids with bullying problems. Mostly, I think teachers need to get closer to students. Because right now, I don’t think people trust them. They say that you can come to them, but it doesn’t really feel like it. I think that’s the problem.
CD: I was thinking – you haven’t read Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small series, right?
[everyone should go read Protector of the Small now, if not sooner]
CD: It’s Pierce’s third series. It’s about Keladry, who is the first girl to openly try for knighthood – because Alanna dressed up like a boy during her training, right? And Keladry is bullied when she’s a page, because almost everyone is bullied their first year as a page.
CD: But in Keladry’s first and second years, she goes out and she fights the people who are physically bullying other people. And all her friends says “why are you doing this? It happens to everyone, everyone goes through it So why are you doing this? It’s called hazing.” Kel says: “I know that, but it’s not okay. People are getting pushed, people are getting beaten, people are getting seriously hurt and humiliated, and it needs to stop.” And eventually her friends start to join her, so then you have patrols of two or three people roaming through the halls and stopping bullies. And more people join – five or six, and then seven and eight. It takes time, but it becomes an entire movement of her friends who are like “You know what, at first I didn’t see why this was important, but now I do, and now I’m going help out.” It took a lot of effort for Keladry to do it, because she had to do most of the work at the beginning, and she got beat up a couple times. But at the end, the movement was so big that all people had to do was go out and check the halls once a night, and that was it. The bullying problem was over.
R: And I’m sure it really helped the kids who were being bullied.
CD: Yeah, because what would happen is they’d chase the bullies away, and then they’d say to the kid who was being bullied: “Hey, you want to come study with us?”
R: Yeah. Those are probably the most effective solutions. Because I think what makes it worse for me – and for other people who are being bullied – is feeling like you’re alone. Or like other people won’t help you, or like the school doesn’t care.
CD: Yeah. Like your problem isn’t legitimate.
R: Exactly. So that’s part of the solution: breaking the isolation, and making people feel less ashamed. And let them know that there are people who are there for them, and who will help them.
The long term solution is the one where people take a stand, and where they try to help and participate in the work of ending bullying. And the short term solution is teachers supporting kids, and making sure they have resources, and places where they can talk and feel safe.
CD: Is there anything else we need to talk about? Ideas, stories -
R: I can’t think of anything.
CD: Actually – I remember a story on This American Life, where there was a kid with anger management issues because he had a bad home life. And so at school, he was a jerk, and his classmates made fun of him all the time. getting bullied all the time. One day, the other students were really teasing him, so the teacher sent everyone out of the room except the three most popular girls. Not necessarily the most popular kids, actually – kids who are sort of like you: they’re diplomatic, and everyone likes them, but they’re not necessarily the most popular. And the teacher sat them down, and she said “Look, this is why Brendan – I made up that name – is angry all the time. First, please don’t tell anyone. And second, I need you to help me stop people from bullying him.” when the other students came back, the girls started working with their friends, and saying “No, we’re not going to make fun of him.” And that eventually made the bullying stop.
R: That’s a really good example of how a solution like that would work. I’m not surprised it was so effective. It takes a group of people who decide to do it. Who decide to start a movement. We need a movement.
CD: Yes. We need an anti-bullying movement from the ground up.
CD: Okay. That’s a good note to end on. This is us signing off. Everyone: don’t bully.
R: Yes. It’s not good, as the teachers say.
CD: And if you’ve been bullied, there are resources. And we will find them.
There are two things that really resonate with me from this interview. One is:
“You know, I think one of the big lies adults tell you in middle-school is that they’re always there for you. And sometimes, they’re really not.”
And the other is:
“Being bullied is not a sign of weakness”
We need to fix the first problem. We need to be there for those who are being bullied. We need to stop dismissing it as drama, or as something everyone goes through, or as a phase they’ll get over, or as “character building.” We need to stop pretending that kids who complain about bullying are “oversensitive” or need to toughen up. And we need to stop ignoring the problem just because it happens to kids. It’s all well and good to say “it gets better.” But we need to make it better now.
If all you can do is listen, do that. I cannot stress how important listening – or just being there – is.
And we need to make sure everyone knows the second part: Being bullied is not a sign of weakness.
Thanks for reading, everyone.
Note on Comments: I’m usually pretty light on the moderation – so far, I’ve never deleted a comment. I don’t even mind people who insult me personally. However, if you go after my brother, I will stuff your comment up into the place where the sun don’t shine so fast I’ll set a new speed record. Frankly, if you go after any of the bullied kids we talked about – or bullied kids in the abstract – the same thing will happen. And homophobia? Not an option. You have been warned.
Trevor Hotline for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Youth: 1- 866-488-7386. (Important note: If you are called gay, or harassed for acting/seeming gay, the Trevor hotline will help you even if you don‘t identify as LGBTQ. In other words, the service is not exclusively for LGBTQ teens)
National Hotline for Children and Teens: 1-800-448-3000 (They will help you with bullying problems; sexual, physical or emotional abuse; suicide prevention; school issues; depression etc. They’re wonderful, and very well trained – no matter what your problem, they can help (and if they can’t, they will find someone who can)).
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
If you are being bullied, or if you know someone being bullied, and you don’t know who to talk to, these hotlines will help you. PLEASE call them (or find someone you trust to talk with), even if you think your problem isn’t important, or that it doesn’t count as bullying, or that it’s your fault. Call them.
Unfortunately, these are USA-specific numbers (any suggestions for other countries?) If you know of other resources or other hotlines, please let me know and I’ll add them to the list. I’m particularly frustrated that I can’t find a dedicated national hotline for bullying victims…
First: my computer is fixed! At great personal cost (I had to fight seven dragons and save seventy handsome princes(ess)), but it is fixed. Hurrah! I now have over eight hundred unread emails (and that’s in my primary inbox – I can’t even look at the other one). Less hurrah!
So now that my computer is fixed, I shall attempt to get back onto a regular blog-schedule. I.E: More than once a week.
(Don’t get too excited, interwebs! Wouldn’t want anyone fainting! (and by “anyone,” I mean my favorite regular readers: the CIA. Keep protecting the world, gentlepeoples!))
Second: Politics are culture, right? Kind of? Well, they are now, because I’m going to talk about them! I was going to stuff these tidbits in other posts, but then I realized… my posts are already the length of a short Tolstoy novel. Adding my political freakouts will not help that situation.
Anyways! Politics! Why am I talking about them instead of talking about American Idol or the Hunger Games?
In the past week (week-and-a-half), both countries that count me as a citizen have done me a solid by taking major steps down the path of Progressivism (Alliteration!). And I am EXCITED, because usually, the news out of all my countries of citizenship and residence is less than good. For example, my current state of residence… is having issues. Issues like “women don’t care about money like men do”. We also may re-elect the Arch-Douche of Jackassery* (i.e.: Scott Walker), a fact that fills me with joy (not). But none of this matters now! Because France and the USA have, for once, done Good Things!
And yes, I am coming out of the progressive closet. I know this may be a shock to my regular readers. Apologies, apologies.
Country #1: Socialism and Sarkozy (ie: France)
For the first time in OVER FIFTEEN YEARS (yes, fifteen years) France has a Socialist President. *insert massive freakout here*
Most of my readers are American (according to wordpress stats) so I’m going to clear this one up: in France, the Socialist party is the (main) leftist party. It’s our “center-left” party. They’re like France’s Democrats (except much, much, much more liberal). And yes, we call them Socialists and it’s not an insult. France also has an official communist party! And there are some Trotskyists and Marxists running around. It’s okay! I promise! We’re not all living in communist gulags. We’re not crushed under the weight of an oppressive bureaucracy. We eat fine, sleep fine, and we have universal health care and nearly universal pre-K… and no one has exploded yet. Incredible, I know.
Our current president is Nicholas Sarkozy, a center-right gentlemen who enjoys pandering to the far-far-right section of French society. Or, as I like to call the far right: the anti-immigrant, anti-muslim, racist, sexist, homophobic wing of French society (hey, every country has their problems *cough* Tea Party *cough*). Sarkozy is the President who decreed that public schools must teach children the good effects of French colonialism (at least they got to eat baguette while we were taking over their countries, am I right? Right?). He’s proposed stripping foreign-born French citizens of their citizenship if they commit certain crimes. He’s been (correctly) accused of nepotism. He also made a horrifically racist and ignorant speech in Dakar a few years ago. I’m… not a fan.
[Although to be fair, Sarkozy doesn't believe in laissez-faire capitalism, and he has been at the forefront of fighting against climate change. In the United States, he'd probably be a democrat. A liberal democrat. Which says more about America's political system than it does about Sarkozy]
I ended up watching the results live by total accident – my mother and I went into a coffeeshop in Quebec to get a snack, and the French election was on the restaurant’s TV on mute. Now France, unlike the USA, does these things in a civilized manner: they have a countdown and tell you the results all at once. Countdowns are great if you want to get the results over with… and less good for people like me, who have absolutely no nerves to speak of.
Mom: Francois Holland [the Socialist candidate] looks unhappy. He must have the results. Bad sign.
Me: Oh no. Oh no. I can’t believe it. I thought we were finally rid of Sarkozy. Can’t ONE country I live in have some good news? One out of three! That’s all I ask for.
Mom: Yeah, he looks really unhappy. And the people around the Bastille are pretty glum…
Me: I can’t watch. I can’t watch. I can’t watch.
Mom: Calm down. Oh, look, there’s Holland’s ex-partner, Segolene Royale. Well, she looks happy. That’s a bad sign too.
Me: I can’t watch. I can’t watch. I’m going to take a walk.
Me: *run around neighborhood*
Mom: It’s over! Holland won!
And then me and my mother were all:
The couple sitting next to us thought we were pretty hilarious.
We followed our high-five up with a massive freakout after realizing there hadn’t been a Socialist president of France since 1995. I remember growing up in Paris (wow, that sounds pretentious – in my defense, I actually did grow up in Paris) watching massive demonstrations in the street, with people shouting: “Chirac, t’es foutu! Tout Paris est dans la rue!”
(Chirac, you’re screwed! All of Paris is in the Street! (it’s more poetic in French, trust me))
President Chirac was Sarkozy’s predecessor (and another French conservative). Francois Holland’s election thus represents the first time a Socialist has entered the Elysee in my personal memory. It’s a big deal for me, is all I’m saying. So can you blame me and my mother if we walked home like this:
No. You can’t.
That was HURRAH Political News update #1.
Country #2: Gays and the Glory
But then! Just as I re-entered the USA (my other country of citizenship)… President Obama endorsed Same-Sex Marriage!
ON THE EVE OF THE NATIONAL FREAKIN’ ELECTION!
…I can’t even.
A sitting US President endorsed gay marriage. A sitting – Holy mother of -
I mean, yes, I know. It wasn’t enough. Obama very explicitly said that he would leave the decision to legalize Gay Marriage up to the states which… no. Not. Okay. As someone from a state that has banned gay marriage at the polls… No. No, no, no. Absolutely not.
[To quote someone whose name I can't remember: The vote of the majority should never determine the rights of the minority]**
But still. Obama endorsed gay marriage. He is the first American president to ever say that same-sex couples should enjoy the same rights as opposite-sex couples (great for me, since I may be able to marry the Russian bride of my dreams).
Is it sad that he’s the first American president to do it?
But is it a meaningless gesture? Absolutely not. For the first time, the President of the United States said that citizens’ rights should not be predicated on their sexuality. He said, implicitly, that gay couples are no different or less important than straight couples. That they deserve the same recognition and status in society as straight couples. And yes, that does mean something.
There’s a lot to do yet; Obama has a lot of actions to take. But I can’t be mad at him for taking that first step. I honestly thought it would take another two or three presidents to get there. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the news.
I also think it took real courage to do it right before the national election, because the Gay Rights issue has often been used as a “swing” issue to defeat Democrats.
The election could get very ugly, very quickly.
But this? This is the good fight, and I, for one, will fight it with him.
As the great CJ Cregg once said:
And that’s all for “Good News in the Political Sphere”! I shall return shortly with more posts… but probably not political ones.
Any other good political news I should know about?
*All credit for the name “Archedouche of Jackassery” goes to my friend RB, who comes up with The Best in Insults.
** Do you know who said it? Because I seriously can’t remember.
***This post was particularly hard to write because my brother spent his time reading it over my shoulder and demanding explanations… or commenting on the book he’s reading (which is Liar by Justine Larbalestier). Perfect work environment!
(and now my brother is punching the book yelling “What? What? I HATE YOU!” He’s discovering the joys of unreliable narrators…)