By Jared Olson
Even today, ten years later, the wounds from those days remain fresh my mind: a haze in the locker room, noxious fumes of body spray, the heavy metal clattering of doors slamming shut. The nightmare began after P.E. one afternoon. We were changing back into our clothes, that awkward prepubescent ritual, when a couple of boys I thought were my friends began talking to me in a strange tone of voice.
“Waddup, faggot,” they said. They seemed to relish in the word, as if putting extra emphasis on it gave them a perverse, satisfactory glee.
Faggot: the word would become synonymous with my earlier memories of middle school, and every time I heard it was like having a dagger twisted in my stomach. In the locker room, I tried to ask what it meant—I was only twelve and still innocent then—but was rejected each time with the same painful utterance: Shut up, faggot. My ignorance was by that point irrelevant. I knew from the wounding sense of nausea, from the smugness with which they walked off chuckling to themselves, that it could’ve only meant something acidic and cruel.
It was the beginning my yearlong experience getting bullied. After standing up for a kid the boys in the locker room had been harassing, they decided I was gay for him, and should from that point on be referred to as a faggot. My new moniker, given the popularity of my tormentors, was soon accepted by nearly everyone around me. As I endured daily verbal barrages from those boys, most people opted to watch in silence, perhaps just commenting on the spectacle in smug, surreptitious whispers. Rumors began flying. I was weak and gay, a faggot and loser. For the next eight months—enduring bone-crushing loneliness, feeling impotent before their insults, raging at people’s acceptance of the abuse and flirting with suicidal thoughts—I suffered through what I’d now describe as a living hell.
Ten years later, and I’ve moved far past the dark days of being bullied. But a disturbing parallel has appeared in the ensuing time: our government, our society, and many countries throughout the world all seem to have been infected with the same bullying sentiment that was so evocative of my childhood. The petulant cruelty I thought would be limited to middle school has instead become political discourse of much of the Western world.
Despite the astronomic distance that seems to distinguish the seriousness of each problem, they aren’t as disconnected as one might think.
The global rise of right-wing populism has renewed a politics of deliberate cruelty, whose proud indifference to suffering and almost comic aggressiveness feels like a caricature of the bullying I endured as a preteen. Many politicians of the new, populist Right, in both their mannerisms and their worldviews, are like paunchy, grey-haired analogs of prepubescent bullies. But rather than being reprimanded by society for behaviors that degrade and dehumanize others, these people were instead handed the keys to global political power. The most visible effect of this, among other things, has been rolling back the taboo on using derogatory, racist discourses to refer to society’s weakest minorities. In almost every place where this species of politics has emerged, the crosshairs for that crude language has fallen on immigrants: on Middle Easterners in Europe, on Muslims in India, and on undocumented Central Americans here in the United States. Or, as a growing segment of people on conservative shows, Facebook posts, and everyday conversations now refer to them—“the illegals.”
The bullying discourse towards “the illegals” has permeated our collective imagination since 2015, the first dark year of Trump’s now fateful ascendance. Millions have since embraced the cruel language he built his political career on. The litany of vitriol spewing from his mouth has become so commonplace that, by this point, it almost passes notice:
“They’re bringing crime. They’re bringing drugs. They’re rapists.”
“Thousands of criminal aliens, invading our country.”
“These aren’t people, these are animals.”
“Violent criminals. Criminal, illegal aliens.”
Verbal cruelty has given way to physical violence: Mexicans massacred, families separated, mass detention in disease ridden facilities. The President has made it explicit to Border Patrol officers that they will be granted impunity should they brutalize migrants. The Border Patrol, a historical bastion of racism, now work with paramilitarized, right-wing militias to round up migrants in the desert.
As the violence at the US border and the world at large shows, our political discourse can be a powerful enabler to legitimize and sanction injustices. Words, contrary to what we tell children, can be lethal. The way we allow ourselves to talk to one another determines how, at the end of the day, we act towards one another.
I can’t help but notice the redolence between the toxic rhetoric— a trademark of the Trump era, bleeding from the highest echelons of power to the most insignificant conversations and Facebook posts—and the vicious bullying with which I was barraged at age twelve.
Bullying, in short, has become a part of our political discourse.
But the word “bullying” itself can evoke a sense of quaint, unimportant domesticity when compared to the vast problems facing our earth—of being irrelevant in the cosmic scheme of things. Who, at the end of the day, cares whatever kids say to one another at age twelve? Aren’t they going to get over it, grow up, find jobs, worry about larger problems once they’re older? In what conceivable universe would that have any shred of a connection to politics?
We shouldn’t be distracted from the nature of bullying itself, which is little more than cruelty on the small scale. And cruelty on the small-scale is in many ways inseparable from the cruelty deployed en masse, at the societal level, from the world where innocent people are separated from their families and are referred to as illegals, as aliens, as animals and criminals.
Ending to cruelty demands that we reconsider the way all its forms, small and large, sprout from the same human impulses. We need to under the way our actions as children are sanctioned by, and can come to legitimate our actions, as adults. That we understand it as a part of a generational cycle: children who are allowed to call others faggots are in turn legitimated by a social order where adults to refer to others not as humans but as “illegals.” The result is an unending cycle of callousness, one in which children dehumanize others in part because of the precedents set by their parents and then grow up to start the process anew.
To say that bullying among sixth grade is the root of these problems would, in and of itself, be ridiculous. We shouldn’t be distracted from the vast structural malaises that are the immediate causes of our dark political moment: racism, sexism, neoliberal capitalism.
But it is to say that it’s hard to stop bullying on a small scale if we fail to stop it nationwide. And that the continued permissiveness of cruelty on the small scale will only further legitimate cruelty in society as a whole.
Above all, we have to remember the pain that can be inflicted should we continue allowing a venal, bullying discourse at any level: in my own case, beneath all the layers of self that have accumulated in the decade since middle school, as I’ve matured, traveled, become a journalist and activist, a part of me is still in that locker room, looking on in humiliated confusion as I wonder what the word “faggot” means.
Something as small as a middle school experience can leave scars that can still be felt a decade later. So imagine, then, what it must be like to be a victim of cruelty—the matured version of bullying—at the societal level, when the executors of that cruelty aren’t snotty twelve year olds but governmental agencies, mass political movements, the President of the United States himself. If there’s anything I’ve learned from the past decade, overcoming my own case of bullying and then watching bullying go global, it’s that we need to consider where the origins of such cruelty might start. The seeds might be closer to home than we think.