Two conversations converged today;
One of them was about bullying and strategies for avoiding bullying. I was bullied in every school I ever went to, from the age of 6 to 16, at which point (being able to just turn up for lectures in sixth form, which was against All The Rules, but which the staff accepted in return for a quiet life) I managed to evade my entire institution’s population for the two final years.
So, naturally, I have opinions on the best ways for a bullied person to deal with it. The official advice of “Words never hurt anyone” and “Just ignore them, they’ll go away when they get bored” have both been proven to be false (in studies which I swear I’ll google when I’m less tired) and I honestly think that expecting a child to live up to them is abuse – They’re both a fairly loud declaration of “I know you’re having problems, but I’m too convinced in the innate goodness and justness of the world to accept that you might have to be unpleasant in order to survive right now.”
What did I do? Well, I was awful. Struck by the idea that the moral guidance of most adults was unrealistic (And really, when they came out with tosh like “They’re just envious of you” or “They’re insecure really” why would I listen to them on things like “No, your bullies don’t deserve painful revenge” either?) I went with my own. Never start a fight, but commit to finishing them fast and decisively. Always take the socially nuclear option, since you’ve got no social capital to lose. Never let an insult go unnoticed. Nothing eats wasps.
By about thirteen, people had learnt that the best way to keep the social status associated with being a rabid bully, but without getting their ribs shattered or their reputations destroyed (it’s amazing the discord that someone can sow when they’re always near-unnoticed, so hear everything) was to stick to nothing more than namecalling at a safe distance, and trying to spread rumours which never stuck. Or, indeed, to move onto other targets, whom, shamefully, I did nothing to help. As a teenager, I had very little time for most people, and certainly no energy to waste on looking after waifs and strays beyond my small circle of friends that I would have defended with my life. Staff and students alike treted me as a law unto myself, and by sixth form new members of staff were given a memo saying “Do not cross Percy, they will make your life a pointless hellhole. Let them sleep on the roof and smoke indoors and bunk off lessons and never show up in a clean suit or sober, and they’ll contine on a full academic scholarship and getting us the grades that we need to stay near the top of the league table.”
It was a horrible strategy, and I was an awful person, and it took me a long time to have to teach myself a new, kinder, moral code as an adult. Never start a fight, but if you must, finish them as painlessly as you can. Help anyone you can afford to, how they want to be helped, not how you want to help. Forgive when you can, and be unambiguous if you can’t.
I basically consider my teenage years, other than the parts of it that I spent making as much money as it was physically possible to make, and listening to a lot of metal, to be a waste. I survived them, at best, and sometimes I worry that a lot of me didn’t survive them – I can’t trust that anyone’s motivations are honest, I can’t let the people close to me see me being weak, I twitch away instinctively from any authority figure or stranger offering to help.
The other conversation was about ableism;
“Oh, people try to patronise you? They must have a short sharp shock, you’ve never suffered fools gladly…”
It’s a lovely mental image. Being ever-ready with a sharp wit to cut ignorant passers-by down to size, or a pithy comparison that leaves them feeling like the benighted one. Our popular culture is full of it – The poor or uneducated or disabled person who manages to make the Ignorant Passerby feel small in a way that’s both amusing and a little bit transgressive. Audiences lap it up, they revel in the vicarious glory – They all imagine themselves to be the slighted minority, not the now-chastened Passerby. It makes people feel better to see the old man in a wheelchair stand up for a few seconds and boot a football past the keeper from the forty yard line, with a line about “young’uns these days” to the astonishment of the fit twenty-year-olds around him. It gives audiences a warm glow when the tiny child in a hospital bed manages to confuse and embarrass the adults around her.
It’s a disability superpower – Being completely emotionally indefatigable, and able to make people reassess their situation by looking at it completely askew. We’re like the king’s fool; Always there to say the completely unsayable
And actually doing it would be just as exhausting as being ever-vigilant for tiny slights against my character as a teenager. Having to assess everyone – Literally everyone – for the possibility of them being inappropriate, and concocting worst-case-scenarios, and stock answers to questions ahead of time, of varying degrees of viciousness depending on the questioner, is completely unworkable. For every person who gets a sarcastic put-down, there’s twenty who get “Mhmm, summat like that. No. Yes. Cheers. See you.”
We shouldn’t be expected to be on-guard all the time. Just shrugging and trying to ignore the worst of the assumptions is much less tiring than correcting people and/or showing them the error of their ways. And it’s not a failure of character to not be confrontational and sharp all the time, it’s just being human. But there’s enough media – especially countercultural “I swear this just happened to me yesterday”-type media – which posits that not only do disabled people have no duty to educate the public (we don’t) but that we conversely do have a duty to, well, teach the public a lesson they won’t soon forget. And, no, I’m too old and tired for that, and I’ve come too far to let that much violence back into my life.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m weirder than I think, but this can’t be a completely unique feeling.