Friday, 12 July 2013

Geeks and Bullies

I was bullied as a kid. Relentlessly and aimlessly bullied. I was a special needs kid who had some neurological quirks and didn’t have the social niceties or group awareness enough to hide them. On top of that, I also had two (very) lazy eyes, a giant birthmark on my face, I walked on my toes and I was useless at sports. Pick on the weird kid is a game that never loses its entertainment value for kids.

Sound familiar? Yes? Good. We have a common ground to start from.

Let’s start with 5th grade. Gym class.

Your class is running laps. There are two kids in your class who hate you. You’re really not sure why, but they really, really hate you. You were trying to stay on the opposite side of the gym from the boys who hate you. But here’s the thing: You’re slower than them, and running hurts. So, no matter what you do, you fall further and further behind. As you’re falling behind, they’re staying at the same pace, so no matter what you do, eventually they’ll be next to you. And then they’ll subtly push you hard enough that you’ll fall. Or maybe this time around, they’ll say something horrible to you. Or maybe they’ll steal your glasses. That’s always a favorite.

It’s just two kids. You could tolerate it. They can’t be everywhere. But here’s the thing: Of the 24 kids in your class, ten of them will egg on those two kids. Ten of them will pretend they didn’t see it, or maybe laugh uncomfortably. So now, instead of facing two, you’re facing twelve people outwardly against you, and ten more who might not agree, but who are perfectly willing to go along with it as long as it means that they aren’t the next target. And those two kids are *always* around. If they aren’t, then there are two more like them from another class, and two more to take their places, if they move.

If you’re lucky, like I was, you’ll have one amazing classmate who isn’t willing to take crap from those kids, and who will run next to you and even shout them down at times. So then there are two of you as the focus of the tormenting, but that’s the best you’ll ever hope for. The gym teacher doesn’t care. Your academics teacher will actively side with the bullies. The only respite you have is when you can hide away, in a book, or in the nurse’s office, or in art class. But eventually you know you’ll have to go back out and face them. And everyone else will stay as silent as they’ve always been.

Is this ringing any bells?

Now fast forward 10 or 20 years. You’re an adult now. You’re still a geek, but the power dynamic has changed. You’re as big as the rest of the kids. You’ve amassed a group of other geeks large enough that you’re insulated from the bullying that you experienced as a kid. Additionally, you know that there are people who you can call on if you have trouble, who will immediately trust you and believe your side of the story.

But what if that weren’t true? What if you had to go through the rest of your life fearing those two kids who actively hated you? And wondering if the other ten who made excuses for them or joined them occasionally were going to cross the line into actively hurting you. What if you had to spend the rest of your life wondering why those ten kids who pretended not to see were *still* pretending not to see.

Welcome to being a woman in the geek world. Only now, the word “bullying” is replaced with “harassment”. The pushing down (in most, but not all situations) has been replaced by groping. The insults about your appearance have now been replaced with cat calls, inappropriate sexual advances and unasked for “compliments”. The stealing of the glasses… Well, that’s been replaced by people who fetishize girls in glasses. And no matter how long you hide in your room, you know that as soon as you come out, they’ll be there, wherever you go.

It’s still a very small percentage of people who are actually the problem. To extend the classroom analogy, two out of 24. And there is still the occasional kickass person who stands next to you and tells people to stop it. One person out of 24. But that still leaves 20 people (you’re the 24th, for those pedants who were going to call me on my math skills). 20 people who can see the bullying, oh, I mean harassment, happening. Ten of them probably don’t understand why it’s wrong, or don’t care. Ten of them do care, but don’t know what to do.

Geeks have a tendency to wear their past bullying as a badge of honor. They think it makes them better than the bullies, and better than the kids who stood by and did nothing. They also tend to wear their hatred of their bullies and those like them as a badge of honor. But they refuse to see the bullies in their own ranks. And by refusing to see, they turn themselves into those kids who refused to step in and help them, those kids who stood by, averting their eyes, chuckling nervously and smiling at the bullies in hopes that they won’t be next.

Don’t be those kids that stand by silently. We’re geeks. We are used to being the underdogs. But here’s the thing. We’re adults now. We don’t need to worry about kowtowing to the popular kids anymore. We don’t need to worry about being stuffed into lockers. And best of all, if all of us take a stand and say “No. The bullying must stop”, then the bullies lose their power. If, for every person who is egging on the bully, another one steps up and says “cut that out”, then they lose their power. They lose the power of silence that the schoolyard bullies so completely rely on. The bullies knew then that their power rested on the silent compliance of the rest of the students. If other kids had constantly pointed out when they did something wrong, they wouldn’t have the power to still do it. Bullies aren’t stronger or faster than other kids. They’re just better than the others at intimidation. At manipulating the social order. And the social order that they’re manipulating people into is one of silence. One of thinking that they have to comply or they will be the next target.

But here’s the thing: If no one is standing silently by, then there’s no one next target. Remember, there are two of them and 22 of us. If the bystanders are all actively standing up against the bully, the bully has no power. They can’t hurt us. Or if they do, they will be quickly and effectively stopped. When it’s two bullies against one target and one kid who stands between them, there’s a good chance both of the two bullied kids will get hurt. If there are two bullies and 22 allies, then guess who’s going to get stuffed into a locker? It won’t be us.

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