Bully Politics

In May, information about Mitt Romney’s schooldays surfaced, indicating that he had a history of bullying as a youth. This sparked a great deal of discussion about Romney’s actions and his fitness for the Presidency, as well as speculation about whether he’d reformed. Some people even questioned whether he had really been a bully, despite the fact that his behaviours were precisely the sort of thing schools would identify as bullying today, such as pinning down suspected gay students and forcibly cutting their hair because their gender presentation is displeasing.

The response to the story about Romney tied in with a larger narrative about bullying in US society, and explained why this country continues to have such a bullying problem. Youth are told to look to adults as authorities and sources of information, and in this case, adults effectively told youth that abusive, horrid behaviour wasn’t really bullying, and that you could do hateful, nasty things and go on to be a Presidential candidate, especially if you are a white young man from a wealthy family.

Bullying is rife throughout US politics, in forms small and large. And if adults can’t stop bullying each other, it’s hard to see how youth can be asked to do the same. The biggest adult bullies are the same ones who were bullies as children, and they have concentrated their wealth and power to get what they want, when they want it, even when this involves being abusive and nasty. These are the people who spread scurrilous rumours, who force legislators with integrity into corners, who rip the heart out of legislation and demand that it be passed, who line up and steal the lunch money, so to speak, from the people of the United States.

These are also the same people involved in policymaking on a more local level. They are the school administrators and the heads of social services and all the other people who are supposed to create safe and supportive environments for children. And some absolutely do; there are most certainly people who act with the best concerns of children in mind and who are focused on fighting bullying. But then there are others who not only model the behaviour, but actively engage in it, like bus drivers who pit children against each other in fights or who scream and yell at children on their routes.

Hypocrisy is a long-established human trait with a copious history, but that makes it no less ugly. It’s hard to take claims of wanting to commit to anti-bullying campaigns seriously when they come from people and organisations known for bullying, or at least tolerance of abusive behaviour in other contexts. Politicians talking about bullying without actually reforming their own behaviours are asking people to do as they say, not as they do, and it’s a profound insult. Youth follow politics. They can recognise predators when they see them. And they know how hollow the words of people like Romney are when they look at their past.

For bullies, there’s no incentive to change because the entire system rewards you. There’s an incentive programme for bullying and they’d be foolish not to take advantage of it, or at least that’s what they think. Even as people gently protest and tell them they should be nice, the people who act like them are rising to power and political prominence. Tell me, who are you going to believe in that situation? The person with the dove sticker in the back window of an ancient Volvo, or the glossy politician with a huge support base?

And for the bullied, the pervasiveness of bullying in politics is a sobering reminder. There’s no point in speaking out or fighting it because it doesn’t get better, because adults engage in the same kind of petty, hateful, and murderous behaviour, and they get away with it. More than that, they’re praised for it and have an opportunity to keep doing it over and over again. When lawmakers who get ahead by pressuring other legislators get elected time and time again, the youth in their districts take note of the fact that bullying pays, and being bullied can be a perennial state.

One might argue that school anti-bullying campaigns are designed to create a new generation of more sensitive people who operate in different ways, but the bullies have not gotten that memo and they are still going strong. People might say that the kind of naked, obvious, truly breathtaking bullying exhibited by Romney doesn’t happen anymore, except that it does. Not all school districts would take action in that kind of situation, especially when it involves a wealthy kid from a favoured family versus another student who doesn’t have that kind of clout.

This is a harsh world we live in, which doesn’t mean we should give up and stop trying to fight bullying. It’s clearly a problem, particularly for youth, and it continues to be fatal despite the best efforts of many advocates working to stop it. But it’s equally important to acknowledge that adults can be just as horrid, and that anti-bullying campaigns shouldn’t stop when people reach the age of majority. That people are responsible to each other as grownups, and owe each other the creation of spaces free from bullying and harassment whether people are in the halls of congress or working together at a library.

Because until youth see an equal commitment to doing as adults are exhibiting to saying, there’s going to be no real incentive to change. Why, after all, stop bullying and lose your edge, only to become a target in the adult world?