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James Clementi Headshot

Could an Empathetic Bystander Have Helped My Brother?

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It seems like the laws of the playground have followed me from childhood into my adult life. The pressure to conform started early for me. By the time I was in the first grade, I knew I needed to play the same sports that the athletes played, watch the same TV shows that the other kids watched, and "like" the same girls that the straight boys liked. It was just understood that if I defied these expectations, of course I would be bullied, and I would have brought it upon myself. Bullying was seen as a way to toughen up a weak child, to prepare them for life in this cold, harsh world of adult bullies. But now I wonder if the unspoken encouragement of bullying behavior I grew up with isn't a totally deluded view of the way people naturally interact. Is learning to cope with a world where we are either bullies or victims really what it means to be a part of this, or any, society? Is it really human nature to be cruel, or is it the cruel ones who are abnormal?

The most bizarre defense of bullying I have heard is that this type of callousness is harmless and well-meaning. I cannot count the number of times I have heard the crimes committed against my brother Tyler in his Rutgers dorm room dismissed as "pranking," or the number of people I have heard this from. This kind of thinking seems to be pervasive. "Prank" is a word that takes mean-spirited, sadistic actions intended to embarrass and intimidate and reduces them to a joke that a strong person should never be bothered by. "Prank" even goes so far as to insinuate that the receiver of said prank should feel included, that they are in on the joke and fortunate to have such friends to mess around with. This line of thinking lays blame on the victim for being overly sensitive and is just a way for former bullies to validate the behavior of current bullies.

I find it hard to believe that so many teenagers and adults do not see the difference between joking or teasing behavior between friends, and the conduct of a person who habitually acts with hostility toward another. The two types of behavior and the intentions that motivate them are so drastically distinct that any reasonable person can see this. Rather than a lack of comprehension, I think the blurring of the lines between pranking and bullying is due to a lack of empathy. "She is gay/black/slutty/Catholic/purple/transgender/Jewish/poor/fat/stupid/different, so really, she doesn't matter anyway, right?" thinks the bully. "Sure, she might not like being abused, but she is insignificant, and the pain I caused her doesn't affect me." The second the nasty words have been said or the hateful action taken, the bully can move on with his life and forget all about it because he simply does not give a shit. But the person this vitriol is directed at cannot do that easily; the scars of each confrontation will be long-lasting.

One of the greatest problems in fighting bullying is the inaction of the many people who do have empathy. Instead of a world filled with simply oppressors and victims, there is another type of person in the mix that usually gets to skate by without notice: the bystander. The bystander never does anything bad or mean or wrong. He never calls anyone ugly or dumb, he never pushes anyone around, and he never takes anyone's lunch money. How can he be held accountable when his behavior is to tacitly condone but never act? And the sick part is that at one time or another, every one of us has been a bystander while we saw someone else being harassed. It is hard to identify or judge this behavior, because it is impossible to single out one person. It is everyone. It is you. It is me.

Why is it so easy for us to turn a blind eye to what we know is wrong? My brother Tyler was bullied by his college roommate in a way that was extremely public. An entire dormitory full of students plus an online circle of acquaintances were made aware of the bullying that my brother endured. Not one person got involved, informed an authority figure, told the bully that he was in the wrong, or checked on Tyler to see if he was OK. Even being somewhat protected by the anonymity of the Internet, not one person out of dozens was willing to speak up. It is not the responsibility of any one person to stand up to a bully, and yet hoping that one individual might be just a bit braver than all the others and leaving it up to fate is simply not enough.

Many people whom I've talked to about bullying have recalled experiences similar to ones I've had, of being in school and seeing another kid being ridiculed and remaining silent out of fear that the bully's attention would shift onto me. I used to think that as long as someone else was the target of disdain and not me, I was somehow safe. I now see that a bully's hostility toward any one individual is really an act of hostility against all empathetic and kind people. The worst thing that kind people can do is to knowingly allow one of our own to suffer. Bullying to a large extent is an exercise in power. As long as the bully feels the power he holds through the fear and misery of his victims and the silence of everyone else, he will not cease his ways. The responsibility is on each of us to make it clear that bullying is not acceptable in our schools, our workplaces, our homes, or anywhere else that human beings might find themselves.