Last school year, as my daughter navigated first grade in a new elementary school at least six to seven times the size of the one she had attended since preschool, she encountered, for the first time, a bully. This angry little boy, whom I’ll call Robert, was a pestilence to her happiness on a regular basis, pushing her in the schoolyard, calling her names, all the usual stuff.
And while I frequently encouraged Heidi to clock the kid (noting I would stand fully behind her when she’d undoubtedly go to the principal’s office for defending her right to exist without persistent harassment), she declined to settle the drama in this way after being inculcated at school with the idea that hitting someone else, no matter what, is always wrong.
Those among you who are my age or older know this is false wisdom.
One day my daughter got off the bus and mentioned she’d had a session with the school guidance counselor that afternoon. I paused on our daily trek up the driveway and asked, “Whatever for?”
“I’ve been going every week to learn how to cope with Robert’s bullying,” Heidi replied.
Rage is not a normal feature of my character, but I must admit feeling it at that moment. How was it that a little boy who pushed and hit his fellow classmates, teased and insulted them relentlessly, and proclaimed almost daily that he hated his parents had somehow become “the victim,” while my daughter was being advised to assume the role of caterer to his victimization and adjust her behavior to accommodate his youthful rage against the world?
The tale gets better, however. A few days after this revelation from within the walls of modern public education came a phone call from Heidi’s teacher, advising me my seven-year-old had used the “F word” in the school lunch line that day. My minor relief that my daughter had admitted to picking up this new addition to her vocabulary from her father quickly dissipated when she came home and explained the circumstances in response to my questions about why she was cursing at school.
“Robert told me I was stupid and ugly,” Heidi remarked.
Now with things in context, I could not help but concede that her apparent response of “fuck you” was entirely appropriate. But again, it was my daughter who bore all the punishment while the bully received no reprimand because apparently it is far worse to curse at someone who is trying to make your life miserable than it is to shake the foundations of another human being’s self-worth.
Robert, you see, was not to blame for his awful behavior toward his fellow humans. Rather, he was to be pitied—no doubt the victim of bad parents, degraded socioeconomic status, a poor gene pool, mental illness, or some other and perhaps multiple maladies.
Needless to say, for this and other reasons, I have pulled my daughter out of the public education system.
But the situation with Robert is reflective of a larger social ill—the idea that abnormal, malfunctioning, or just downright wrong behavior in our culture now comes with a litany of “excuses” ranging from borderline personality disorder to sexual addiction (though I recognize the latter has not yet been coded in the DSM-5; Tiger Woods found it useful nevertheless).
Don’t get me wrong. You will find few people as respectful of the wisdom of modern psychology as myself. Apart from having had a number of friends educated in and working in the field, one cannot help but see and exercise its usefulness in the art of journalism.
But let popular culture get a hold of a good thing…and watch it promptly twisted into something it wasn’t meant to be….
Remember the days when it was wrong to hurt the feelings of others, whether done deliberately or unintentionally? Remember when it was okay to say to another human being: You make me sad or you make me angry?
Not so anymore. Today the individual committing the wrong is actually not responsible for the pain of others. Rather, the one suffering is.
How deeply has this idea permeated our culture? Well, apart from the very obvious sense of entitlement that a not insignificant portion of the American population now feels, get a load of what I heard the other day…from a friend I never would have dreamed would say such a thing….
I’d had my feelings hurt, and I said so, expecting, at the very least, some kind of apology. Nope. In response to “you make me sad,” I received, “I don’t make you sad; you choose your reaction to what I say.”
Um, yeah, okay, I get it. I did indeed choose to feel sadness. Had I a different personality, I might have chosen to say, as Heidi did in the lunch line, “fuck you.” The bottom line, however, is that whatever my feeling or reaction to a hurtful statement by my friend, the fact remains he made a hurtful statement. Since when did it become okay to say or do anything with the full protection of “it’s not my fault; it’s your reaction” backing it all up?
Once upon a time, we didn’t have all these layers of excuses. If you stole, it was wrong; if you cheated, it was wrong; if you treated others poorly, it was wrong.
Now, however, the victims of pain, theft, lies, whatever are frequently asked to consider the degraded socioeconomic status of the thief before rushing to judgment or charges. If your partner cheats, then you may be encouraged to understanding and forgiveness because there are just way too many outlets in the modern world for him to possibly resist stepping out, nevermind his need to feel admired universally because of some developmental lack in his childhood. If someone fails to show empathy to those who suffer, then it’s because she has an avoidant attachment style from having had a bad mother.
And yes, all these things may be true to some degree…but there’s another truth called self-responsibility.
But perhaps in this age of Facebook and selfie sticks, we are all far too narcissistic to notice our own failings much less take responsibility for them. It is far easier, I suppose, to say, “It’s my mother’s fault,” and end the sentence there. We follow pop psychology instead of the fully Monty, which requires you to not only see the root of what has set you on the wrong path but to right the wrong, transcend the destiny of your genes, your upbringing, your circumstances or life experiences…to stand in your own two shoes and take ownership of your actions and how they may impact others.
Because, as William Shakespeare, wrote, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
Yet how far we have strayed from that recognition….