When I was in third grade, my friend K and I used to make fun of another kid in our class. Let’s call him Joey.
I don’t remember why we chose to do this. Neither K nor I was a cruel or thoughtless kid. Maybe a bit smug, because we were two of the best readers in class and a bit high on our own perceived braininess.
Anyway, I remember lining up to go to the cafeteria, and if K or I were near each other in line, and Joey was close by, we would pretend to have a magic spray can and would spray each other “to get rid of the Joey germs.”
At some point, Joey told on us, and our teacher asked us what was going on. I denied knowing anything about it. In true Walter Mitty fashion, I got away with it, since I was generally a good kid and my teacher had never known me to bully anyone.
Now we have a bully in the White House, plus many instances of kids and adults saying really unkind stuff to each other, some of it in his name, some not. This is making me think about why we have such a strong tendency to put each other down.
We tend to malign and torment others when we feel weak ourselves. The Joey germs thing might have been K and me buying a little insurance against being considered nerds or geeks ourselves (though I totally was branded a nerd a few years later, karma being a bitch and all).
There’s a lot of discussion right now around feelings of disenfranchisement and powerlessness, and how those are impacting our society. One basic fact that isn’t getting much play is that it feels good to be mean to other people.
It really does. If it didn’t feel good, we wouldn’t do it so much.
There’s a multi-part thrill to being a dick to someone:
- It makes me feel like I’m stronger and more powerful than them.
- I know I’m transgressing a boundary and violating a taboo.
- Thus, bullying someone else makes me feel like a bad-ass, instead of downtrodden. And if others join me in that behavior, we must be right. K wouldn’t have been spraying away those Joey germs if I hadn’t been laughing along.
At my work at a disability institute, part of my job is to use accurate and respectful language. For example, the term “mental retardation” is falling out of favor, because “retarded” is widely seen as a slur. “Intellectual disabilities” is the term of choice now.
But the words “retard” and “retarded,” especially applied in instances that have nothing to do with disability, feel great to say. Growing up in New Hampshire, stuff we didn’t like was “wicked retahded.” A stupid movie was retarded. My friend’s mean older brother was acting like a retard.
And those words felt good in my mouth. They felt dangerous and tasty. They made me feel like I had the upper hand, somehow—just like with the Joey germs.
So I can imagine that for someone who feels weak and angry, calling someone with disabilities a retard, or using any other taboo or pejorative term, and hearing others laugh, might hit that same deep note of satisfaction.
Here’s the thing, though. The satisfaction curdles fast.
Unkindness spirals back upon us like a whip. If we put down others, we get the momentary buzz of being, socially, the stronger party. But once that fades, our weakness and fear return, amplified.
Then, the next time, it’s not enough to spray away the Joey germs. Next time, maybe I shove Joey. Or leave dog poop in his locker. It takes more and more mean behavior to make me feel secure.
In fact, the more my behavior escalates, the more I carry around what Patton Oswalt calls “a poison vein of self-loathing.”
I’m cutting myself some slack about Joey, since I was eight and was still learning how to be a social human being.
I’m less willing to cut adults slack when they act like this.
Part of being an adult is going for longer-term satisfaction. Life is the ultimate long game (ideally). We have to go for long-term pleasures, like treating people decently so they’ll do the same for us.
Right now, we’re being trained to think short-term about almost everything. Our phones bring us data without effort. We can download and stream millions of hours of video in any given moment.
This all discourages contemplation. It makes being alone with our thoughts—including our fear and guilt—less and less common. More and more avoidable.
So one way to get over this epidemic of meanness is to slow down long enough to imagine what it’s like in someone else’s head.
What’s it like in your head, reader?
Probably a lot like the way it is in my own head. Full of ideas, emotions, fear, joy, and confusion.
I’m sorry I was mean to you, Joey. And I’m sorry that I lied about it.
I hope I didn’t inspire you to go out there and be douchey to others.
I hope you’re not out there spray-painting swastikas on mosques.
If you are, I take a tiny part of the blame. And I also forgive myself.
I was a kid.
Now we’re both adults.
Let’s play the long game.
* Patton’s blog post is about being the guy who hangs out with the bully and eggs him on.
Photo by me.