When a child on the playground is being bullied, most often other children observe it happening. The silent observer may feel relief that the bullying isn’t happening to him, or she might fear that involvement will bring retribution or unwanted attention. However, like it or not, the silent observer becomes part of the bullying problem rather than part of the solution.
Bullying hurts everyone from the bully to the observer to the target. Bullies pick on others for various reasons. The target might be smaller, weaker, or simply different from the bully in some way. One thing is certain about bullies of any size: they are small of heart and mind. Bullies feel so small and inadequate inside that they misguidedly operate under the impression that it is necessary to tear down someone else so that they will feel bigger and better. Someone with a strong heart and mind seeks to lift up others, not tear them down.
Bullying does not happen only on playgrounds. Grown men and women do it too, and in the case of adult bullying, it is most often brought about with words, sometimes under the cover of a joke. Now, let me acknowledge straight away, that humor is a valuable thing. There is much-needed joy to be found in this world as we joke, poke fun, tease, parody, satirize, laugh at ourselves, and giggle with each other, over our human shortcomings and individual idiosyncrasies.
Sometimes it happens that under the pretext of a joke, the joker is actually lashing out in ignorance or fear. And when that happens, more often than not, the joker relies on false information, generalizations, and assumptions to make his or her point seem believable and funny. The result? The target of the joke is hurt, not just by being the brunt of the joke, but by the false information disseminated. This is never more true than when the joker publicly makes “fun” of a person’s race, religion, age, gender, or sexual orientation. Such characteristics are immutable and/or deeply personal, perhaps even sacred.
When we hear jokes about someone’s immutable characteristics or personal beliefs, in the interest of “humor” and “freedom of speech” it is often excused with statements such as, “it was meant as a joke,” “just turn the channel if you don’t like it,” “it was in poor taste,” or “don’t take it personally, he says things like that all the time.” But when someone has made “fun” of someone else’s immutable traits or personal beliefs and we do not speak up about it, we are allowing verbal bullies to hurt all of us indirectly, and eventually each of us directly. Yesterday, it was a team of “nappy-headed hos” who took the punch line because of their race. Tomorrow it might be you, or your child, because of your age, gender, sexual orientation, or religious choices.