“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”. It’s a line we’ve heard countless times before, from parents, teachers, and even a friendly Disney bunny but it’s one of those breathless quotes that are often said and seldom followed.
February 25th is Anti Bullying Day in Canada, a movement I support not just as a past victim of bullying and a friend and support of others who have been attacked but because bullying is a problem, a virus that continues to grow in our schools and communities and is leaving a trail of heartache and hurt and I want to change it.
I’ve talked about my experiences being bullied in the past, how it shaped a large part of my adolescence and pushed me through fire to adulthood. Those days being spit on, my ears flicked from classmates in the seats behind me, chewing gum finding its way in between pages of my books, covering my locker, shoved into ear sockets and rubbed into hair. My bullies became a fixture of my life, at first a terrifying one and then gradually, after shutting off my feelings and emotions like lightbulbs in a warehouse, I became neutral to it. I let my bullies dress me in hurt and shame like the empty eyed mannequin that I felt like I was.
When you experience something often, you fail to see the importance and the weight that it carries until you learn to see it with outside eyes. I run about 6km a day and that has become my routine, nothing fancy and not a big deal to me, but to tell that to someone who doesn’t run and it may sound much different. Bullying is the same, when you sit in the seat of torment it at first feels impossible to put up with but gradually you become conditioned to accept every name, every shove, every hand shoved into the front of your pants to “check if you’re really a guy”. You don’t question it anymore, you become neutralized.
During those years I never questioned why what was happening to me, was happening to me. I, a low figure on the social totem pole, was taught by society, by the rules of our constructed school community that the good looking ones, the ones with money and all the right physical objects were automatically given more power. As an adult, I carried a lot of this learning with me into the next chapter of my life which is why I failed to recognize the bullying that continued. I began to see adults, parents and role models using the same hallway tactics I had seen in the past, name calling and ridicule, gossip and hurtful rumours. A society being neutralized to the endless negative chatter.
The internet has given us a worldwide playground, every clique and group has their corner but unlike in schoolyards, there’s no principal and no end of break buzzer. It’s a free for all with little accountability. We’re given these false “invisibility cloaks” where we can hide behind avatars of pixelated silhouettes and tell people what we really think of them. But what is often forgotten is that it is in fact PEOPLE we are telling those things to. People with histories, with lives, with fears and ambitions, people just like us. The internet makes the totem pole horizontal, levels the field. You can construct, a la “catfish”, a persona that gives you power, gives you a voice and you can use it however you wish. And people do, people use it to share an image of an ideal life, to inspire and motivate, but also to hurt and to mock.
As a photographer and artist I’m a part of an emotionally charged and opinionated community, one that I attempt to have a positive voice in. What I’ve seen however isn’t always as supportive and inclusive as one might hope. Other photographers ripping each other apart over gear that was used or not used, over technique and personal style. I’ve heard comments from people close to me, tearing down other photographers work because they personally “don’t like the effect” or “it doesn’t have a deep enough story” or “that photographer just makes pretty pictures without meaning”. Those are personal opinions, sometimes best kept personal. The problem isn’t so much when these comments are made in personal conversations but when put on blast through social media. It teaches our young people that conflict is best solved by posting online, waiting for your army of supporters to arrive and embarking on a social lashing for everyone to see.
I’ve seen it happen, I’ve seen people I thought I understood and thought I respected latch on to someone because they were doing something different, trying something new, and publicly mock and tease them. And just like being shoved into a concrete wall it does nothing but hurt another person. I’ve seen friends, intelligent and compassionate people try to be a voice of reason but because the numbers don’t add up in social media, they too become a target. It becomes a worm in a field of hungry birds. Spend a few minutes in the comments section of YouTube or popular news blogs and you’ll begin to understand why bullying is still a weed that continues to choke out the voices and light of so many people.
We hear often about the abuse and bullying that occurs within our school walls but we seem to neglect the idea that it’s a learned behavior that and that it’s taught outside the curriculum too. Adult bullying is just as real and terrifying and heartbreaking as any other form. How can we expect our students, our children, future leaders and future caretakers to understand compassion, tolerance and acceptance when we are paving the road in front of them that is leading them into the very opposite.
The internet is a social construct. Social media is exactly that, a social media created by those that use it. We have the power to type whatever we want into it, we have the power to push the share button, the like button. I’ve experienced both sides of this social platform, I’ve been mocked and teased and threatened, but I’ve also been picked up when I felt down, felt appreciated when I was trying my best, and understood when I was feeling lost. We, as adults, are teachers by example. We have the power to make this social world a positive one, an inspiring one. One where creativity in all Its forms can be applauded even if we don’t personally understand it, one where regardless of race, gender, sexual identity or religion one can feel a sense of understanding, compassion and solidarity. All it takes is to think before typing, think before posting, and think before sharing. We have a right to our opinions, we don’t have the right to bully other people who don’t agree with those opinions.
I challenge you to spend a minute or two each day, to use social media in a positive way. To use it to encourage your favourite artist, send an overdue “I’ve been thinking about you” message, to post a fun throwback photo for a friend. Trust me, those seeds of happiness grow into something much brighter.
We can teach it, we can make it happy, we can say something nice.