Bullying: What It Is And Isn’t

Simply put: punching up is okay; punching down is not.

As a writer of social commentary who often addresses polarizing topics (like America’s complex, codependent relationship with the Second Amendment, or the scourge of toxic masculinity, gun violence, and how the two merge), I am well-accustomed to the criticism that comes with the territory. If you’re going to be a writer (moreover, a successful writer), you’ve got to have thick skin.

If your writing isn’t receiving at least some angry mail or drive-by insults within the comments sections, then believe it or not, you’re probably not maximizing your potential. Writing should move people to feel something, even if that thing is anger.

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I’ve noticed that some of the most vicious hate mail and insult-comments I get are in response to pieces I’ve written on systemic racism, gender identity, and the importance of protecting trans kids.

I’ve also noticed there’s an observable, predictable demographic trend among these pieces:

  • White people (mostly white males) post the majority of hateful comments when I write about racism;
  • Cisgender people (mostly cisgender, white males) post the majority of hateful comments when I write about gender identity — or anything LGBTQ related;
  • Adult parents (mostly cisgender, white parents — with no knowledge of the transgender community except for maybe their limited exposure to Caitlyn Jenner) post the majority of hateful comments when I write about the importance of protecting trans kids.

Fortunately for my sake, the messages of support, encouragement, love, and connection far outshine the negative messages.

I’ve heard it said that we might hear ten compliments and one insult in a day, and the one we’re most likely to remember long-term is the insult.

While I concede it’s hard to forget insults that cut to the core (like when I was in seventh grade and a boy in my class baffled me with a public “slut-shaming” insult, at an age when I’d not yet had my first boyfriend, let alone, my first kiss), with regard to writing, I’m more likely to remember the constructive, helpful and/or positive comments. The comments and messages that are made in solidarity are the ones that stand out because they give me hope for the future. Especially when the endless cycle of embarrassing, disastrous Trumpian headlines are dominating yet another day of national news.

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More recently, though, I wrote a few pieces I didn’t consider too polarizing; I’ve always been interested in the human mind and behavior, and with a degree in Psychology, I often write my cultural or political commentary from this angle. One such piece, Donald Trump Is The Dunning-Kruger Effect Personified, proved to evoke a far larger response than anything I’d expected. The piece resonated tremendously with some people, and was absolutely detested by others.

In response, one commenter — a self-described Army Sergeant and first volunteer responder on 9/11 — wrote the following of my Trump/Dunning-Kruger piece:

What a totally shameful article to write about anyone, never mind the president of the United States. Today you can proudly strut among your dumbocrat friends as a hero for degrading the president. In school this is known as bullying. How anyone can feel good about themselves after such a bias vile attack is incomprehensible.

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Assuming this person was a Trump cultist, supporter, or enabler (or even if it was just someone who respects the office of the President regardless of who occupies the seat), the irony was certainly not lost on me that what I had written would be seen as “shameful,” especially considering that the person it was written about both shames others almost hourly, and brings shame upon our nation and our democracy as a whole.

Still, I felt compelled to try and respond with dignity. I do try to respond to anyone who takes the time to leave a comment (most of the time), and in this case, it was as if I could feel the earnest passion bleeding through every tap of this person’s keyboard. Don’t get me wrong; this person absolutely had the right to castigate my opinion in any way that they saw fit, and I defend their right to do so.

Where I had to draw a hard line though, was with one detail in particular — the part that read:

“Today you can proudly strut among your dumbocrat friends as a hero for degrading the president. In school this is known as bullying.”

That this reader was equating my writing with “bullying,” for attempting to analyze and criticize the behavior of the current President of the United States?

This isn’t how bullying works.

Yet, plenty of misguided people seem to think this is exactly how bullying works. And in my opinion, this misinterpretation of how “bullying” works plays a small part in the much larger picture of what’s wrong with our country right now. In general, people are quick to shout “bully” when they don’t seem to understand in the first place what constitutes bullying and what does not.

I tried to make the distinction in my response back to him:

First, thank you sir, for your selfless service to our country, especially during the horrific tragedy of 9/11. We owe a debt of gratitude to all of you who were on the front lines that awful day.

Second, please allow me to clear up some things:

I don’t presume to “proudly strut,” nor would I ever consider myself a “hero.” But more importantly, I’d like to tackle this notion of bullying. A lot of people seem to misunderstand what it actually means.

After reading my thoughts on the president, you may feel free to judge me and decide I’m rude (or a host of other things). That’s fair game. But in this situation, it’s completely inaccurate to label my writing as bullying. By its very definition, bullying is seeking to harm, intimidate, or coerce someone, particularly someone who’s perceived as being vulnerable. Further, bullying is considered bullying only when an individual or a group of people have:

a.) some semblance of power over their victims, and

b.) they repeatedly and intentionally cause hurt or harm to another person or group of people who are vulnerable, i.e., those who feel helpless to respond.

I’m a private citizen. I don’t hold any power or influence over the President of the United States. I can write things about him all day long without it having negative consequence over his life, because he holds all the power in this scenario. This is called “punching up.”

Conversely, Donald Trump is the POTUS, and as such, he holds all the power over private citizens — especially marginalized groups of people, or unprotected minorities, who already live with daily microaggressions, widespread mindsets of willful ignorance, harassment, and even bullying by those in power. As President, Donald Trump actually has the ability to destroy someone’s life if he so chooses. And he actually does do this. All the time. It’s his M.O. This behavior is called “punching down.”

Punching down is never okay.

I’m a private citizen using my first amendment right to express my displeasure with the state of our politics and specifically, the person at the top. I have no power or authority over him, and odds are in my favor he will never even know my name.

Conversely, Donald Trump as President uses his personal Twitter account (with some *58 million followers) as a platform to draw unrestricted attention to all his bullying tactics: name calling, intimidation, threatening, harassing, and fearmongering (to name a few).

As Americans, it’s not just our civic duty to vote, but to also hold power to account. It’s a Constitutional right to criticize the President and the government in general.

As private citizens of America, you and I both have the right (through freedoms of speech, petition and expression) to call out anyone whom we perceive as being unfair, corrupt, or just generally acting morally reprehensible. What we don’t have the right to do without consequence is to attempt to silence other people from expressing their views, incite people to violence, or blatantly lie and/or distort the truth — ironically, something our President does all the time.

As an army sergeant, I’d like to think you understand that independent thought, critical analysis, and peaceful protest are crucial components of a functioning democracy. Media, journalism, reporters, writers, etc., are here to serve the governed — not the governors. Again, being an army sergeant, it would seem you’d fundamentally understand this.

What the current president does on an almost daily basis is inarguably bullying, i.e., using (and abusing) his power to intimidate the masses. If we didn’t have the right to criticize our own government, then who would? What would we be?

This experiment known collectively as America was never meant to be a dictatorship; the electoral college was put into place to prevent people like Donald Trump from becoming president in the first place, in the event that our people failed to see they were being swindled or coerced. Likewise, forced complicity and blind obedience are not American values, yet it seems every Trump supporter I’ve encountered thinks they are.

At the end you wrote, “How anyone can feel good about themselves after such a bias (sic) vile attack is incomprehensible.” But I think the more appropriate statement would be this:

“How any Trump supporters can feel good about themselves after his daily, biased, vile attacks on American values, priniciples, morals, and governing norms is incomprehensible.”

*Donald Trump now has a Twitter following of 59.1 million (and counting).

As much as I value and appreciate (and revere) free speech, I do not think those who are in the business of governing and political power should be allowed a social media platform (especially an unsecured, personal one) if they’re going to use it to perpetuate bigotry. And by bigotry, I’m referring to the punching down type; the more pervasive, dangerous form of prejudice, the kind that’s punctuated with bold strokes of discrimination against the powerless, the marginalized, or the unprotected minorities.

Donald Trump is the notorious playground bully who, upon not getting his way, throws a hissy fit, stomps out of the sandbox and yells, “That’s it! I’m going home…and I’m taking all my sand toys with me!” leaving all the other five year olds aghast in the wake of his daily hysterics hemorrhage.

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Image: Pexels

I believe the 2016 election can be represented by this same metaphor. Trying to understand why Donald Trump’s brand of “change” worked for so many has been much more confounding, but ultimately, I’ve realized it consists of embracing this whole concept of bullying, i.e., punching down.

I believe the 2016 election was never even remotely about politics, and I believe that many of Trump’s supporters were motivated by a subconscious fear of being “left behind” as our country evolves, embraces diversity, and celebrates identities that may have once been considered social stigmas.

Trump’s brand of “change” in the 2016 election and beyond amounts to bullying the powerless — out of pure, weak, unadulterated fear. It’s living in constant, subconscious, unchecked paranoia that one day, all these “others” will eventually outnumber you, and worse, that they may possibly commit the same (or worse) atrocities to you that you did to them.

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Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

Ultimately it seemed Trump’s entire campaign — all the way down to his “Make America Great Again” slogan — tapped into and spoke to some primal, savage undercurrent of subconscious fear and loss. What Trump did (quite possibly by serendipity alone) was that he managed to bottle up and sell some bygone era of the past, only, he sold it not as the archaic curio that it should be, but under the guise of a more euphemistically pleasing lens: one we know collectively as nostalgia.

Simply, Trump managed to bottle up and sell nostalgia.

Of course, the Trumpian brand of nostalgia spoke to some fabricated, indiscriminate era in American history that nobody can seem to identify by name or date — a rose tinted past that never existed. But he indeed sold many Americans on nostalgia, which happens to be one of the most powerful (and most misleading) emotions. Voters were either bewitched, repulsed, or didn’t give a damn.

No doubt his approach changed politics, at least for the short term. Trump throwing his hat into the political arena, along with the hats of his Keystone Kops-style administration (rife with circus clowns, creeps, criminals, cons, and cronies) has certainly shaped and set the bar for political (and general) discourse — which has endured a painful, gradual disintegration over the past few years, specifically.

Though I generally welcome change, I don’t think Trump’s brand of change is in any way “great.” It’s boorish. It’s punching down. It’s bullying. At least in my generation, we haven’t experienced an individual like Donald Trump repeatedly eroding our ideals from the highest seat in government, and intentionally dividing people instead of uniting them.

The 2016 election and its subsequent results became more about morals, values, ethics, and deeply held belief systems. Which is the lens I use to look at Donald Trump — a person I have not ever pretended to like, and one whose sordid life, shady business dealings, and legal woes many Americans have been reading about for years, if not decades. As a private citizen in America, addressing my distaste for the current government in articles, publications, and other media outlets is my right.

Not only is it a protected right to scrutinize and criticize our government, but also, if we’re unhappy with those who bully their way into power and then use that power to punch down on people whose very lives are not protected, or whose basic civil rights are being stripped away at this moment, then it’s our civic duty to speak up — loudly. This is the exact opposite of bullying, and it pays to know the difference.

Martie sir-ROY (she/her) writes social commentary on a variety of topics. Martie is editor of Gender From the Trenches, a top writer in Culture for Medium, and has been a frequently featured contributor for HuffPost, Scary Mommy, NPR affiliates, and SiriusXM Insight, among others. Martie is also the founder of S.E.A.R.CH., a program of her local LGBT Center that serves trans & gender nonconforming youth ages 12 and under & their parents. Connect with her on Twitter or Facebook.

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Seen in HuffPost, Scary Mommy, etc; heard @ NPR, SiriusXM, TIFO podcast & more. Gender dismantling trailblazer. Political news junkie. TikTok aficionado. Mom.

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