Monday, May 14, 2012

Bully for Whom?

By Mike Dorf

I tend to share the view of those commentators who argue that it should not count for too much that Mitt Romney was at least an occasional bully in high school.  Although Charles Blow made a fair point about the inadequacy of Romney's apology, politicians are constantly making non-apology apologies ("mistakes were made"; "I'm sorry if anyone was offended"; etc.)  To my mind, Andy Borowitz best captured the heart of the issue, satirically attributing the following sentiment to Romney: Don't "judge me as the teenager who bullied one gay boy, but rather as the adult who fired thousands of people."

Recognizing that Romney's adolescent behavior need not count for much in current politics, it nonetheless provides a useful occasion for thinking about whether and how much things have changed.  I'll do so through a couple of personal anecdotes.  I'm younger than Romney, so the events I describe occurred in elementary school in the early to mid-1970s, rather than high school in the mid-1960s, but it strikes me that the key social changes have occurred more recently still, so my experience is probably not all that different from Romney's.

(1) One day during recess, I was part of a group of boys playing dodgeball, when a few of our number started chanting "Peter is a faggot" repeatedly.  I didn't know what a "faggot" was, so I asked an older friend, who explained it to me.  I was right around the age when boys begin to transition out of thinking that girls have cooties, so the whole idea of sexual attraction of any sort was new to me.  I was doubly dubious of the chant: First, I found the very idea of homosexuality confusing; and second, I thought it peculiar that Peter in particular might be gay.  He was a big kid who wasn't usually the object of bullying and somehow in a few brief seconds, I absorbed the standard stereotypes about gay boys and men.  I don't recall whether I participated in the chant, but I certainly did nothing to object to it.  Thinking back on the incident now, I do not recall any adult intervening on any basis: either to object to the bullying or the homophobia.

(2) Bullying more generally was accommodated in my elementary school.  Around the same time as the incident with the boy I'm calling Peter, there was an ongoing saga with another boy, who was more broadly unpopular.  I'll call him "David."  I can't now recall why we found David annoying, but part of the tormenting of David revolved around the fact that he suffered from impetigo.  He had a red rash on his face around his mouth, and often licked at the infected area, perhaps because it itched, or perhaps simply as a kind of nervous habit, but whatever his reason, the licking exacerbated the infection.  The rest of us took this as a sign that David's affliction was self-induced and we teased and shunned him as a result.

A few of David's tormentors went further.  On a daily basis, they would beat David up.  I use the term "beat up" because that's what I remember, but I now realize what a vague term that is.  I know they used enough force to hurt David, but not enough to break bones or otherwise require hospitalization.  Still, it was the sort of thing which, if done by an adult, would warrant a criminal conviction.

The teacher and other staff broke up fights that occurred on school grounds so David received his beatings on his way home from school.  After about a month of these beatings, David must have complained to the teacher that some of his classmates were attacking him.  The teacher devised a solution that, in retrospect, strikes me as incredible: Each day, she would dismiss David ten minutes earlier than the rest of the class.  That way, he had a sufficient head start so that he could run home without his tormentors having a chance to catch up and attack him.  This "solution" went on for the rest of the school year.  Really.  I'm not making any of this up.  It's possible I've remembered a few details imperfectly but I'm very confident that the story is broadly accurate.

* * *

What to make of these incidents?

To begin, I do not find credible Romney's claim that  picking on a boy with long hair or shouting "atta girl" when a closeted gay student spoke in class were not homophobic.  It's possible that Romney doesn't remember his motivation, but homophobia was simply part of the air that children breathed in those days.  At no point during my primary or secondary education did any authority figure ever say anything remotely like "you shouldn't pick on someone because of his or her sexual orientation."  And I finished high school in 1982, seventeen years after Romney did.

Much has clearly changed since 1982 (and certainly since 1965).  Still, there are many places in the U.S. where LGBT youth are teased and much worse.  The whole premise of the It Gets Better Project is that for thousands of young people, it needs to get a lot better.

Likewise with bullying more generally.  I cannot imagine that a teacher at a decent school today would come up with the solution of dismissing a bullied child ten minutes early so he could outrun his attackers.  Moreover, there are anti-bullying campaigns in schools and beyond, including the one associated with the film "Bully."  As the film portrays, however, bullying remains widespread.

Mitt Romney need not have his high school behavior held against him.  After all, this is a country in which not all that long ago a Congressman said with a straight face that adultery he committed at the age of 41 was a "youthful indiscretion."  But by calling his past behavior "hijinks" and "dumb things," and by issuing a non-apology apology, Romney missed an opportunity to say something important about homophobia and bullying.