Bullies and the Mob Mentality: a Dangerous Combination

I had planned to write about something happier or more uplifting for my next blog.  But, I tend to follow my muse where she leads me.  The subject that she is screaming in my ear this morning is the story all over the news now about the 68-year-old grandmother/bus monitor who was mercilessly bullied by a pack of teenagers on a school bus.  The video from a cell phone captured roughly ten minutes of their cruelty that included everything from insults and profanity to actually putting their hands on her.  I’m shocked and sickened by it.  It’s the kind of thing that knots around my insides and leaves me completely devastated about the things that society is capable of.  That a group of kids could treat another human being as essentially non-human breaks my heart.  It’s that kind of chilling marginalization or hate by one group against another that gives rise to the horrors that the human race is capable of, things like slavery, the holocaust and 9-11.      

Notwithstanding the callousness of the teenagers on that bus, it’s difficult for me to believe that all of those kids are inherently evil even though their behavior certainly was.  So, what is it that drove them to do it?  The answer for me is two simple ingredients.  A charismatic and powerful bully that lusts to be the center of attention, and a crowd of individuals either afraid to be left behind or placed in the bully’s cross-hairs.  It’s human nature for us to want to go along in order to be included in “the” group.  There is safety in numbers and it’s never fun to be unpopular.  Having a scapegoat or target takes pressure off of the individuals in group from having to look inward as to how they are flawed or to blame for their own circumstances.  But, there is a heavy price to pay for inclusion in that kind of group.  One essentially has to sell a piece of their soul.  Sell enough of your soul and pretty soon you won’t be you. 

The good news from this story though is that people around the world are horrified by what happened.  A new group is taking shape united by the message that this kind of behavior shouldn’t be tolerated, because it’s just plain wrong.    Imagine a world where instead of human “herds” being held together by hate and disdain for outsiders, we become one that celebrates diversity and inclusion.  I want to be part of a group that is loving, hard-working, accepting and won’t tolerate hate in any form.  Call it naive, but that is my hope for the future of our human race.  As for those kids, I do think they should be punished in such a way that they learn a lesson in how to be a better human being.  I’m not talking about revenge.  That never solves the problem.  Revenge only adds fuel to the fire.  I’m talking about extinguishing the fire by teaching them and others how to be brave enough to stand up to a bully, and not go along with a crowd when it means giving up your humanity in order to be included.   Peace.

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Proud to be a Lesbian Daughter of a Working Class Middle American Town

I recently saw the documentary, Wish Me Away, about Chely Wright.  It was as outstanding as her memoir, “Like Me.”  She’s definitely among my list of heroines who bravely fight the good fight.  My favorite quote was, “I came out because I have a public capital.  And this is how I’m using it.  This is not about my career, this is about I see a wrong and I have the chance to right it.  And I’m just going to do my part.”  While a lot of the story involves her music career, which is not something that I can relate to, I definitely felt “like her” remembering growing up as a lesbian in a conservative Midwestern town. 

I grew up in a town that was sandwiched between the steel mills and Lake Michigan to the north, and corn fields for as far as the eye could see to the south and west.  A major branch of the Conrail Railroad system that used to be known as the Lake Shore and Southern Michigan Railway passed right through my town.  In fact, the small half ranch house that my family of six lived in was so close to the tracks, freight trains would rattle the windows as they passed by.  When I close my eyes, I can still see the town’s water tower rising up like a giant over the perfectly flat Midwestern landscape.  There isn’t anything like a Midwestern sky unobstructed by trees.  It’s something to be able to see for miles and miles.

Among the things that I loved growing up in my town was the sense of community.  Everyone knew everyone and people really did look out for each other.  I remember this really older gentleman who lived in my neighborhood.  The older he got, the more people checked in on him or brought him food.  After a bad storm or something like that, my father would always go over to make sure the man was okay.  About my dad, he was a “jack of all trades” kind of guy.  He worked in the steel mill, drove a truck and sometimes did carpentry. My dad is the definition of working class Middle America and I admire him for that.  The best time of year growing up was 4th of July.  Everyone in town came out for the parade and the smell of burning charcoal on barbecue grills filled the air afterward.  To this day, I still get weepy at parades and feel nostalgic for my childhood when I eat a grilled hotdog on the 4th of July.

I grew up in a Southern Baptist household.  We never missed church.  In the early days, before I realized that according to the “God” of my parents I was going to hell for being a lesbian, I actually liked church.  Everybody seemed happy, we always got to sing songs, and on Sundays in the summer time we’d have lots to eat after the sermon thanks to the church ladies.  I’ve yet to eat chicken and dumplings that taste as good.  Our church sat at the edge of an enormous cornfield.  In the Midwest, that means one that is hundreds to thousands of acres big.  We’d run around after church playing hide and seek in those fields while the adults talked about whatever adults talked about in those days.  They were the best times of my childhood.  I felt loved, secure and confident about how the world was supposed to work. 

The rules in my town were simple.  If I wanted to be a respected member of the community and go to heaven, all I had to do was be a good person, not tell lies, work hard, love god and take care of those who can’t take care of themselves.  Then the rug got pulled out from underneath me.  There was an asterisk to that.  If you’re gay, none of those things mattered according to my town, family and church.  That was a deal breaker for them.  It was a pretty shattering moment for a kid.  My world had been built on my town, family and church.  It was the ultimate betrayal to be loved and then hated for no other reason than that I was gay.  I did the only thing I could.  When I was old enough, I ran away to the military and found my new salvation in being who I was meant to be and who god made me to be.  I’ll save that story though for another day because it’s not entirely simple. 

I’m still working on being able to forgive the betrayal.  A positive path that I’ve found to get there is to live such that my heart is open to being able to see the good through the bad.  I have to give credit where credit is due.  I still believe in those essential rules of humanity that I learned from my town, family and church, be a good person, don’t tell lies, work hard and take care of those who can’t take care of themselves.  But, I’ve found “god” and heaven in other places than inside the walls of a church being lectured to by an angry preacher who has yet to fully comprehend what it means to be a good person.  Goodness doesn’t come from a particular church, town or part of the country.  It comes from the heart.  My spirituality is as strong as ever, and I’m proud to be a lesbian daughter of working class Middle America, with its worts and all.  No one can take that from me.  Peace.