[politics|culture] Romney, bullying, and me

Yesterday, in Link Salad, I posted this:

Romney Apologizes For Bullying In Prep School, Says He Didn’t Know Victim Was Gay — I can and do say a lot of negative things about Romney, but I’m not sure very many of us could stand up to being accountable as mature adults for what we did in high school. (Via my Aunt M.)

That stirred some passionate comments on both instances of my blog:

[info]twilight2000: Sorry – but Bullshit. You can argue the average teen shit maybe, but he’s being described as a bully and a terror by more than one school mate. You get to be guilty for assaulting kids and terrorizing them.

[info]jere7my: He was also eighteen at the time, and a legal adult. There are a lot of people sitting in jail for things they did at eighteen that weren’t half as bad. (Of course, most of them aren’t wealthy and white.)

[info]chessdev: Agreed. Additionally, it only took 40 years AND a Presidential campaign for him to see the light… and we should commend his coming forward (when this was going to surface anyway most likely?)

[info]jimvanpelt: Like your other commentors here, I’m less likely to give Romney a pass on this one. As Frank Wu said in his blog today, “Would you want the bully of your sixth grade class elected President?” I’m a firm believer in character change and redemption, so it’s entirely possible that he’s moved a long way from those days, but, since I already don’t like or trust him, I’ll keep this story as another data point.

[info]elfs: [Excerpted from a long, thoughtful comment] When people his own staff called to cover for him instead described him as “evil” and prone to “Lord of the Flies moments,” no, really, you’re looking at a man’s character.

Stephen A. Watkins: [Excerpted from a long, thoughtful comment] As someone who was bullied for being wrongly perceived as gay when I was younger… I disagree with the idea that adults oughtn’t be held accountable for the nasty things they do when they are in high school. And his “apology” was a total non-apology.

Cora Buhlert: [Excerpted from a long, thoughtful comment] Pinning a fellow student to the ground to forcibly cut his hair goes way beyond a simply prank – that qualifies as assault IMO. Besides, Romney was 18 at the time, i.e. of an age where he should have known better, and not 12 or 14.

For whatever it’s worth, let me establish my own scrap of cultural authority on this question by saying that from a very early age through about age 14, I was the target of some pretty intense and difficult bullying. I was the new kid in school almost every year, exceptionally socially awkward even by the standards of my peer group, had a big mouth, and was almost always literally the slowest, clumsiest kid in the class. I’m not talking about name calling, either. Among many other things, I was forced to drink urine, stripped and stuffed in a trash barrel, battered with school desks and then buried in a mound of them, routinely threatened and robbed of my lunch (or lunch money), and so forth.

This being the 1970s, the most common response from my parents and teachers was, “What did you do to antagonize him?” I cannot remember a single instance of accountability for any of the boys who tortured me, even when their actions were witnessed by adults. At times, I was punished at school as an instigator. Often the bullies were star athletes picking on the slow weak kid, safely cloaked in the athletic privilege that begins to pervade even in upper grade school. There was an attitude that boys will be boys, and I just needed to toughen up and build my character. And besides, I had a big mouth, so I probably had it coming.

So, yeah, bullying is an intensely emotional issue for me, with a lot of triggers.

And quite frankly, I’d be amazed of any of the kids who did that stuff to me even remember it today. The experience of the bully is very different from the experience of the victim. The intense, emotional humiliation of being on the receiving end of that treatment can scar for life. For most of the bullies, it was an amusing way to pass a lunch break or a playground recess. Their actions had no great significance to them. In the battlefields of childhood, bullying is asymmetrical warfare.

What does this story mean? That Mitt Romney is arrogant, entitled and self-involved? That he unthinkingly uses his social power for his own amusement and benefit? I can’t believe anyone in America is surprised by this. And for a conservative electorate that values heteronormative masculinity above almost all other traits (c.f. George W. Bush’s “flight suit” moment), I suspect this story is validating and comforting. After all, here was candidate Romney in his youth fighting for what’s right and putting the wrong people in their place.

All that being said, I still hold to my original comment. How many of us could stand up to being accountable as mature adults for what we did in high school? I have many reasons to oppose Romney’s candidacy, rooted in common sense, in patriotism, in my understanding and experience of what Republican governance means to this country. That he was a childhood bully is a feature of Candidate Romney, not a bug. I don’t endorse or agree with that, but in the end, how different is his behavior at 18 from his behavior at Bain Capital, or even today? How different is the behavior of the GOP as measured by its platforms and legislation?

This is who he is. This is who the Republican party is, bullying the poor and the gay and women and little brown people the world over. And millions of my fellow Americans approve.

That’s the depressing aspect of this story to my way of thinking.

11 thoughts on “[politics|culture] Romney, bullying, and me

  1. John Chu says:

    But that it’s not surprising is exactly why we need to make a point of it. Otherwise, invisible privilege stays invisible.

    What I find disturbing is that he either didn’t remember then made light of the incident by calling it a prank. Yes, most of us could not stand up to being held accountable for everything we did in high school. The problem is that Mitt doesn’t seem to recognize that this is true for him too. (I mean, if he can’t remember whether he violently assaulted someone or not, that’s telling in and of itself.)

  2. Laurie Mann says:

    I agree with Cora, what Mitt did with the scissors is assault. And, he was 18. And, he says he doesn’t remember the incident which is even a little scarier – was he involved in more than one of these incidents?

    I was bullied constantly all through public school. I had a very bad temper, and was unapologetically smart. I could also be obnoxious and could, at times, bully other people, so I can’t claim “but I was only a victim.” It took me until I was in my very late teens to realize “Who cares what other people think?” And once I took that attitude I couldn’t be bullied anymore.

  3. pelican says:

    I was primarily the victim, not the perpetrator, of bullying in school- I had it easier physically, but not emotionally, since I’m a girl.

    In fifth grade, I remember telling a more popular girl (who wasn’t?) that the other female pariah in the school had lice. It was a complete lie I made up to gain a modicum of social acceptance and to try to fit in with the culture of gossip and backstabbing.

    I remember this very well and am profoundly ashamed of it. I’m in my forties.

    I think it’s possible that some people who were bullies as children grew into decent people as adults, and look back on what they did with appropriate guilt.

    That Romney “doesn’t remember” is a sign of his character- a selfish, mean character. The only plausible way to “forget” something like that is not only if you never felt it was wrong, but that you did that sort of thing so frequently that it not only wasn’t wrong, but it wasn’t even unusual enough to be memorable.

    I hope at least some of the people who bullied you, Jay, remember what they did and feel guilty about it.

  4. Bill Shunn says:

    Saying that Romney is standing up and being accountable makes it sound like he broke the story himself. Despite the current pervasiveness of bullying-awareness, Romney didn’t come forward on his own and say, “Hey, I was a bully in high school, and now I’m ashamed of it.” He’s a politician doing damage control, and his “apology” is full of weasel words and hedging. It could have been empathetic, sincere, and presidential, but instead it was pro forma. He really doesn’t get it, and he should spend some serious time reading the accounts of bullying victims, like yours.

    I know you’re not defending Romney, but I think even the small credit you’re extending him is too much. He did the minimum here he could possibly get away with, given the circumstances.

  5. Matt says:

    I think this was a masterful political move. To the liberals it looks like a character change and thoughtful introspection. To the bullies and the bigots of his party, he lived the fantasy of holding down a hippy and shaving off his long hair (and the implication he could do it again). Win-win.

  6. Matt says:

    And the reality is that he is neither, he is a wall street vulture capitalist.

  7. Cora says:

    I was bullied at school as well and the teachers did not lift a finger to intervene. Sometimes (not in my case, but in the case of a boy I felt fiercely protective of) the teachers even joined in with the bullying. There were also times where I was scolded for kicking or hitting another kid, while no one seemed to notice or care about what the other kid had done. Parents mostly did not care, though mine nowadays claim they had no idea what was going on. This history is also why I clamp down on any bullying or sexual harassment I notice at school.

    But the majority of the bullying I and my classmates experienced was verbal and maybe the occasional hair or clothes pulling, pencil snatching, etc… The sort of physical violence reported by many American bullying victims, e.g. hair cutting, money stealing, dunking people into toilets, etc… did not exist at German schools in the 1980s and it does not exist today. I was once locked in a toilet stall by some older girls (I knew one of them from the neighbourhood and threatened to tell her grandmother of whom she was afraid) and a girl threatened to cut off my long hair in 6th grade (I told I’d stab her in the eyes, if she tried, and she left me alone). Maybe I was just psychotic enough to scare bullies off from any physical action, but I doubt it. They never physically harmed any other kid either. It was all verbal and psychological.

    Which honestly makes me wonder about American schools (and you went to a prestigious private school as far as I know), when teachers let physical bullying go on without any intervention or punishment. It’s one thing to call someone names, it’s another to physically assault him or her. And considering that American school supposedly expel very young kids for touching a girl’s breast and the like (which is complete overkill), I find it troubling that no one intervenes in these cases and that it is seen as normal.

    Besides, bullying usually starts around 5th grade (i.e. age 10) and fades sometime in 9th or 10th grade (age 15 or 16). Romney was 18 and therefore out of the typical bullying age, particularly physical bullying. Older bullies, i.e. 15 or 16 year olds, spread rumours. They don’t physically attack other students.

    Unless 18-year-old Americans are much less mature than their German counterparts.

  8. Michael Fay says:

    I wouldn’t probably notice this story except that Romney’s “apology” wasn’t really an apology. It was a lame excuse that he was a prankster. And what he did wasn’t a prank. It was an assault and he should have been charged with the crime of assault for it.

    So, I disagree that he’s standing up and being accountable for the crimes of his youth. He’s deflecting.

  9. I’m wondering how long it takes before conservatives start celebrating Romney as “America’s Bully” to stand up to the rest of the world. You know, better the bully than the bullied, whether or not it makes sense.

    I wouldn’t hold teenage behavior against someone decades after the fact…if it was clear that they’d changed and could articulate that. I shoplifted candy as a kid, but would never steal anything today under almost any but the most dire life and death circumstances now. I know I pissed off some friends in high school, too, by doing things that didn’t seem so bad to me — and was barely aware of — but made them mad.

    Not trying to forgive Romney, not at all. I think he seriously mishandled the response. It was a political response, not a thoughtful, serious response. It showed no direct empathy or understanding. It left me unconvinced that the man had changed from the boy.

    But no chance in hell I was voting for him anyway. I fear pre-existing political bias will color how people see this story, with a minority in the middle taking it in the abstract.

  10. Yeah, I think the problem is that by ascribing Romney’s teenage behavior with the a great big “meh” response and suggesting that few/none of us could stand up to full accountability to things we did when we were young continues to miss the point that he’s not showing that he’s beyond that behavior now. I agree that it’s not very different from the rest of his adult experience vis-a-vis Bain, etc. But at a visceral level, your average lay-person doesn’t see the kind of thing Romney did at Bain as substaintively similar to the actions of a bully. To many, that’s the ordinary course of business affairs. It’s not physically violent, so it’s substantially less objectionable.

    Discounting his assaults of others during his teenage years erases the possibility of tying to this a severe and pervasive character flaw.

    The fact is, his non-apology exemplifies the fact that this character flaw is still in full force and that he has not learned nor grown as an adult from the errors of his youth. It shows that those same character flaws still pervade his outlook today. And there are those who might see nothing overtly wrong with his business career who can be made to see this serious character flaw through the lense of his teenage bullying and his non-apology.

    You’re right that many of us have done things that we’re deeply ashamed of. I have done things that I do not talk about because they are deeply and terribly shaming, and I hate that I did those things. But Romney’s dismissing language makes
    it clear that he has no compunctions about what he did, and doesn’t see them as being all that bad. See my earlier comment (and Cora’s) on his use of the word “prank”.

    I really think this is important. And excusing Romney now because “boys will be boys” just allows this kind of crap to continue happening. If our culture were right-minded, this would never be tolerated, and someone who had engaged in behavior like this could never be a serious candidate for office. As it is… it is not a low-probability likelihood that our next president will be one who has committed a violent assault and has no remorse for it.

  11. Ellen says:

    I believe that a bully needs to be held accountable for his actions, even if it is years later. When someone bullies another person, it is unforgettable to the person who was bullied. I was bulled when I was in school, and it has taught me that people who bully can never be trusted, even if they “got away with it.”

    As for Mitt Romney, from his political campaigning, it is obvious that he is still a bully. If he doesn’t remember the bullying incident and takes it lightly, it’s quite obvious that he would have done a lot of the same if he had won the election. Anytime I heard him speak, the tone he had reeked of arrogance. It was obvious that every time he said that he would take something away, like unemployment and welfare that he does not care about anyone lesser than himself. No wonder he did not win the presidency.
    Everyone needs to be held accountable for their actions and choices, and Mitt Romney should be held to the same standard.

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