The Ponytail Puller

Politicians are a weird and often unfathomable breed.  The weirdness isn’t just limited to American politicians, either.  Take John Key, the Prime Minister of New Zealand.

Key is under fire because he repeatedly tugged on the ponytail of a waitress at a cafe he frequents in Auckland — even after she told Key’s security people, and later Key himself, that she didn’t like it.  When she finally went public with Key’s conduct, and he started to be criticized for it, he apologized, said his ponytail pulls were meant to be “light-hearted” and not intended to make the waitress uncomfortable, explained that the cafe was a place where had a “warm and friendly” relationship with the staff that involved “fun and games” and “practical jokes,” and gave the waitress two bottles of wine.

Anybody who’s ever been bullied recognizes this scenario.  The bully invades your personal space and does something physical that they think is funny, their sycophants dutifully laugh at the antics of their leader, and the bully keeps rubbing your head or punching your arm every time they see you even though you ask them to stop.  If they get caught in the act by a teacher, they insist it’s all simply joking between friends — one of whom just happens to be bigger and more powerful than the other, who always seems to be the butt of the “jokes.”

Key’s conduct doesn’t just reflect a bullying attitude, though — it also reveals the power relationships to which politicians the world over become accustomed.  Most of us would never dream of physically touching a waiter or waitress, much less doing something as painful, intrusive, and asinine as pulling a ponytail and continuing to do so even after being asked to quit it.  Key did it because, surrounded by security people and wearing the mantle of national leadership, he could.  It’s the same attitude of power and entitlement that makes American politicians unconcerned by the fact that their motorcades and security cordons inconvenience normal folks and makes them mad when an average person has the temerity to question what they’re doing, their motives, or where they are getting campaign contributions from.

In Key’s case the hair-yanking probably gave him a little thrill and direct sense of power, besides.  Anyone care to guess how many of the “practical jokes” at the cafe were pulled by Key on the unfortunate members of the staff and how many were directed at him?

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Big Bully

The apparent relentless bullying of Miami Dolphins player Jonathan Martin has to be one of the weirdest sports stories in years.

Martin — an offensive lineman who is 6′ 5″ and weighs more than 300 pounds — left the Dolphins abruptly after enduring the hazing and harassing behavior of his own teammates.  New stories about the incident indicate that Martin was browbeaten into paying $15,000 so other Miami players could take a trip to Las Vegas and that another Dolphins player physically threatened Martin and used racial epithets in phone messages to him.  The other player, guard Richie Incognito, has a history of bad behavior and seems to be fighting a losing battle with a horde of inner demons.  Incognito’s recorded message to Martin is inexcusably racist and vile, and he has been suspended by the Dolphins.

It’s weird to think that a man as big as Martin could be bullied, but when a bunch of other very large and violent men are the actors it’s not hard to see how bullying could reach a point where a player would just quit rather than trying to tolerate more abuse.  It’s also weird to think that supposed teammates would be hurting their own team by tormenting a highly regarded player to the point where he would quit, but apparently the Dolphins coaching staff and the front office ignored the growing problem.  Now they’ve lost two players, and it’s hard to believe that the remaining team members aren’t shaken and second-guessing everyone’s role in the incident.

I’ve always believed that, as a normal-sized unathletic person, I can’t appreciate what it would be like, physically, to be a super-sized elite athlete playing in the NFL.  The strange Jonathan Martin story makes me think that I can’t really understand what it would be like emotionally to play on an NFL team, either.  I feel sorry for Martin, and the whole incident makes me lose some respect for the National Football League.  The NFL is great at marketing its product and trying to depict players as wonderful role models.  How much of that is phony?  How many troubled giants like Richie Incognito are terrorizing NFL locker rooms?

Mean Girls

There’s been a lot of talk about “mean girls” and bullying lately.  The terrible suicide  of a 12-year-old Florida girl, who jumped off a tower after being tormented by schoolmates, is just the latest in a series of incidents that have people questioning whether young girls — and for that matter, young boys — are just getting meaner.

Some of the prevailing wisdom is that the internet, and social media, have contributed to the relentless bullying.  The notion is that what used to be one-on-one bullying can quickly become a much wider form of inflicting humiliation.  Rather than just mortifying someone on the school bus or in the gym class locker, the thinking goes, social media allows the bullies to broadcast and heighten their taunts and attempts to shame and ridicule to the point where the object of the bullying feels that death is their only escape.  The youthful targets doesn’t quite realize that their teenage years will pass, that the school year embarrassments will fade into distant memories, and that the jerk who is torturing them doesn’t represent what lies ahead.

I think social media is a big part of the problem — but also for a different reason.  It’s harder to be mean to someone to their face.  When you are posting something insulting or humiliating about someone on Facebook, you’re typing something into a computer.  When you’re texting a mean picture, you’re thumbing a message into a smartphone.  It’s all an abstraction, where the power trip can be taken without directly experiencing the reaction.  You don’t see the hurt that your words or actions inflict; instead, you just get a few LOLs from the sycophantic friends in your clique.

I’m convinced that only truly evil people would be capable of tormenting someone, in person, to the point of suicide.  If I’m wrong about that, and we actually are raising a generation of kids so malevolent and disconnected from human decency that they don’t care about the consequences of their mean-spirited actions, then we’ve got much bigger problems as a society.

Making A Federal Case Out Of It

In case you missed it, last week was the first “federal anti-bullying summit.”

According to statistics quoted at the summit, in 2007 one out of three middle school and high school students reported being bullied at some point.  Does anyone really think that percentage is greater than it was in, say, 1970?  Speaking as an overweight, pimply, glasses-wearing junior high school student of that era, I can assure you from bitter personal experience that bullying was alive and well in the America of decades gone by.  Watch A Christmas Story or Back To The Future if you don’t believe me.

So, what has changed?  Just the fact that the federal government now seems to be involved in everything.  And listen to what Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, had to say about the federal response to bullying, according to the article linked above:  “Duncan promised new coordination among federal agencies, better data to understand the problem and solutions, and more federal funding, especially for those schools with the greatest needs.”

So, we will try to “solve” local bullying problems by getting federal agencies more involved, doing some national-level numbers crunching, and throwing more federal bucks at the schools that apparently are the most inept at dealing with their specific bullying problems.  Does anyone else find this ridiculous, as well as pointless?

Have our local school boards and school administrators really become so feeble and pathetic that they have to look to Washington, D.C. to figure out how to deal with the playground bully?  Ralphie didn’t need the feds to tell him how to deal with Scut Farkas, and Marty managed to take care of Biff without seeking federal funding.  Wouldn’t we all be better off if our local institutions and school principals actually did their jobs and the federal government focused on issues that are truly national in scope and importance?