Monday, May 14, 2012

Bullying and the Lessons Learned (Mitt Romney Edition)

Do you remember that time in your senior year of high school when you gathered a group of your friends, led them through school in search of a kid who was unpopular because he was different (or maybe even homosexual!), had your friends tackle and hold down that unpopular kid, and then, while this kid was being held down, kicking and screaming for help, you cut his hair so that he would better conform to your idea of what a student at your school should look like?

Do you remember that?

But I bet you would remember that if you’d done it, wouldn’t you?

I suspect that each of us have a handful of memories of actions in which we engaged, especially as kids, and of which we are now ashamed. I bet each of us has done things that hurt someone, whether intentionally or not, that we we bear as painful reminders of our own failings.

Depending on the severity of those incidents, on the harm caused, and on our own ages at the time, those actions may be better left in the past and may not reflect on the character of a person today. But in other cases, again, depending on things like severity, harm, and age, those actions may, in fact, properly reflect on the character of a person, even years later. And, perhaps more importantly, how we responded to those actions may offer further insight upon our character.

For example, I certainly recall with shame the fact that my friends and I (and, in fact, most of my 3rd-grade class) teased a boy in our class who occasionally soiled his underwear. I think that at the time we knew that we were in the wrong. But we were 8 or 9 years old. Now, nearly 40 years later, I still remember that. I wince when I think about those words and deeds. And I think back upon those moments when I see others being teased today. Have I always done all I could to stop teasing or to help those who might be the target of the “popular crowd”? Of course not. But I have tried, as often as possible, to stand up when I see bullying or other forms of targeted injustice and say, “No. Stop. Wrong.”

Events in my past, events in my childhood, created memories and taught me lessons of right and wrong upon which I can and have based my adult behavior.

So what can we learn about Mitt Romney’s character when we learn not only that he led a pack of high school seniors to tackle and hold down a gay kid so that Romney could cut that kid’s hair as the kid kicked and screamed for help, but that he doesn’t even remember the incident? There is a part of me that is (almost) willing to forgive Romney for the bullying incident itself. He was a high school student at the time, not an adult (or was he already 18…?). But… But given the severity of the incident (it would be one thing if the kid hadn’t been kicking and screaming for help…), Romney’s age (he was either 17 or even an 18 year old adult at the time), I don’t think that I can give him that free pass. And I factor into that the fact that Romney was not just “any other kid” but rather a class leader at a tony private school and the son of the state’s sitting governor. But, by the same token, I’m not sure that the bullying incident, in and of itself, tells us much about Romney’s character that can be extrapolated 47 years into the future.

After all, are you the same person now that you were as an 18-year-old? I know that I’m not (hell, I was even kinda Republican-leaning back then). People grow and learn and change.

But what I can’t reconcile, what forces me to keep coming back to this incident from Romney’s past, is the fact that he doesn’t even remember the incident? And note that he doesn’t deny that the incident happened. That would be one thing. Then we’d be facing a he said/she said sort of situation where it is the credibility of the various players that is in question. But Romney doesn’t deny the incident. Rather, he doesn’t remember it. How can anybody not remember an incident like that?

Well, I suppose one could forget an incident like that if it wasn’t isolated. If you had a habit of bullying those around you then you’d probably be far less likely to remember any particular incident. Or, if you didn’t draw any lessons from that incident, if you didn’t recognize in the days and weeks that followed (when, presumably, you would still recall it) that your conduct was wrong, if you felt no guilt or remorse for the pain that you’d caused in another… In that case, I guess I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t recall the incident because operating with that sort of mindset, that kind of incident simply wouldn’t have been memorable. If causing extreme emotional grief to another is not internalized and processed and recognized as wrong, then why should it be any more memorable than what color shirt you wore on June 17, 1982, or what you had to eat on the last day of 3rd grade?

And so I think that the lesson to be learned about Mitt Romney’s character is that the sociopathic bullying of a presumably gay student as high school senior didn’t make a mark upon Romney’s development into the person that he is today. That, I believe, is the frightening aspect of this whole story. Thus, whether it was Romney’s oft-repeated line that he “likes to fire people”, his suggestion that we allow the Detroit to go bankrupt or the housing market to hit bottom, or his actions as a Mormon bishop when he tried to force a parishioner from having a necessary, life-saving abortion, it seems that the failure to internalize and grow from the lessons by an extreme bullying incident have had continuing ramifications on who the adult Mitt Romney really is today. Perhaps Romney’s failure to learn from that bullying episode, his seemingly jovial desire for underwater homeowners or auto workers to experience hardship, his disregard for a woman’s health, are mere examples demonstrating that Romney is, in fact, a cold-hearted, callous individual without real concern for others to whom he doesn’t share some sort of close relationship. Is that the kind of personality we want in the White House?

In 2008, much was made of the word “empathy” when it came to selection of political leaders. But when one of the major factors facing our country is the plight of those who are either facing continued unemployment or a weak economy or even bullying, then isn’t some degree of empathy important? One of the criticisms leveled against Romney is that he is out of touch with the experience of working class Americans. If he is out of touch and lacks the empathy to try to understand that experience, then can we really expect a President Romney to act in the best interests of those who are suffering?

Furthermore, just think of this: Romney could have used this incident as an opportunity to take a strong stand against bullying. He could have called out those who still want to target kids who are different (especially gay). He could have said, “Gee, I still oppose gay marriage, but we as a country really need to be sure that gay teens aren’t being bullied to the point of suicide.” But he didn’t do that. You see, that’s another of Romney’s massive character flaws. He won’t stand up, use a bully (pun intended) pulpit and call out wrong behavior. When his new foreign policy spokesman was was hounded out of the job because he was openly gay, did Romney stand up and so, “I won’t accept homophobic bigotry; I only want to judge people on the basis of their skills and merit”? No. He didn’t. When Rush Limbaugh attacked Sandra Fluke, Romney could only say (through a spokesperson) that Limbaugh’s comments weren’t the “language he would have used”. Again, Romney could have called out Limbaugh’s language, could have made his deceitful and over-the-top allegations and insults a learning opportunity. He could have taken the proverbial high road. But he didn’t.

It seems to me that whenever Mitt Romney has a chance to show his character by standing up for the victim … he fails; rather, he demonstrates his total lack of empathy as he offers weak non-apology statements out of a seeming fear of criticizing the bullies. Is that the kind of personality we want in the White House?

There is one other element peripherally related to this incident that I want to address. After the initial story about Romney’s bulling incident, those on the right (e.g., Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity) began a “he did it too” defense, pointing to a passage from President Obama’s book Dreams From My Father in which Obama related a bullying incident from his own youth. They point to this passage, describing events shortly after Obama returned to Hawaii from Indonesia (5th grade, I believe):

There was one other child in my class, though, who reminded me of a different sort of pain. Her name was Coretta, and before my arrival she had been the only black person in our grade. She was plump and dark and didn’t seem to have many friends. From the first day, we avoided each other but watched from a distance, as if direct contact would only remind us more keenly of our isolation.

Finally, during recess one hot, cloudless day, we found ourselves occupying the same corner of the playground. I don’t remember what we said to each other, but I remember that suddenly she was chasing me around the jungle gym and swings. She was laughing brightly, and I teased her and dodged this way and that, until she finally caught me and we fell to the ground breathless. When I looked up, I saw a group of children, faceless before the glare of the sun, pointing down at us.

“Coretta has a boyfriend! Coretta has a boyfriend!”

The chants grew louder as a few more kids circled us.

“She’s not my g-girlfriend,” I stammered. I looked to Coretta for some assistance, but she just stood there looking down at the ground. “Coretta’s got a boyfriend! Why don’t you kiss her, mister boyfriend?”

“I’m not her boyfriend!” I shouted. I ran up to Coretta and gave her a slight shove; she staggered back and looked up at me, but still said nothing. “Leave me alone!” I shouted again. And suddenly Coretta was running, faster and faster, until she disappeared from sight. Appreciative laughs rose around me. Then the bell rang, and the teachers appeared to round us back into class.

But there are several important distinctions that I want to draw. First, I think that there is an enormous difference between a 5th-grader and a senior in high school. Second, young Obama’s actions, though wrong, were in the context of being the victim of teasing himself. Third, Obama wrote about his past conduct and did so years before he was a candidate for Senate, let alone President. He wasn’t forced to discuss this part of his childhood; he did so voluntarily. But most importantly, and directly related to the points that I’ve tried to make above with regard to Romney’s failure to learn from his bullying incident, is the passage from Obama’s book following the portion quoted repeatedly by those on the right, which those pushing the “Obama is a bully” narrative have completely omitted (go ahead, Google “Obama bully girl” and see how many of the links that turn up include the previous quote but not the following):

For the rest of the afternoon, I was haunted by the look on Coretta’s face just before she had started to run: her disappointment, and the accusation. I wanted to explain to her somehow that it had been nothing personal; I’d just never had a girlfriend before and saw no particular need to have one now. But I didn’t even know if that was true. I knew only that it was too late for explanations, that somehow I’d been tested and found wanting; and whenever I snuck a glance at Coretta’s desk, I would see her with her head bent over her work, appearing as if nothing had happened, pulled into herself and asking no favors.

My act of betrayal bought me some room from the other children, and like Coretta, I was mostly left alone.

In other words, some 24 or so years after the incident, Obama apparently still had a fairly fresh recollection of his actions and his emotional response and failure to do what was right. A much lesser act of bullying by a much younger boy created memorable remorse for Obama; a much harsher act of bullying by a much older boy (or even a man), left no memory at all for Romney.

And there, in a proverbial nutshell, is an important distinction between these two men.

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