Saturday, January 19, 2013

Who's your bully now?

Unless you've been living under a rock over these past many years you know that one of the important issues of our time is bullying, which has reached new levels of ugliness thanks to social media.

In the "good" old days, it used to be that those of us who were bullied, or about whom rumors flew, knew that no matter how horrible it was, it was self-limiting.

We went to school with our tormentors. They all lived in our neighborhood. We all went to one of a handful of neighborhood churches. There was only one Slambook, which teachers could -- and did -- retrieve and trash. The damage was done, of course, but it had a shelf life and some parameters.

But today? Rumors, innuendo, and knee jerk reactions in which we join so we can be one of the "cool kids" spawn and multiply and fly before we can wake our SmartPhones up from hibernation. Children have killed themselves because an otherwise inconsequential, off the cuff remark, blew up all over Twitter and Facebook and MySpace and in text messages. Adults haven't been exempt from this phenomenon, either.

It's bad enough when the 50 or so people you see every day have heard you are a slut, a liar, a jilted lover, a buffoon. When ten,, twenty, a hundred times that many people -- most of whom don't even know you -- are given the opportunity to pick up that ball and run with it, what do you do with that?

Every time a young person takes their life because they have been bullied or teased, regardless of the truthfulness of whatever their "deed" may have been, we adults get all puffed up and swear our kids would never do this; that something needs to be done, that we cannot imagine the heartbreak of even one parent who loses a child because of the carelessness and thoughtlessness and cruelty of the pack mentality.

And yet.

Here we were -- and I have been in the pack, too -- jerking our knees, jumping on a bandwagon with the other cool kids, trying to outdo one another in clever jabs, all to get and stay at the front of the line when news broke about Manti Te'o's phantom girlfriend.  I cannot deny I have been one of them.

But yesterday I began to be bothered by something, bothered by the possibility that he was, in fact, the victim of a cruel and elaborate hoax. The one bit of the puzzle that got me hunting for my boost up onto the bandwagon were the pieces where he had described the moment they first saw each other. How could he not be lying, since we all know that there never was a she?

Yesterday, as I read through his first real response to the news, where he said he had embellished the story about meeting her because he was embarrassed about getting this caught up with someone he'd never met, my heart began to break for him. I could completely understand how and why this might have happened, how it all got away from him, how he could talk himself into believing so very strongly that there was so much truth here.

I understand, because I count among my truest and dearest and most trusted real friends a group of folks with whom I commune every day online. We are scattered all around the country. We come from very different walks of life. We have grieved together. We have rejoiced together. We have supported one another through some of our hardest trials. Although it is true that after all the years we have been "together" that most of us have now met one or another in the flesh, even before that began to happen our presence in one another's lives was as authentic as it gets.

So yes, there is enough of Te'o's response that does ring true with me. And I am ashamed that with my approval and participation, a young man who by all accounts leading up to this one pitiful story is a good kid from a good family who may now have lost everything for which he, and they, have worked so hard.

If he was in it from the get-go, and as black a liar as ever there was, what difference does it make to any of us? He did not profit from it, and may be destroyed by it. If he lied, that goes on his personal list of shortcomings. Nobody else's life was ruined. He doesn't owe an apology to anybody but his family, if that's the case.

But if he was the naive and hopeful victim of a cruel joke, and we have all joined in laughing at him before the whole story could come to light, shame on us. And if Manti Te'o's life ends because of this -- literally or figuratively -- we will have had a hand in it.

Shame on me. Shame on us.