One of the things some people are wondering about the Phoebe Prince case is where her friends were in all of this. The papers mention that she had some. Why didn’t they stick up for her? Do something for her?

This, to me, misunderstands the Third Dynamic of Unpopularity: When you’re unpopular, even your friends don’t have your back in any meaningful sense.

There was an unspoken rule among my friends that if one of us being targeted by Bully X, the main concern of the other friends is to try to stay as invisible as possible. It sounds cold, I know. But by and large it’s the only reasonable course of action. Standing up for your friend does not help them. Even taking the bullet meant for him doesn’t mean anything when they’ve got a loaded gun. They’ll get back to them as soon as they’re done with you.

I think I objected to this ethos at first. Why the hell was my friend just sitting there while this bully was being so mean to me? It wasn’t until the situations were reversed that I realized why. Just because I was getting crap did not mean that he needed to be getting it, too. Besides, he was getting it from people that didn’t know me. As his friend, the maximum preservation of his invisibility (at less cost to me than the alternative would be to him) was a generous act on my part.

Other than directly standing up to bullies, the main alternative would be to alert someone who can do something. That still contains the same drawbacks as personal involvement if they find out who tattled. Plus, before the administrator can do anything, they would need to talk to the victim of the bullying. That puts them on the spot. Either they say nothing and the issue dies (except that you’ve exposed yourself to the liability of Bully X finding out) or they say something and it’s just the same as if they went to the administration themselves. That enlarges the target on their back and if that’s what they had wanted to do they would have done it their own dang selves. All you did was remove the choice. Yes, they have the choice of saying nothing, but they could still be liable if Bully X finds out that they were even talking to administrator just to lie and deny that bullying was taken place.

Bullies are not reasonable. They are not typically justified in doing what they do. They don’t respect alliances between outcasts. If you fight back, they don’t care 1/100 as much as you do that you will both get suspended. They don’t care if you didn’t actually do what they think you mighta done. Once they notice you and decide who you are to them (a target), that’s all she wrote. The only way I ever found out of it is rank bribery and that only works with some.


Category: School

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26 Responses to The Third Dynamic of Unpopularity

  1. Sheila Tone says:

    I don’t get it. Why can’t you team up together and stop it for you both? Think of how
    Phi’s friend in high school helped him out when he was the target of that prank.

    In my experience, targets are picked specifically because it is known no one will come to their aid. And the bully never acts alone.

    What I would have done: When Sharon Velasquez came over to the high school cafeteria to threaten Phoebe Prince, I would have said something along the lines of, “Stop interrupting our lunch, you bulldog-faced bitch.” (Check out her photos — that’s not a random insult.)

    This behavior caused me problems when the target I was defending did not wish to back me, and then I kind of took her place. This happened with Fat Madge, for instance.

  2. cleared in hot says:

    I find it kind of ironic, all the hand-wringing over ‘the administrators didn’t do anything to help’ when for years we’ve been sending them the message that they better not so much as even look cross-wise at our precious, innocent little darlings…

  3. cleared in hot says:

    Sheila, the fact that you would’ve said that means you probably wouldn’t have been targeted like that in the first place.

  4. Sheila Tone says:

    “Sheila, the fact that you would’ve said that means you probably wouldn’t have been targeted like that in the first place. ”

    Ah, but you’re wrong. I speak from extensive personal experience. And therein lies the common public misperception — that bullies bully because the targets are too constitutionally weak to stand up for themselves. They are chosen *specifically* because of lack of allies. Confrontations are often staged to see if the target has any allies who will respond, or if they’ll be eager to sell her out.

    My nasty comment would have just given Bulldog-Face an excuse for further attack. The person I was defending would shrink from fighting on my side — she’d rather be a lone target than be affiliated in combat with someone of my status. And, if she had any savvy at all, she’d see an opportunity to throw me under the bus in her place.

  5. trumwill says:

    Sheila,

    If you can be discreet about it, helping a target out of a prank is an exception to the rule. But pranks weren’t really the problem.

    The main reason we wouldn’t do what you’re talking about is the threat of physical violence, which may be more of a concern in the boysphere than the girlsphere. A lot of bullies wouldn’t follow up, but some would, and you never knew which was which.

    And you can’t fight back because then both of you will get suspended and only one of you cares. The equal punishment involved in Zero Tolerance towards fighting affects the kid with a future and the kid without one disproportionately.

    The only bullies I could really stand up to were the ones where I knew I could defend myself without going on the offensive. So the little Napoleons were not as much of a problem. But others, even folks I probably could have taken, were because taking them would entail going on the offensive and getting in trouble.

    It was hard enough to find ways to try to defend yourself. By taking up against your friend’s bullies, you were creating liabilities.

  6. cleared in hot says:

    I agree with Will here, being (once) the ‘good little Christian boy’ who was taught that getting in trouble was bad. And because that meant that I was also a good student, I had more to lose via suspension, etc.

    Sheila, you may be right about that but I suspect it may be that ‘lack of allies’ is more a female definition of a target than a male one. Especially since group dynamics hold much more sway over girls.

  7. rob says:

    All this talk of bullies, I’m glad someone finally brought up violence. As the Ukranian gangster told Ed Norton’s character in 25th hour, (great movie, different context though) “Beat him until his eyes bleed.”

    You don’t even have to win a fight with a bully. He can’t win: he beats up a dork, so what? If I stomp a toddler, do I look like a badass? If he loses, he got beat down by a dork. If the toddler beats me up, I look like a pansy. Fight a bully, and your relative position improves. In the vast majority of fights, whoever gets in the first good hit wins, pretty big size and athletic differences matter less than people think.

    Being the bully in the fight is a bit like being the US in the war with Iraq. I won! What did I win? Iraq, WTF?!?! Even winning a fight usually means mildly unpleasant injuries, most people don’t like those. Bullies tend to avoid future opportunities to get punched in the face.

    I did this, and I got suspended, I dunno, 4 or 5 times. It might have affected what colleges I got into, but I still got into Reed. Schools don’t say why you didn’t get in, so I don’t know if suspensions hurt or not. If getting suspended really upsets your parents, that’s a different story.

    This maybe does not work as well for girls getting bullied by girls, but how many girls try it? I’ve wondered if mean girls (even if they are rarer than mean guys) would be nicer if they were worried about the occassional broken nose and stomped out tooth.

  8. web says:

    Will,

    The three times in my life I had to stop bullying, all three ended when I physically fought back against the bully.

    In all three, your point about the bully not caring about consequences (except the part where he got hurt back) is right on target. Twice I got put into suspension, for an equal amount of time by a dumbass moron VP who believed there was “no such thing as a bully”, for being in fights. But once there was the one fight, I didn’t have to fight for the rest of the year.

    My parents were mad the first time. The second time, they were outraged at the VP, because I’d been telling them what was going on and he didn’t do shit until the fight. They finally got it about self-defense at that point.

  9. trumwill says:

    My parents would have gone ballistic if I’d gotten into a fight because they would have known that I could have avoided if it I really wanted to. They would have been right, of course, provided that I was willing to put up with… well, what I was willing to put up with.

    On the whole, I agree with my parents’ policy. It arguably caused me a fair amount of torment, but it also spared me a more spotty disciplinary record. Or maybe, given that Web got through with some files in his jacket, I overestimate the damage it would have caused.

  10. web says:

    Will,

    Given that the two files “in my jacket” were from middle school, they likely didn’t have any effect anywhere. The final incident was never reported because the bully, dumb as he was, still knew better than to fess up to chasing someone halfway across campus only to get kangaroo-kicked halfway down a flight of stairs by the kid he was pursuing and threatening (within earshot of many students who would have loved to see him expelled) to beat up. Of course, the fact that it was a private school probably helped as well that way. They, at least, knew relatively well how to tell what was self-defense and what was not.

  11. PeterW says:

    It always amazes me that adults permit that sort of low-level asymmetrical warfare to continue in school, especially, as you say, it disproportionately benefits exactly the kind of kids all thinking adults agree should be disciplined. Yes enforcement is sometimes difficult but if the same thing were happening to adults, you’d see real resources being thrown at the problem.

    That said, we allow plenty of power-based status seeking behaviors among adults. If the rule is “as long as it doesn’t hurt anything materially important, we’ll look the other way,” then this behavior makes sense.

  12. Bob V says:

    You had friends?

    Sorry to whine, but I would have loved to have friends who wouldn’t stick up for me.

  13. trumwill says:

    They, at least, knew relatively well how to tell what was self-defense and what was not.

    Except for the idiotic VP, anyway.

  14. trumwill says:

    PeterW,

    Enforcement can be impossible for somethings. Rules against saying insulting things, for instance, fall into the category of things that you don’t want to start regulating. But when it goes to things that would be actionable in the outside world, such as making threats or physical assault, it would be really nice if more effort were made. Unfortunately, even that gets difficult without victim cooperation.

  15. trumwill says:

    Bob,

    It’s funny how it works. People without friends say “Man, I wish I had friends even if they couldn’t stick up for me.” People that have that say “Man, I wish I had friends that would stick up for me.” People that have that say, “Man, I wish I had a bona fide group of friends. And on and on…

  16. rob says:

    It’s funny how it works. People without friends say “Man, I wish I had friends even if they couldn’t stick up for me.” People that have that say “Man, I wish I had friends that would stick up for me.” People that have that say, “Man, I wish I had a bona fide group of friends. And on and on…

    Friendship is desperately in need of total quality management.

    The line from 25th hour is “find a man who has no friends, and beat him until his eyes bleed.” corroborating stone’s point about bullies going for targets who don’t have allies.

    Trumwill, maybe those guys who wouldn’t stick up for friends were on the bottom of the friendship pile partially for that reason?

    PeterW, I like your blog. I hope you keep up with it. All this time, I thought you were hairy cha-chas Peter.

  17. Peter says:

    PeterW, I like your blog. I hope you keep up with it. All this time, I thought you were hairy cha-chas Peter.

    Hmmm, it looks as if my identity is being subsumed within my fetish, er, preference.

  18. web says:

    The idiotic VP was during middle school (the two main fights; for some reason, the bullying bullshit was a lot more common in the “have to take everyone” public schools).

    The ones who knew the difference were up in High School, and the one altercation had its own set of circumstances.

  19. Sheila Tone says:

    “Trumwill, maybe those guys who wouldn’t stick up for friends were on the bottom of the friendship pile partially for that reason? ”

    Nah, they just probably really couldn’t do it.

    This physical element was there a little bit in junior high for girls, but there was never a real fear of getting “beat up.” People might throw things, or surround you in a circle and grab your stuff or pull your hair.

    But the basic dynamic, for women, stays the same from junior high through adulthood. Social isolation, backstabbing, and verbal confrontation. Hell, it happened in law school. I had jobs where this happened.

    Maybe with guys it’s about them just not sticking up for you, but with girls, not sticking up for you equals actively causing you problems. Like, some troublemaker will ask them questions about you, and rather than telling them to fuck off, she’ll give them information, which they’ll then use to confront you with.

    Or, they’ll insult you in public while you’re with a weak “friend,” and when you try to strike back, weakling will say “Ssshh, just forget about it, you’re making too big a deal about it.” Because she doesn’t want to be affiliated with your side. She wants to keep getting whatever crumbs she can from the other side. And they’ll keep feeding her (or him) crumbs, if only to spite you.

    It’s a problem when the person you’re with is unpopular for different reasons than you are. For instance, let’s say they’re physically unattractive and you’re not. Your status improving is probably not going to help them with their issue, so why should they stick their neck out for you. Or let’s say it’s racial, like it was (at least on the surface) in high school. They might privately sympathize with you, but they want to stay as far asay from the conflict in public as possible.

  20. ? says:

    One of my JHS fantasies was the Grand Coalition of the Oppressed. Somehow, it never materialized.

    If Sheila is right, and we all really would sell each other out for scraps, then I guess we deserve whatever happens to us.

  21. Maria says:

    I was only bullied by girls once.

    Most of the bullying I experienced was by boys (including one physical attack). For that reason I’ve always thought that parents should have a choice of sending their kids to same-sex schools after 5th or 6th grade.

  22. DaveinHackensack says:

    I joined a new high school as a junior and there was a bigger guy on the football team who would intentionally bump into me in the locker room, and otherwise act as if he were trying to intimidate me. I mentioned to the coach during study hall that I thought the guy wanted to fight me. The coach — a 6’5″, 300lb+ former Penn lineman — said something like, “You can deal with that on the field. That’s what I loved about the game”.

    So, taking his advice, the next time I had the opportunity, I lined up against the guy during a scrimmage (I was playing guard and he was playing defensive tackle). On one play — some kind of run to the right — I blocked him, and then he extricated himself and turned to follow the play. While he was running away, I ran behind him and stomped the shit out of his Achilles tendon (I was wearing shoes with long, grass cleats). He limped up to me afterwords and muttered something about watching where I stepped, but he never bothered me after that.

  23. Sheila Tone says:

    “So, taking his advice, the next time I had the opportunity, I lined up against the guy during a scrimmage (I was playing guard and he was playing defensive tackle). ”

    Um … it’s nice of you to try to empathize, Dave. I’m sure everyone here appreciates your effort. 🙂

  24. trumwill says:

    Trumwill, maybe those guys who wouldn’t stick up for friends were on the bottom of the friendship pile partially for that reason?

    Possibly, but like I said the expectation wasn’t there. And without a willingness to fight, there really wasn’t much we could do to “stick up for them.”

    And it always came to someone taking the first bullet. It’s like To Kill a Mockingbird (I think?) when Finch (I think?) says that he can’t shoot all of them, but he can take down the first one that moves. Who will it be?

    Interestingly enough, I was never afraid of getting beaten up in an actual fight. I had, if anything, an unjustified confidence to be able to take care of myself in that regard. The big fear was getting in trouble. And I guess fear of what would happen if I got in a fight and won.

    I had the deeply held sense that I wasn’t allowed to win and that even if I did, I would lose. “What would happen” would be that if I beat one of them, they would come back in a group that I couldn’t beat.

    In retrospect, I don’t think this was the case. There is only one case I can recall where a nerd not only fought back but scored an unqualified victory. I am itching my brain trying to remember what happened with him when he got back from that suspension. I can’t. Had The Bully come back with ten friends (once he recovered) I would have remembered. I think that they were both under pretty strict orders not to communicate.

  25. trumwill says:

    Like, some troublemaker will ask them questions about you, and rather than telling them to fuck off, she’ll give them information, which they’ll then use to confront you with.

    That would have been considered an aggressive act. I never would have forgiven a friend that did that. I wish I could say that I never did it my “friends”, though there were a few I was strikingly disloyal to. They would have been more than justified in telling me to go to hell. I wanted them to. They had nowhere else to go. Sad all around. I regret my inability at the time too make a firm friend/notfriend decision.

    It’s a problem when the person you’re with is unpopular for different reasons than you are.

    In addition to that, it’s rare that two people are equally unpopular. That was another logistical problem with a Phi Rebellion. The ones that had it worst were the ones that had the least amount to offer in help of anyone. In any partnership, there was always one person sacrificing more in taking on more of a fight than they had to.

  26. trumwill says:

    Dave,

    Oh, how I wish I had used football to those ends. At the very least, it was the opportunity I had to demonstrate a degree of physical toughness. I remember one time I got a really great hit in (against a non-bully, alas) and a couple past and future bullies were extremely complementary.

    There were a number of things that I could have done to translate my football playing into something socially tangible, but in some cases I wasn’t willing to and in other cases I didn’t realize what my opportunities were.

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