We Can’t Afford to *Lose


When the Scripps Bee shuts you down on Twitter (USA Today)
Elizabeth Warren slams ‘small, insecure’ Donald Trump in most fiery takedown yet (sfgate.com)

It’s hard to figure out just how I feel about the Scripps National Spelling Bee becoming such a well-publicized event in recent years. There’s definitely a part of me that’s heartened by the fact that a mental competition is now so prevalent in the American consciousness. It reminds me of ESPN2’s early days, when they aired chess and Magic: the Gathering tournaments, and it filled me with hope that maybe the country would become a better place for the non-athletically gifted (or inclined) children who might grow up thinking that being smart has just as much worth in our popular tculture as becoming a professional athlete.

On the other hand, in this age where the “pageant moms” of decades past have morphed into the YouTube parents of today, it’s not easy to feel good about kids being put into such high-pressure situations. Even when children put themselves into these competitions knowingly and willingly — and the Scripps Bee has a pretty good reputation for making sure that their competitors aren’t being exploited by rapacious parents — it’s hard not to worry about the possible consequences of that kind of high-pressure competition manifesting themselves years or even decades later. I can still remember how in the last spelling bee I competed in, back in grade school, over twenty years ago, I got eliminated by spelling bouquet b-o-c-q-u-e-t, and that certainly wasn’t a nationally-televised event.

When I first saw the Kyle Chapman tweet that got so wonderfully smacked down by Scripps, the words in that tweet were all too familiar to me. I’ve been getting those kinds of attacks from Internet assholes since before any of the competitors in this year’s Scripps Bee were even born, and they’re highly representative of the kind of authoritarian misanthropic conservatism that I’ve been fighting against my whole life. People who say that children shouldn’t be counseled after they go through a traumatic event — and even for the winners of the spelling bee, that kind of pressure will almost certainly have some negative effects on them — are the same people who say “concussions build character” and other detestable garbage like that. I’ve been dealing with that crap since before I even got on the Internet, so I’m very familiar with it.

It’s bad enough when this kind of hateful argument is made in a general context, like Chapman’s tweet, but the same malevolence and heartlessness that lies behind those kind of blanket statements is also what’s behind so much of the cyberbullying and other kinds of online harassment pervading America now. It’s only getting worse — just look at the online presence of that one presidential candidate — and just like each individual act of bullying and menacing, we need to speak up against the horrible philosophies underlying things like Chapman’s tweet.

From my own experiences with bullying and cyberbullying, and from the stories I’ve heard from my students who grew up in the age of social media, I know what kind of damage this kind of thinking can cause. Younger people are at an even higher risk of getting hurt because they often haven’t had the time or ability to develop the perspective needed to understand the context of those attacks — and some may not have the opportunity to develop that perspective because of toxic home and school environments — so they may not even know that they don’t have to listen to that kind of crap. No one deserves to be inundated with those kinds of messages, but children in particular need to avoid environments riddled with heartlessness and negativity, and this is another condition that has steadily been getting worse, not better, in my lifetime.

More to the point, this kind of poisonous thinking isn’t just the domain of Internet attacks. The rationale behind tweets like Chapman’s is exactly what’s behind so many people pooh-poohing the very concept of mental illness, the people who say that sufferers of clinical depression should “just choose to be happy,” who claim that mental illnesses “aren’t real” because they can’t be seen on the skin or in an x-ray or MRI. This kind of thinking is bad enough in the general populace, but it’s becoming more and more prevalent in politicians who are slashing funding for mental health programmes at a time when too many people who need mental health treatment can’t receive it.

It’s bad enough when this thinking is formulated into blanket policies by people who are horribly myopic to the effects of what they’re proposing. For the bullies and cyberbullies and others who make things personal — going after individual people or groups of people, either alone or in gangs — the words and actions have an openly, often gleefully, sadistic bent, and despite a well-documented epidemic of suicides and lives being ruined in other ways because of this, not nearly enough is being done to counteract this kind of inhumanity and, quite literally, save lives.

If anything, those kinds of actions have become, if not more acceptable, then at least more tolerated. All you have to do is look at one of the major party presidential candidates this year to see examples of that kind of bullying made large: Releasing the phone number of an opponent and then watching his supporters make that opponent’s life a living hell. Denying head-slappingly obvious reality in an attempt to gin up support and anger among his supporters. Acting like he’s above the law and his supporters saying that they will kill people who oppose him. We’ve seen all these things over the past few years at a smaller scale and little, if anything, has been done to stop them. Why should we think that reactions will be any different now?

Elizabeth Warren has been a blessing these past few weeks by showing just how you start to contend with those kinds of words and actions, but Warren cannot shoulder that burden alone. This problem goes far beyond a single presidential campaign and a single figurehead; it has hurt many people for years now, and some of those people are no longer with us because they didn’t get the help that they needed before it was too late. No one is going to shut these bullies up, so the best way to counteract their bad speech is to drown it out with good speech, and to provide help for the people whom they’re trying to hurt. It’s an arduous task, but if we don’t start now then we may soon all become the victims of these bullies.

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