Consent Degree

Bullies surround us. Always. All of us, 100 percent. Accept it, you know it’s true, and choose your battles. Making dark jokes helps. Also, they’re not always on the prowl.

Two young antelopes spar or play in front of elephant
Credit: StockSnap

This isn’t about bobcats or coyotes. Although like humans, kitty cats and puppy dogs if the predator instinct remains strong and they’re given the chance play with their prey. Sometimes human bullies feel a need for something their victims have, but often enough it’s more gratuitous. While compulsion is strong, humans have more power of choice than other animals.

This is not to say all of us are victims AND all of us are bullies — maybe just latently cruel or maybe just sometimes. I don’t see that in myself and others. Some people are bullies, and the majority of us have to deal with that.

But 100 percent of us can do ugly things.

Among bullies, some are lifers. Sickos keep at it year after year. Others bully a few times or within a span of a few years — late childhood or early adulthood — then seem to retire from it.

Louis C.K.’s stand-up never has done much for me. The routines (culture, family, relationships) are more provoking than funny. But I relished his sitcom Louie. With overlapping plots and major and minor characters, he covered much of the same ground, with greater impact. Thus, I hope to someday see I Love You, Daddy, his film satire whose release got scuttled with his expose.

The hashtag #metoo has been a digital key this fall inspired by journalism reports of sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexual threats by famous or successful people. The victims in these cases often are not typical victims in terms of helplessness but at times ambitious and with early successes in their own right. What these victims have done best is bring the type of bullying that beset them — sexual — to light. Light, air, candor, specifics.

I read in social media the #metoo’s of people I know. If every person could in full confidence post #metoo, it’d be 100 percent. Surely every girl gets the talk from someone: Be careful with men. The threat’s universal.

Bullying campaigns like substance-abuse campaigns don’t work. Propaganda won’t hit the target audience. Correctly using the words violence, power and aggression would be helpful in the discussion; it’s getting sloppy out there. Contrarily, the term consent floats. It’s a matter of degree: A less accomplished person consenting to the desire of a powerful person queers up control.

Reporting the offender to the principal (or comparable authority) can make the problem worse. There’s little sense in the saw about punching the bully will turn him into a friend. At best, you’ve become a bully and he’s become afraid of you. For the moment.

Even the kings and queens among us feel vulnerable. Quarterbacks and cheerleader captains know it’s shaky at the top of the heap.

Bullies probably are spawned by temperament, reaction to being bullied themselves. Moment of empathy? Time’s up.

Filmmaker Woody Allen, 82 on Dec. 1, and Soon-Yi Previn, 47 and adopted daughter of his former partner Mia Farrow, will mark their 20th wedding anniversary on Dec. 22.

Me? Certainly I’m capable of isolated ugly acts.

In my dating days I committed no crimes petty or worse, but I sure could be annoying. There have been at times I’ve looked a moment too long at attractive women.*

*”Looking at cleavage is like looking at the sun. You don’t stare at it. It’s too risky. You get a sense of it, and then you look away.” — Advice I needed from the series Seinfeld

Professionally as an editor I have rebuked a reporter. Carelessness in fact-gathering sees no gender. It was rare, twice in the eight years of my last newspaper job, one man and one woman. Would the subordinate have seen it as malicious? They’d be wrong if they did.

By the same token, some chance remarks I made and forgot might have been hurtful to others. Atonement is drummed into Jews. Queue up, and I’ll work to make it square.

Bullying is a constant in life. How any of us deals with bullying acts defines our later successes or whatever else our future might hold. Some people move past hardships or cruelties. Others don’t. Consider recent presidents born to poverty or abuse yet rise. Most of us do well to be average. Not everyone attains even that.

I believe the season’s reports of early careers collapsing due to the aggression of selfish men. Every tough profession, however, offers a variety of challenges. A cub reporter has to learn to stomach other stress — unpredictable interview subjects, horrifying stories assigned to cover, competitive colleagues, incompetent or cruel supervisors, economic layoffs. Similar shenanigans muddy any career.

Being bullied at work is often normal. My current job has not had a shred of it. That’s not stated as cover. My work days go fast and I don’t dread going in, unlike some of my decades in newspapers.

In the early 1990s, a fellow still in the trade sent up memos urging me to be demoted or fired, twice that I know of. A true friend passed along copies of them so I’d be ready to fight when called in. The top editor never did; he obviously disregarded them. The foe? Always friendly as could be to my face. Of course.

This is nothing compared to being cornered by a sexual predator.

A colleague in another locale referred to me and a few others as “idiots” or worse. Yes, unpleasant day after day but not sexual coercion. The supervisor knew and did nothing. Why? The newspaper needed the eggs.*

*”This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, my brother’s crazy. He thinks he’s a chicken.’ And the doctor says, ‘Well, why don’t you turn him in?’ The guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.'” — Woody Allen’s 1977 movie Annie Hall

The worst bullying is when it hits by surprise. In about 1986 my mom and I paid a visit to a distant cousin her age. Our family always enjoyed her. Though now deceased she continues to enjoy enormous respect in her community. For some reason that afternoon in the midst of pleasant conversation she suddenly lit into me (I was in my late 20s). Her words were so vicious that they blurred. I burst into tears like a child. Mom and I left. She never spoke to her again. I was cordial but moved on whenever we ran into one another.

She didn’t know me as an adult but insulted my ambitions, guessed my thoughts without allowing me a moment to deliver them myself and mocked my father recently deceased — the rant recalled as I write it. The intent though, my mom later said, was directed at her, for having a good marriage unlike hers and perhaps jealousy over my dad.

This is nothing compared to finding silence the best option after sexual pressure, for years.

The phrase “one seat in off the aisle” has stuck with me since the mid-1980s when I read George S. Kaufman: An Intimate Portrait, 1972, by Howard Teichmann. In returning to the book I see it fascinated the playwright’s biographer: He made it a chapter title. “A quaint custom of that day [the 1920s] in the theatre was for the chorus to be allowed to sit in the seats of the orchestra floor during rehearsals. Those girls who were available for dinner or more made sure to place themselves one seat in off the aisle. That was the signal. …”

A tai chi teacher of ours in the 1990s warned students to protect their “ming-men,” a mystical chakra point along the spine, opposite the navel. “Watch your ming-men” became a shorthand for My Beloved and I when approaching possibly hazardous people.

Those who live in the world, which is all of us, need to cowboy up. Being cornered by an amorous man is awful, but other affronts can cripple as well.

I suspect my Judaism has at times has diverted my career path, maybe several times. As that’s discrimination, you never quite know. Its exploration tangents away from bullying.

Last week I had one of those 0 or 5 birthdays. One thing it told me was soon enough I’ll be subject to those who pray on the aging. Another kind of bully.

The women and some men who’ve lent their names to exposing miscreants this season are heroes. This hasn’t happened before to this degree and with this success. They’re showing how to combat personal oppressions (bullying) — air or light, some hard evidence, and the importance of friends to support them.

Copyright 2017 Ben S. Pollock Jr.

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