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Last Friday, January 22, 2016, Canada experienced one of its most tragic shootings in decades. A seventeen-year-old teen in La Loche, Saskatchewan, killed four people and injured seven. It is believed that a major motivation was kids making fun of his big ears.
This is not the first time that someone being bullied for having large ears made the news. About a year ago, a Turkish woman actually killed her own ten-year-old son to spare him further ridicule.
Other bullied kids have made the news because of their large ears. Some of them have gotten plastic surgery to make them smaller.
In fact, large ears is the subject of the classic Disney movie, Dumbo. He was made absolutely miserable by the ridicule and rejection of the other elephants over his oversized ears.
It may be hard to believe that kids would want to kill because their ears are ridiculed. However, it is well known that ridicule is one of the most common motivations for serious violence.
Ears, of course, are not the only body part that can be ridiculed. This article is directed to anyone who is ridiculed about their body. How can we help them stop suffering?
Five approaches to helping kids with big ears
1. Plastic surgery to correct the “defect.”
2. Developing admirable talents to compensate for the ridiculed body.
3. Creating a difference-blind world so that no one ridicules anyone else about their bodies, because difference is the norm.
4. Implementing anti-bullying policies and programs so that everyone will become empathic to kids with differences, and if they don’t, they will get punished.
5. Teaching kids how to become resilient to ridicule of their body parts.
Only one of these approaches has any chance of succeeding on a large scale. It is also the simplest approach. Oddly, it is the approach that is being least considered by our social scientists. But first...
...the approaches that can’t work
In my opinion, plastic surgery should only be performed when the child and their parents truly want it for the child's benefit, for the sake of looking and feeling better.
Avoidance of bullying should not be the primary motivation for such a drastic intervention. Surgery can be dangerous, and the results aren’t always as good as hoped for. Furthermore, the bullying may continue after the surgery as well. As you will be learning shortly, the body part is not the real reason for the bullying.
Often the “defect” is not serious enough to warrant surgery. Virtually any person can be made fun of for some physical imperfection. We can’t make bullying disappear by doing plastic surgery on everyone who gets ridiculed for looking imperfect.
So while plastic surgery may be beneficial for some bullied kids, it cannot be a realistic solution for them all.
This can be called the “Dumbo Solution.” Dumbo’s ears caused him to be clumsy and led to a catastrophe in the elephant act. He ended up overcoming his ridicule by discovering that he can use his ears to fly and thereby become the star of the circus.
Many articles have appeared in the media attesting to the success of this approach. People who had been obese went on to lose weight or become body-builders, models or movie stars, and declared they by doing so they had “gotten revenge” against their bullies. (For some strange reason, though, they never seem to thank their bullies for having motivated them. Didn't they absorb the popular teachings about the importance of feeling gratitude? Or need we not feel grateful for people once we label them bullies?)
Lee Hirsch, producer of the highly successful documentary, Bully, “saved” one of the nerdy victims in the film by making him famous. In fact, many celebrities try to give hope to all bullying victims by publicly announcing that they, too, used to be bullied, but it stopped when they became famous.
Many bullying advisors recommend that victims develop a talent so that they will become admired rather than ridiculed.
This, of course, works for certain individuals. But can all bullied kids develop a talent that will make them famous? Can Lee Hirsch turn every victim of bullying into a celebrity by making them the subject of a documentary? And are there not people who are bullied even though–or because–they are famous?
The Dumbo Solution, therefore, can only work for a handful of kids, but will never work as a systemic solution.
There is a major societal movement going on to create a difference-blind world. The hope is to get rid of all bias by teaching that all people are the same regardless of their differences, and therefore deserve to be treated with dignity (unless they are bullies, of course. There are exceptions to everything).
The sentiment behind the difference-blind movement is laudable. However, it is bound to fail because it is contrary to human nature. Human beings, like all conscious creatures, are biologically programmed to notice differences and to have negative reactions to bodies and parts at the outer edges of the bell curve.
Can you not notice that someone is two feet taller or shorter than everyone around them? Can you not notice that someone’s weight is three times what it should be? Can you not notice that someone’s ears resemble a beagle's?
And if you happen to be blessed with attractive features firmly in the middle of the bell curve, can you help yourself from feeling, “Boy, I’m glad I’m not like that person”?
There are biologically understandable reasons for such reactions. Being attracted to those that look normal or beautiful improves the chances of having children that are healthy, well-adjusted and successful.
Furthermore, ridicule serves the purpose of motivating its targets to take action to improve themselves, by going on a diet, for instance, or getting plastic surgery, or developing an admirable talent. Ridicule also encourages other people to refrain from being like the person being ridiculed. That happens to be the reason for the worldwide anti-bully campaign. We are ridiculing bullies so that people won’t want to be like them. Just look at how Donald Trump is being treated. No one in recent history has been called a bully as often as he has.
The human tendency to react negatively to obvious differences or imperfections will never disappear. Bullied kids who are looking forward for the establishment of a difference-blind world in order to stop suffering will be waiting in vain.
Research, as well as simple experience, has been showing that anti-bullying programs and policies at best lead to a 20% reduction in bullying and often result in an increase. Bullying is still being referred to as an epidemic.
If you and I are kids, and the school has strict anti-bullying policies, is that going to stop you from noticing that my body is in some way very different from the norm? Even if you don’t say anything nasty to me, will I not feel your odd glances? Will it not bother me that you are looking at me that way, or that you are excluding me from your clique because you are too embarrassed to be associated with me? If I get you punished for making fun of my difference, will that make you like me better and stop noticing my difference?
Unfortunately, any approach that is based on typical anti-bullying policies and programs will, at best, help some individual victims but the majority will continue to suffer.
That leaves us with one approach: teaching kids how to become resilient to ridicule. Unfortunately, this approach is the least popular because it can lead to accusations of "blaming victims."
If my ears are large, I can’t make people stop noticing them or thinking they look funny. However, it is entirely up to me how I feel about their reactions. If my attitude is, “It is terrible that people ridicule my ears!” I will get upset whenever they do. And if I get upset, they will continue to ridicule them. I will also cause them to dislike and disrespect me.
The truth is that if I am getting constantly ridiculed for my unusual ears, I believe that I am being ridiculed because of my ears. But that is an illusion. The real reason I am being ridiculed repeatedly is because I am getting upset when my ears are ridiculed. I can’t prevent you from ridiculing me once. But I can certainly stop you from doing it repeatedly. All I need to do is to stop getting upset. It is very difficult to continue insulting someone if it doesn’t upset them.
How can I stop getting upset? By telling myself, “No one is perfect, and people see our imperfections. My ears are really big. It would be nice if they weren’t, but I can’t stop people from noticing them and thinking they are funny. So they can make fun of them all they want and it is perfectly okay.”
When I have this attitude, your remarks don’t upset me. Ridiculing me will give you no pleasure, so you will quickly stop. Even better, you will like and respect me because I act like a winner and have no hostility towards you.
There is nothing farfetched about this. Are people respected and liked only because they fit in the middle of the bell curve on all traits? Of course not! There are short people, tall people, obese people, deformed people–in fact, all kinds of statistically unusual people–who are popular because they are mature and pleasant. They don’t take themselves too seriously, and they can handle being ridiculed without getting upset.
Furthermore, this is something that can be taught to just about everyone in a school in a couple of short lessons. It requires far less time and money than the popular anti-bullying programs. A small fraction of the time that teachers or counselors currently invest in anti-bullying education and in conducting investigations into bullying complaints can be diverted to these demonstrations.
All that’s required is to have staff and/or students present demonstrations of how to handle body-oriented ridicule. Personally, I prefer having the “wrong way” (which is what most people do) demonstrated first, followed by the “better way.”
Insulter: Boy, your ears are so big! Your mother must have been an elephant!
Target: Shut up! My ears aren’t big! And my mother’s not an elephant! She’s a human being.
Insulter: Ha, ha, your mother’s an elephant!
This, of course, is going to lead to endless ridicule.
“Yes, my ears are huge! I sometimes use them to fly!”
“You need to be really careful what you say. I can hear everything from a mile away!”
“You are so lucky your ears are small!”
“My mother sometimes calls me Dumbo!”
Any such response by the target, made in a cheerful, friendly, or joking tone, will put an end to ridicule, and other kids will be happy to be their friends. These demonstrations can be done for any type of body difference. All that’s needed is the right attitude and a smidgen of imagination.
If this skill is taught nationwide, not only will countless kids be freed of their ongoing humiliation, many tragedies like the one in La Loche will be prevented.