The timing of this post comes in response to the latest mom blogger drama caused by what I’m going to refer to as the KFC incident, but the precipitating event actually isn’t important. The short version of the KFC incident is this: some mom bloggers took a trip to a KFC event where KFC footed the bill. The bloggers tweeted about the new healthier kids meals KFC is introducing. Other bloggers decided it was fair game to harass the attendees for what they viewed as KFC’s sins. (Yes, you see my bias here. I’ve written about McDonald’s making their Happy Meals healthier, and I stand by my assertion that any choice that is better than your previous choice is a good one. We all make progress in our own time.) One of the bloggers on the anti-KFC side suggested that people were just crying bully, and that the attendees opened themselves up to the attacks by accepting the trip, so they just need to grow thicker skin.

There are a few points I’d like to address.

Victims Are Not Asking For It

By accepting a brand opportunity and tweeting about it, a blogger is not suddenly fair game for harassment. You don’t like the brand? Talk to the brand. Don’t insult, belittle, or accuse people of endangering their children. Not cool. We can generalize this to other situations. We don’t always make the smartest or the best decisions in our lives – and as someone who enjoys junk food on a fairly regular basis, I can accept that fast food is not the best decision – but that doesn’t give other people carte blanche to unload all of their vitriol on us.

So the bloggers were “asking for it” by accepting the trip from KFC? Please. We’ve heard that defense before, and not about bullying. (Not-So) Funny thing, bullies often make targets of people for what they wear, where they go, who they spend their time with – but none of those things make it acceptable for the bullies to make them feel Less Than. You don’t agree with someone else’s personal choices? That’s great. But as long as what they’re doing isn’t illegal, you can keep your nasty opinions to yourself. Your opinion is not the One True Way. You may have the right to say it, but you have a responsibility to treat other people with dignity.

Bullies Don’t Get to Define What Is or Is Not Bullying

Another “funny” thing bullies say is that they didn’t bully anybody. It was legitimate criticism. They have First Amendment Rights. It wasn’t “that bad.”

Bull. Just because you may be able to shrug off “tough words” doesn’t mean everyone can. You don’t know the person on the other side of your words. You don’t know if they’re depressed or anxious, if they’re autistic, if they had a recent death in the family, if they’re having problems at work, if they’re having marital problems, or if they’re just too damn tired of everyone criticizing them for every little thing they do. Your unkind words could be that One More Thing that pushes someone over the edge. What edge? Too many bullying victims commit suicide. But it doesn’t have to be that extreme. Maybe the victim will “just” internalize the harsh words and feel Less Than for the rest of her life. Maybe your words are the straw that broke the camel’s back, and as she reads them on her smartphone, she breaks down and cries in front of her kids and in front of strangers on the first “vacation” her family has had in two years. Congratulations, bullies. At least you had your say.

Because yes, you are bullying someone if you make them feel this way. Name-calling, verbal abuse, embarrassing someone in public, arguing people into submission, saying certain words that trigger a reaction from a past event, mocking, social undermining… these are all forms of bullying. And it doesn’t matter if the bully doesn’t think of their comments as social undermining or verbal abuse… it’s if the victim thinks they are. Bullying is an abuse of power, the power to make someone else feel Less Than. One of the definitions of bullying I pulled from Wikipedia (which cites The Independent as the source) is this:

As the verb to bully is defined as simply “forcing one’s way aggressively or by intimidation,” the term may generally apply to any life experience where one is motivated primarily by intimidation instead of by more positive goals such as mutually shared interests and benefits.

Thin Skin is a Right, Too

There is no law that says people have to “suck it up” and “grow a thicker skin.” On the contrary, the law is on the side of victims of harassment. Sure, it would make life a lot easier (for the victims) to grow that thick skin, but not everyone wants to, and not everyone can. As Jewel said in one of her old songs:

It doesn’t take a talent to be mean
Your words can crush things that are unseen
So please be careful with me, I’m sensitive
And I’d like to stay that way.

I’m autistic, and one of my personal “quirks” is that I’m over-sensitive in every practical sense of the word, emotionally and physically. I also deal with clinical depression and anxiety. Even my maintenance medications can’t protect my emotions from cruelty when I’m hard-wired to feel everything so intensely. The people who bullied me when I was a kid – kids and adults – couldn’t have known this, because I didn’t even know it myself.

The thing is, I shouldn’t be expected to accept abuse. No one should. That “sticks and stones” verse is a fallacy. And we have made the inability to feel things some sort of twisted cultural virtue. Why? Isn’t feeling part of the human experience? A post by Dan Pearce called Thick Skin Schmick Schmin really resonated with me, and I think he puts it beautifully:

Well, I can’t do it, I’ve never been able to do it, and I’ll never do it. I’ll never develop “thick skin.” And I don’t want to. To feel is human. To hurt is human. So why would I want to be less than human?

Your “right” to say harsh things does not trump my right to feel safe. I won’t pretend that bullies don’t hurt my feelings, because they do. I can’t turn it off. In the middle of the feelings, I may wish I could flip the switch and stop it, I don’t really want to stop feeling. There was a point in my life several years ago where I somehow did it – I made myself completely numb to the pain of crushing depression from a mess I’ll admit I was responsible for getting myself into. I was like a robot. But I wasn’t crying until my eyes were sore, and it didn’t hurt anymore. But I wasn’t myself. My husband and my friends all begged me to come back to them, even knowing that my pain was going to be contagious in that situation.

I can’t do that again, and no one should be expected to.

Words have meaning. Just because you can say them doesn’t mean you should. Just because you think you’re right, it doesn’t mean you have to inflict your opposition on the person you disagree with unless they have explicitly asked for your opinion. Let people consent before you unleash your criticism on them. If you don’t, you are a bully. It’s not my fault for not having thicker skin. It’s your fault for being disrespectful.

One thought on “The Right to Not Grow a Thicker Skin”
  1. […] I hadn’t just lost a friend. I’d lost a friend because she thought I had done something entirely antithetical to my nature. If you know anything about me, you know I’ve done extensive anti-bullying campaigning across various social media platforms because I was bullied as a child, my kid has been bullied, and I am against bullying in all of its various forms, including cyberbullying. […]

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