Barbara Kay: The bus tormenters are cruel, but not bullies
Wednesday June 27th, 2012
Screen caps from the viral video show bus monitor Karen Klein being tormented by students aboard the bus.
Not since amateur singer Susan Boyle lit up the stage on Britain's Got Talent in 2009 has an obscure, plain, overweight white woman caused such a YouTube sensation. I refer, of course, to grandmother Karen Klein, the school bus monitor in upstate New York who was filmed on the job by one of her adolescent tormentors as she patiently endured a 10-minute torrent of abuse.
Called "Making the Bus Monitor Cry," the video has gone viral. It's unpleasant viewing. Klein is a study in morose stoicism as the youngsters launch one verbal grenade after another at her. Most target Klein's looks and economic status: "Troll," "fat ass" (frequently repeated), "What's your address?" "Lives in a "f---- trailer" "What size bra are you?" and "She probably misses her box of Twinkies" (the Twinkies motif recurs several times).
Swift public reaction divided between feelers and thinkers. Sympathy for the victim has translated into a wheelbarrow full of money for Klein. Introspection has had pundits straining to manoeuvre the incident into a bigger cultural frame. Charles M. Blow's June 23 op ed in The New York Times, for example, poses the question, "But what, if anything, does this say about society at large?" The answer for Blow, absurdly, is that it is the trickledown effect of powerful Republicans' tendency to bully women, blacks and the poor.
Blow's was by far the most politically opportunistic interpretation I've seen of the episode, but it has in common with other commentary the presumption that the episode was a worrying case of bullying.
What we see in this video isn't bullying, but a crude instance of taunting. In the domain of schoolyard culture, there's a qualitative difference between a random incident of taunting — ridicule that escalates when unchallenged — and bullying. Bullying isn't spontaneous, it's premeditated, and not a one-off, as the Klein incident appears to be, but cumulative. Bullying carries menace, the threat of escalation toward actual pain, either physical, or the psychological pain of isolation and humiliation. In adolescence, bullying involves the singling out of a peer as a scapegoat, with the victim being stalked and often physically hurt by a single bully, or a mobbing of a chosen pariah for purposes of group bonding.
For a vision of youthful bullying unconstrained by civilized boundaries, read William Golding's chilling Lord of the Flies. (It's no coincidence that the terrorized victim in the novel, Piggy, is also fat — in supposedly casteless secular democracies, the fit and slender are Brahmins and the obese Untouchables.)
But what do we see here? A group of bored juveniles, who erupt into a little spontaneous fun with an easy mark trapped on the bus, one they have already assessed as passive and defenceless. She's an outsider, not a peer, and unlike teachers, nobody of significance to their group. Are they cruel? Of course. They're adolescents; what else is new? But at the same time, they respect boundaries. One can see they have no intention of going beyond words. They don't invade Klein's personal space. She is mortified, but she is clearly not frightened. There is no sense of menace here at all. These kids are aware the bus is a mode of transition between civilized points, not a deserted island. They know the bus will soon return them to a world of adult authority — and consequences to action.
Which raises a question about Klein's puzzling behaviour as a disinterested passenger. She isn't paid much to be a bus monitor, but she is paid to do something. What? Surely part of monitoring is to defuse potential unruliness. At least one of the kids is visibly out of his seat. That's dangerous. The whole incident could likely have been averted if, at the outset, Klein had stood up, firmly ordered the kid back into place and warned him and his pals that one more word of abuse would result in the driver pulling over at her command, with none of them going anywhere until order was restored and an apology issued. And I assume she had a cellphone, with the school principal on speed dial? If not, why not?
Klein's taunters aren't bullies; they're immature jerks, like countless other adolescents. Doubtless as adults they'll recall this episode with shame and remorse. Klein had power to nip the situation in the bud that she chose not to use, or wasn't trained to use. That's the lesson learned. There's no "society at large" here. Move along, folks, move along.