Mitt Romney and Bullying

What does Mitt Romney's bullying past tell us about him today? NothingMitt Romney and Bullying

Today it came out that Mitt Romney bullied a classmate when he was a senior. As I just published a book on bullying (http://thebullyvaccine.com), I’ve had people ask me to weigh in on this incident. 


First some background.  The incident in question occurred when Mitt was a senior in high school at a private school with a very conservative tradition of dress and demeanor and Mitt apparently totally bought into the school culture and traditions. A boy joined the school who was a year younger and he had bleached blond hair that was long and covered one of his eyes. It was 1965 by the way.  Romney apparently was really upset that this kid wasn’t dressing the part of a private school student and so led a band of friends who held the kid down and cut his hair. It was so traumatic that the kid who has his haircut was crying the entire time and never fully recovered emotionally. According to the Washington Post article, neither did several of the people who participated in the assault or who witnessed it.  Romney doesn’t remember the specific incident but apologized for doing something as a kid that hurt someone else.

So, what do I think about all this?  Well, I agree with Greg Sargent of the Plum line.  On the one hand, this wasn’t just a prank; it was an attack Romney led on a kid who didn’t conform.  And the school failed to punish him for the assault. On the other, it happened when he was 18 yrs old.

So, what does this incident tell us about Romney?  Well, not much actually. Was this assault because the kid was gay? Probably not, it sounds like it was all about the hair, which in 1965 was not considered a traditional cut. Was Romney a rabid conservative even back then? Probably not. He was 18 yrs old and totally bought into the traditions of the school he was in.  Is he evil?  I doubt it. Granted, very few of us have ever led a lynch mob against a fellow student who wore his hair wrong, and that’s a bit out of the ordinary, but ask yourself honestly, is there nothing you did as a kid (yes even at 18 you are still a kid) that you regret now or that you wouldn’t even consider doing now? 

Or course you have something in your past that qualifies as not only idiotic, but that harmed someone else that you probably regret. We all do.  It’s an unfortunate aspect of being alive. When we are young, we do really stupid things and we haven’t yet learned how to control our emotions, so, despite most of us being goofy kids just trying to fit in and get along with others, we have all been known to do stupid things that were hurtful to others. Even if we were just acting out of anger at something someone else did to us and we felt justified at the time, as adults, we may look back and think, you know – there were WAY better ways I could have handled that.

So, does this mean I think Romney is off the hook? Of course not. What he did was horrid. But is he the same guy now? Of course not. He’s grown up as I hope we all have. As always, I advocate we judge each other with compassion instead of out of a place of hurt. After all, Romney is a human being and he was under pressure himself. And who knows, he could have been jealous of the kid with the hippy hair. As a governor’s son, he would have never been allowed to express his individuality that way. He might have been jealous. Again, doesn’t excuse his behavior or the harm he caused, but it helps us remember, he is human too.

What does this have to do with bullying?

But what lesson can we learn about bullying?  Well, again, it’s difficult to say. Salon.com has been running a series of essays on writers confronting their bullies and they all have something in common, which is that the bullies, if they remember the incidents at all, have a very different recollection of what was going on. Usually the victim wasn’t very important to them. They had their own issues they were dealing with and the victim was chosen, not because of some hatred of the victim, but almost at random and because they were convenient. Romney’s response to not remembering the incident in question is typical.

The horrid truth about bullying is that victims are, to a certain extent, chosen at random.  It is hard for victims to grasp this one simple fact. What happened to them wasn’t really about them. It was about the bully. Which is why bullies rarely remember their victims and if they do, they don’t really recall what they did to their victims. Because, in their experience, it wasn’t about the victim, it was about themselves.

Which is why in my book I counsel two things.  One, it isn’t about you and two, feel sorry for the bully.  Yes, it would be nice if they did not make other people miserable to make themselves feel better. In an ideal world people, all people including young people whose brains are not fully developed, would be able to keep their internal stresses internal and everyone would be able to cope productively and effectively with all the various emotions and stresses people can experience in life. In an ideal world, people would not take their anger out on innocent people.

The problem is, we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in the real world and in the real world, most people have trouble controlling their emotions when they are under stress and very few of us are able to act rationally or compassionate when we are upset. 

When you realize that you aren’t always able to act in the best most ethical way despite your desire to be a good person, it is easier to forgive others their frailties.  And when you do so, it allows you to not take what happened personally, and when you can do that, it allows you to let go of the pain. It really does.

We have no idea why Romney led an attack on the kid with long blond hair. I think the only real lesson we can draw from this is that the school failed both Romney and his victim. Physically attacks of any sort for any reason REALLY do cause emotional trauma in the victim and they should not be tolerated for any reason. 

It doesn’t really matter why it happened. It is clear that Romney, regardless of the reasons he had, felt he was justified in doing what he did. And he was aided and abetted by school administrators who tolerated his actions. If the school had a zero tolerance policy on violence, Romney would have known that and he might not have attacked a fellow student over something as stupid as a haircut. Instead, the school tacitly approved violence between the students by not punishing those who assaulted their fellow students.

Kids do stupid things. They really can’t help themselves at times. It’s part of the problem of having a brain that doesn’t consider consequences very well if at all, which is reall problem for teen boys specifically. It is the adults in charge that are supposed to provide rules and guidelines so that the kids in their care don’t do really stupid and harmful things. 

What moral lesson can we draw from this? Adults need to stop failing our kids.