Last week, The Washington Post broke what turned out to be a rather explosive story on Mitt Romney’s school days, with a headline about his school ‘pranks, but also troubling incidents.’ What ended up being particularly controversial about the story was both the reaction from the Romney campaign, and the reaction from readers, who seemed to have trouble distinguishing the difference between ‘pranks’ and ‘troubling incidents.’ Which, just so we’re all clear on this, is code for ‘bullying.’
Bullying has been in the news a lot in the last few years, particularly anti-LGBQT bullying, which means people are more aware of it. Schools are also much more aware of it, and have been cracking down hard with policies intended to identify and stop bullying early. Unfortunately, such policies aren’t doing enough, as clearly illustrated by the fact that fatal bullying is still a problem. It’s a cause the President and First Lady have both discussed, with the goal of making our schools a safer space for their marginalised attendees.
Which makes the whole Romney situation a big fucking deal, as our Veep would put it, since it’s providing some fascinating insight into how Romney, and his handlers, view bullying. We all have episodes from our past that we’re not proud of, though some of us can probably cite worse offenses than others. The question isn’t whether someone needs to be saintly to run for public office, but how people choose to deal with their past transgressions against the people around them.
The Romney campaign first went with the ‘bullying? What bullying?’ line, before switching to ‘sorry if I offended anyone.’ Specifically, a spokesperson’s initial response to the piece was:
The stories of fifty years ago seem exaggerated and off base, and Governor Romney has no memory of participating in these incidents.
Incidents so vivid that individual participants independently recalled them, and quite vividly. Evidently Mittens has a faulty memory. At a much younger and tenderer age than Mitt, I wince thinking of some of the things I did to my classmates, and I’m fairly certain I’m going to continue to do so until the day I die. And that’s after having reached out to apologise, which, notably, several of the people involved in 1965 definitely did, because they felt so troubled and ashamed by these happyfuntime ‘pranks’ later in life.
‘I would think this would be seared in his memory,’ one classmate who participated, Philip Maxwell, told the New York Times. ‘Certainly for the other people that were involved, nobody has forgotten.’
Once the story got too big to ignore, Romney came out with a mealymouthed statement about perhaps his ‘pranks’ had ‘gone too far’ and for that he apologised; but not to the victims personally. It was a more general statement in a radio interview, clearly made to appease critics who were angered and concerned by the story. He’s expecting it to fade into the background, despite the fact that it’s actually more evidence of a cruel streak that should deeply concern voters.
Because, his abhorrent politics aside, having a bully in the White House would not be a good thing. The United States has a very fragile image in the international community, and it hasn’t helped itself with autocratic, aggressive, and invasive foreign policy decisions. Under the Obama administration, Secretary Clinton has worked hard to repair a lot of that image, and to rehabilitate the global view of the United States. Putting someone with Romney’s capacity for cruelty and aggression in the Oval Office could result in multiple steps back for the United States, because make no mistake, these incidents are not firmly in the past and evidence of a youthful childhood: they are evidence of how Romney will behave now.
There isn’t much about Romney to suggest that he’s changed, if he still thinks of these incidents as ‘hijinks.’
The incident many people are focusing on is one in which he forcibly cut the hair of a classmate because his gender expression evidently offended Romney’s delicate sensibilities. The description of this scene in the media is not that of a fun prank; the young man was screaming for help as a group of boys surrounded him and held him down. Their victim, John Lauber, lived with the memory of the incident for the rest of his life.
Romney also made fun of closeted gay students and teachers with disabilities, and seemed to have a particular zest for ‘pranks’ that put people in physical danger. Yes, some young men, especially those raised in an atmosphere of privilege, can be cruel, and nasty, particularly when surrounded by privileged friends in an environment that rewards aggressive displays of masculinity and discourages compassion and politeness; no matter what the honour code says. But Romney’s cruelty went deeper and darker than normal, and it’s telling that he doesn’t seem to experience any remorse about it.
While such stunts might sound like fun, Smith argues they’re anything but if you happen to be the target of them. That’s because pranks and other forms of disparaging humor — racist jokes, sexist jokes, derogatory jokes — are all about hammering home that you’re not part of the group. And since such attacks are couched within the confines of comedy, they can be harsher and more insulting than would otherwise be allowed in polite society. (source)
This should be a key part of the discussion in reactions to Romney’s ‘pranks,’ because they were designed to underscore divides, creating an us-versus-them mentality that the GOP also participates in, extremely actively. Romney’s politics show the same kind of divisive thinking, with one thing for the ingroup and something else entirely for the outgroup. His record on civil rights for a variety of minorities is poor, and it’s no wonder, looking at his history and the kind of environment he grew up in. His ‘pranks’ wrote it all on the wall long before he first took political office.
In the course of dehumanising people for fun and amusement, Romney reinforced his own sense of superiority. This was not simply roughhousing or casual fun, where everyone involved is enjoying it and dangerous power dynamics aren’t at play. This is bullying, and it is abusive, and it’s not the kind of behaviour one likes to see in someone who wants to be President of the United States. Not, anyway, without substantial evidence of regret and reform, a genuine desire to change backed up with hard evidence that the former bully is working on it. Many of his classmates grew up to become changed men, as evidenced in part by their regret over what happened in their youths.
Where is that evidence in Romney’s case?
The fact that so many responses to Romney’s abuse categorise it as pranking or fun rather than bullying says a lot about why this country has such a big bullying problem. The refusal to identify what he did as wrong, and to connect the dots on what it means politically, speaks to dangerous social attitudes. A reformed bully in public office might bring needed compassion and care to our foreign policy. One who refuses to deal with his past and dismisses it as harmless fun would be a disaster. For all the youth currently being bullied right now, the response to Romney’s past and present speaks louder than words.