On “Bullying”

After growing older and looking back on what happened to me in middle school, and comparing it to what elementary and high school were like, and hearing other people’s stories, I’ve come to despise the word “bullying.” Bear with me on this.

When my friend [redacted] tells people that he spent years in therapy due to bullying, many react with incredulity, an assumption of weakness: “Well, in fourth grade they called me Ginger Snap because of my red hair and I turned out just fine. I didn’t go crying to no therapist.”

When someone hears the word “bullying,” they think of their own experiences with it. Getting called Ginger Snap is one experience. Being pursued down the street, as a high school freshman, by senior boys pelting you with rocks and screaming “DIE FAGGOT!” is another. And that’s the problem. The word “bullying” casts too wide a net.

Consider this poster:


It makes a list of things to define as “bullying” and campaign against. A noble idea, but notice that it puts “gossiping” in the same class as “stealing.” Imagine telling an adult “don’t buy tabloids” and “don’t rob people” in the same sentence. “Teasing” and “harassment” are implied to be equivalent. A child coping with “rumors” and and a child coping with “hitting,” “brutalization,” and “threats” get the same level of advocacy. It’s no surprise that people become confused when you tell them how important it is to take a stand against bullying.

Consider these scenarios:

  1. Sarah spreads a groundless rumor that Jessica is sleeping with Paul in order to turn Paul’s girlfriend against Sarah.
  2. Jason calls Daniel a “fucking Jew” and tells him he should “go burn in an oven.”
  3. Mike, Alex, Chase, and Mikey D confront Caleb in an isolated spot and threaten him until he turns over his money and his smartphone.
  4. George flirts with Keisha as a joke in order to get her to send a naked picture of herself to him, then posts it on the internet.
  5. Mike, Alex, Chase, and Mikey D attack Paul with baseball bats because they believe he is “a queer.” They scream homophobic invectives at him throughout the encounter. Paul sustains a mild concussion and a broken wrist.
  6. Miranda and Charity rip off Aisha’s hijab, call her a “terrorist” and a “sand n*****,” and hurl her against a water fountain.
  7. Chase refers to Demetrius as a “huge nerd” whom “no girl would ever want to fuck”
  8. Sam corners Emma in a hallway, pins her to a wall, and gropes her breasts and buttocks while she struggles to fight him off.
  9. Arianna tells Sarah that her new haircut looks terrible and refers to her as Old Bristle Brush in everyday conversation.
  10. Alex casually shoves Kevin aside on his way to the bathroom.
  11. Miranda constructs a fake online dating profile to get Emma to fall in love with her for her amusement.
  12. Mikey D tells Caleb he is going to kill him, and later shows up at his home and points an unloaded gun in his face “as a joke.”
  13. Amanda gets petty revenge on Demitrius by telling a counsellor that he molested his little sister.

Now think of how you would classify these behaviors if the parties were over the age of 18:

  1. Gossip-mongering, backstabbing, immature mean girl behavior
  2. Hate speech
  3. Mugging
  4. Revenge porn, invasion of privacy, a growing concern among internet users
  5. Hate crime, assault
  6. Hate crime, assault
  7. Immature douchebag behavior
  8. Sexual harassment, sexual assault
  9. Immature mean girl behavior
  10. Mild physical intimidation
  11. Fraud, catfishing, a growing concern among internet users
  12. Assault with a deadly weapon
  13. Slander

Now, how does our society classify these behaviors if the parties are under 18?

  1. Bullying
  2. Bullying
  3. Bullying
  4. Cyberbullying
  5. Bullying
  6. Bullying
  7. Bullying
  8. Bullying
  9. Bullying
  10. Bullying
  11. Cyberbullying
  12. Bullying
  13. Bullying

As you can see, the designation infantilizes young people (especially teens) and teaches them that drastically different actions have similar consequences. It baffles potential advocates who don’t grasp why the government and police would want to be involved in what they understand as teasing. It makes it a challenge for children and teens who are enduring serious harassment to convey their suffering to others. Alternatively, it can divert resources into solving non-problems, as in the infamous case where a grade school boy was suspended for kissing a girl on the cheek; it can also inspire a non-holistic zero-tolerance approach that punishes victims for fighting back or bystanders for stepping in. To put it simply, bullying is a terrible idea. Kids would benefit if we started calling behaviors by their real-world names: call teasing teasing, call harassment harassment, call hate speech hate speech, call assault assault, call cliques cliques, and call “bullying” an old-fashioned made-up word.

New MOOC for a new year

This is it. This is, barring some disaster, the year I go to adult college. But of course one cannot just take the bus to State U and begin taking classes for credit; unemployed 21-year-olds with high ACT scores* and a smattering of online credit from San Jose State University have to navigate the bureaucracy of admission like everyone else. On top of that, the Pell Grant structure dictates that I start in the fall rather than the summer. It’s not like I plan to spend eight months sitting on my hands, however. That would not be The Way of The Student. As the great physicist Richard Feynman once said, “Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.”

The free college courses that have been popping up across the internet like wildflowers may not be the most undisciplined, irreverent, and original options available, but they are the cheapest, and they have changed my life. In the past year, they taught me that my childhood obsession with biology and my adolescent obsession with chemistry were not outbursts of silliness to be left behind, and that I am not, as previously believed, bad at math. They taught me how to study long and hard for tests, and to see how that studying is worth it. Because of MOOCs I no longer hang my head and mumble about trade or culinary school when my elders interrogate me about my future. “I want to be a scientist,” I say, “I am thinking of chemistry or genetics. It’s hard work, and not everyone can be Linus Pauling, but I’m willing to bore through dozens of barriers to be part of something amazing.”

Modern science wouldn’t be modern science without computers, so my first MOOC of the new year is Introduction to Computer Science, offered by Harvard University via edX. I’ve tried to take these coding classes before, and I’ve found that they tend to move too quickly for someone unaccustomed to the key concepts of computation and programming languages. This is where CS50x has already proved helpful in its first two batches of lectures and assignments – the charismatic professor starts his students off in Scratch, a playful pseudolanguage that introduces the ideas of strings, variables, functions, and loops using colorful puzzle pieces. This is the first time I’ve ever experienced computer-savvy people saying, “It’s okay, n00b, come into our world of mystery and power.” My hope is to be proficient in, or at least familiar with, the C language by the time I complete this friendly course. These peculiar, literal, half-mathematical languages with which we speak to our machines are major assets to a student of the sciences, whether or not he or she ever plans to work as a programmer.

I retook the test in October to make sure State U would understand that I, a mysterious self-educated gypsy-person, can read and stuff. Walking into a medium-security testing center with a bunch of teenagers felt strange; I couldn’t believe I’d ever been such a poor awkward creature, and had allowed myself to be intimidated by other such poor awkward creatures. Anyway, composite 32, math 28, English 36, science 27, reading 35. 

Okazaki Read A Thing: Night Film


Warning: Very Vague Spoilers

I wanted to like this book. I really did. I waited behind an electronic holds queue of 50 people to check it out of the library. I forgave the publisher’s vulgar, gimmicky, and frankly classist decision to fill the book with “easter eggs” the reader can access with an iPhone app. I rode the bus to the library in the bleak November…okay, that’s overdoing it, but you get the idea.

Marisha Pessl’s debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, made a big impression on me a few years back. In fact, I reread it twice. Special Topics is dark and precocious, with the kind of awesome twist ending that explains what came before without providing improbably perfect closure for the characters. It is a wonderful rainy day mystery/bildungsroman and it comes highly recommended. So when I heard that young Pessl finally had a new book out after seven years, I was thrilled.

Night Film begins cinematically when Scott McGrath, a disgraced journalist, encounters a strange red-coated woman during a jog through Central Park. He later learns that she was Ashley Cordova, the daughter of reclusive movie director Stanislav Cordova, and that she committed suicide soon after the sighting. McGrath seeks both professional redemption and abstract truth as he launches an investigation into her and her father, an investigation that will take him into the dark heart of artistic expression and to the very limits of human understanding. It’s a great highbrow-mystery premise, and if I didn’t admire many aspects of this book I wouldn’t have kept reading. Many of the book’s setpieces are wonderfully chilling, and the descriptions of Cordova’s films were so enthralling that I wished they were real. I also enjoyed Pessl’s insights into creativity and how the internet age might affect it:

I know it’s hard to fathom today, but a true artist needs darkness in order to create. It gives him his power. His invisibility. The less the world knows about him, his whereabouts, his origins and secret methods, the more strength he has.

So yes, a book worth reading, a book better than most of the flotsam that issues from our publishing houses. But also a book with flaws. Pessl built a well-oiled machine of a plot, but the human element often eludes her; I fear that at this point in her career, she is one of those authors who can’t write the opposite sex.

Pessl’s method as a prose stylist is to fire similes at the reader and hope that her talent can make most of them stick. A maltese strides across the floor “like a tiny Thanksgiving day parade float”; a woman ducks into a car “fast as a burrowing mole.” Many of these similes charm, but others confuse: “The place felt clinical and claustrophobic, like a train compartment.” Of course train compartments are claustrophobic, but since when are they clinical? This hit-or-miss strategy worked well in Special Topics, when the narrator was a gifted college student who might realistically write her memoirs in such a fussy, affected, occasionally brilliant voice. In Night Film we are listening to a middle-aged male investigative reporter, and the avalanches of twee similes come across as clumsy and odd. They become downright uncomfortable when Pessl must describe secondary characters who are not white – a Japanese doorman is “The Last Samurai,” while a hispanic man in a green shirt has “a certain tropical authority.” The reader is left unsure as to whether this is meant to suggest that McGrath is mildly racist or whether it’s just pulpy, outdated writing.

The prose reflects a more general problem with characterization. McGrath is meant to be a hard-boiled investigative reporter in the tradition of film noir, but even reporters have to have feelings at some point. They have to get horny when an attractive woman flirts with them, they have to get pissed when a lead goes nowhere, they have to fight back tears when their child is taken away. They definitely have to laugh – growing up, I spent time in the newsroom where my dad worked, and I learned that journalism is one of the laughing professions. McGrath snarks but never laughs, like Daria. He only demonstrates a realistic degree of vitality when he or another character is in physical danger; otherwise, he comes across as a robot who generates sarcastic similes, stalks the Cordova family, and burns through endless disposable income (the book’s true mystery.) McGrath’s two twentysomething sidekicks, Hopper and Nora, are also underdeveloped, with the additional traits of being annoying and speaking in long, complex paragraphs.

Also, Night Film has a problematic ending. Without giving too much away, it has a Life of Pi ending, one of those choose-your-own-worldview monstrosities that think they’re saying something profound about science and faith when they’re really the “And then I woke up” of the 21st century. If this were a starred review, I would remove an entire star for this. Then again, Life of Pi endings may be a personal pet peeve. If you don’t mind them, then you’ll probably find this to be a B to A- novel. Pessl is a remarkably inventive young writer who is still finding her voice; even though I was somewhat disappointed in Night Film, I still want to read her next book, which will hopefully come out in less that seven years.

I am an atheist…

I am an atheist, out and out. It took me a long time to say it. I’ve been an atheist for years and years, but somehow I felt it was intellectually unrespectable to say one was an atheist, because it assumed knowledge one didn’t have. Somehow it was better to say one was a humanist or an agnostic. I finally decided that I’m a creature of emotion as well as reason. Emotionally I am an atheist. I don’t have the evidence to prove that God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.

What a lovely quote from Isaac Asimov. It speaks to an atheism that springs from honesty. I grew up among people of faith, and one of the things they value most is sincerity: empty religion is no religion at all, and even has the smell of the devil about it. So sometimes atheism is an odd form of respect. How disrespectful would it be if I went to your church, lied to you, ate your donuts, participated in your most hallowed sacraments, tried to change your mind about scientific, doctrinal, and political issues in sneaky, underhanded ways (rather than frank and transparent ways), and fluttered my best goody-goody eyelashes at you, all whilst snickering behind my hand like the nonbeliever I ultimately am? 

The insightful Asimov notes that what we call God is improbable rather than impossible. However, it is downright fatuous to call oneself a “seeker” when the only thing one is seeking is a way around the word atheism

In conclusion, I need to read more classic sci-fi. 

Young Okazaki on Huffpost Live!


Guess what? Someone Important found yer Okazaki’s post about poverty, and she’s been invited to appear on Huffington Post Live!

Tune in at 5:30 pm 9/30/13 to see me talk with Nancy Redd (host), Lorraine Berry (Salon columnist and author of “When I Couldn’t Feed My Family”), Robert Walker (Oxford University professor), and possibly Lily (the new food-insecure muppet from Sesame Street.) And since it’s the Huffington Post addressing poverty and welfare, be sure to take this advice from my favorite Twitterbot:


Your poverty-shaming is not going to get me off government assistance


I had a panic attack last night. It was a mild one triggered by working too long too late on my Udacity precalculus course, but the thoughts that came to me were only tenuously related to my progress in math. They took the form they’ve been taking for three years now: I am a thief. I am stealing from the taxpayers. I am a parasite. I am worthless. Everyone hates me. Everyone except my immediate family members would be happier if I were dead. Maybe I should kill myself.

It is worth noting that I am not suicidal. It is only during these intense spasms of shame that I chance to think such things, and the only reason I risked frightening my readers in this manner is that I need to convey how negative the effects of poverty-shaming can be. My spasms of shame are a direct result of how people in my life and the media have spoken to me about the poor, and they do not result in any inspirational displays of bootstrap-pulling. Rather, they distract me from my studies, kill my motivation, worsen my social skills, and ultimately keep me out of the workforce longer.
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