INFINITE IMPROBABILITY: Bullying is more than outdated words

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First Posted: 2/18/2014

One complaint I frequently hear from a lot of older folks is how political correctness is killing conversation in the modern age. While typically this is an excuse for people to follow that up with something awful and downright cringe-worthy, there are times when I feel that we’re taking political correctness so far that we’re living in a bubble that is becoming increasingly harder to pop as we age.

I’m 30 years old now, so maybe that’s when you start to become bitter about such things. I read an article the other day that set me off on this diatribe – a young mother in the U.K. has an 18-month-old son who suffers from cataracts in both eyes, forcing him to wear large glasses that resemble goggles. My heart breaks for this kid, as she says he’s bullied often for it, but her anger led her to complain on the Facebook page of Tesco, a grocery giant that was selling children’s t-shirts with cute animals wearing glasses that said “nerd” and “geek.” She believes that this teaches kids that you are a “geek” if you wear glasses and that these negative connotations should not be associated with someone’s impairment.

“Why should my son grow up with people making fun of him because it’s ‘fashionable?’” she wrote.

“It may only be a t-shirt to some people but it’s the message you, as a leading supermarket, are giving to young children. A message that will have negative impacts for some.”

Typically, I am not one to defend large companies, but let’s a take a moment to examine this situation. Bullying is wrong, and thanks to political correctness, we’re finally starting to stamp that out of our schools as best we can. On the other hand, this is taking that correctness a bit too far.

First of all, this is an imagined scenario – her son was not being bullied for wearing these shirts, nor does she have any proof that any other children saw these shirts and were influenced by them in any way. As a toddler, I doubt I paid attention to whatever my mother dressed me in, and at that age, I don’t think these kids are necessarily thinking about these designs the same way an adult would.

Second, I’m just as sick of “fashionable” geeks as the next nerd, but she has to admit that the connotation of these words has changed quite a bit over the years. As Tesco mentioned in its apology to her, followed by the removal of these shirts from both its stores and its website, they were capitalizing on recent trends that have made it cool and even desirable to be geeky. While this often just results in fashion models donning think-rimmed glasses, it actually has broken down a lot of the barriers geeks used to have in their quest for mainstream acceptance. I use the work “geek” to describe myself all the time because even when I was growing up, the word didn’t have the same power it did to generations before. Instead, gay slurs were used to bully kids like me despite my peers not even knowing what they meant, so being called a “geek” would have been a welcome reprieve for some of the cruel and discriminatory things that were said.

Lastly, and most importantly, I can tell this mother from experience that her child has a long road ahead that he’ll eventually have to walk on his own. You can do your best to shield children from television, movies, and other media influences, but at the end of the day, there’s always going to be a kid who knows all the curse words, has a chip on his shoulder, or just simply doesn’t understand that everyone is different and that’s OK. Kids, for whatever reason, can be naturally cruel, particularly when they start to divide into cliques and want to focus the negative attention on someone else in an attempt to “fit in” or focus criticism on someone other than themselves.

When I went through the hell of Catholic school, the administrators used to say that we had to wear uniforms so that everyone would be on the same playing field, so that no one could be singled out for their differences, but this was naïve at best and a cheap excuse to crush individuality at its worst. In my school, if your tie had the wrong pattern or your gym sneakers weren’t the right brand, you were bullied anyway, and even our plain, generic button-down shirts had tags that could reveal how much your parents spent on them. I recall that if you had a shirt with a little hanger on the back under the collar, this was considered a “fag tag” that you had to rip off immediately (and later explain to your mother) or face further persecution. The school was supposed to be protecting us from harassment, and instead they increased it by forgetting to teach through example one very important thing.

They should have showed us that our differences were gifts, that we’re all awesome in our own special way – that “geeks” are just as cool as “jocks” because we all have different, but equally important, roles and abilities. Instead, they hailed sports stars and cheerleaders and I grew up thinking that everything about myself – my height, my weight, my pimply face, my unmanageable hair, and yes, even my glasses – was ugly and made me the “freak” they kept calling me. I could easily have blamed this on a t-shirt, a slogan, or even just a word, but it’s so much deeper than that. It’s a psychological product of the times we live in, and though the harsh terminology may change from generation to generation, the results are the same.

If there’s one thing that will protect this child from all this, it’s instilling in him early on that his differences are not his fault, completely normal, and make him absolutely exceptional. Every mother thinks their child is special, so this may sound easy, but you need to make that child believe it when you’re not around. You need him – on his own – to stand up to those who would put him down and embrace those mean words like a badge of honor for enduring such nastiness.

That’s why we call ourselves “nerds” and “geeks” now. It’s not because we want to be “fashionable” – it’s because we want to be accepted as a group, but we also don’t mind standing out for being smart or wearing glasses. They’re part of our identity. They give us personality. They make us stronger than we ever thought we could be. And when you really believe that, you take the power away from every bully who ever laid their 20/20 eyes on you.

I truly hope that once this child breaks through the bubble he’s being kept in that he sees that it’s quite normal to be bullied, but exceptionally freeing to ignore it and just be who you are. The shield of political correctness has nothing on the power of belief in yourself.

-Rich Howells is a lifelong Marvel Comics collector, wannabe Jedi master, and cult film fan. E-mail him at