We were watching that episode of The Simpsons where Bart fights back against Nelson’s crew when they pick on Lisa and he gets beaten up for it. Marge wants Bart to report it to Principal Skinner but Homer says he can’t, it’s against the code of the school yard, which states:
- Don’t tattle
- Always make fun of those different from you
- Never say anything unless you’re sure everyone feels the same way you do
So instead, Bart puts together an army and teaches Nelson a lesson. It’s every bullied child’s dream outcome and makes for a great episode. We had it on video at home so I know it pretty much word for word.
That code really does exist, or it certainly did at my school. To tattle or ‘dob in’ as us cool kids used to call it was very much frowned upon. Rule 2 was definitely kept to – sometimes at my expense, sometimes at other people’s, and I wouldn’t go back to that way of life for all the money in the world.
And rule 3 – I followed that so closely that I’m still learning to break it. I’m 31 years old and I know I don’t always value my voice. And I don’t think I’m alone in that – I think lots of us struggle to remember we have as much right to speak up as anyone else.
When we step into the real world, independence forces us to stand on our own. And with that comes a daily set of decisions – about whether to stand up for ourselves, for other people, and for what we think is right. Sometimes we make the correct call, sometimes we pick the wrong argument, and sometimes we walk away, never knowing what we could or should have done.
How to interact with people is a life-long course that we never finish taking. And the hardest part, in my view, is working out how to stand your ground without smashing it to pieces. How to say your piece without just screaming the house down or calling people names. How to come away having made a sound argument and, ideally, having persuaded somebody to think a little differently.
If having arguments with people in your head isn’t one of your favourite pastimes then I guess we’re just very different people but I do it ALL the time. I run through exactly what I’d say if only I had the guts and the promise of no repercussions. I’m excellent at it when I have total control, but sadly the world will never know.
In reality, speaking up can sometimes feel like a maverick thing to do, even when it’s totally justified. Whether it’s to say no, I’d rather we didn’t split the bill, I only had a tap water and a side, or, actually, that was my idea, not yours and you know it, or I’m not going to let you speak to me that way, fighting back can feel so bold. I am doing it now, more and more, but I’m never not shaking afterwards.
There are lots of things that can make speaking up feel like the hardest thing in the world. Louder voices, hierarchy, education, subject matter. Sometimes you worry that you’re going to ruin a nice time by contradicting a group decision or a consensus. But it’s OK – as always, it’s all about how you say it. Think like a human being and you’ll be fine.
I’m talking about this now because it feels more important than ever that we’re not afraid to speak up for what’s right. There’s a lot of nastiness, a lot of hate, and a lot of frightening rhetoric around. In this country, in the US, all over. And if we don’t speak out against it and challenge those trying to marginalise and disempower people, it’s going to become the norm. Then goodness knows what comes next.
Of course, what I’m talking about is more complex and important than minor social disagreements, but empowering yourself to take those on puts you in a better position to tackle the big stuff when it comes – and anyway, this is also where you’re likely to hear a lot of it. Whether it’s misogyny over the dinner table or racism on social media or bullying amongst so-called friends – it’s our duty to call it out and push for kindness, equality and understanding instead.
I have a voice and so do you and we don’t just deserve to use them, we have to. If The Simpsons has taught us anything, it’s that bullies know exactly what they are, they just think they can get away with it.