Image Credit: Genevieve Veronica
In Myriam Gurba’s memoir Mean, she proclaims, “Being a bitch is spectacular.” Being a “bitch” or being mean is useful. It is a form of survival; it is how we protect ourselves. The reactionary response of meanness is something many feel—especially when it involves trauma like Gurba as a survivor of sexual assault—but there are many instances of meanness that are less rational or justified.
I grew up with a mom who wanted to fight everyone, usually without reason. My mom was mean. My mom is mean. And, she revels in this meanness. As a teen, I used to think this meanness was cool. That this meanness was something to be proud of. In reality, this meanness only got us into trouble. There are many ways to tell a story, and my story of meanness sees a society that idolizes unjustified meanness from our president to everyday folks. We idolize meanness and ignore the fact that it desensitizes those who commit mean acts from acknowledging the complex humanity of their victim. This inevitably prevents the perpetrator from getting the help they need and, most importantly, the victims who need it most.
There’s a difference between anger and meanness. Anger is an emotional reaction towards something or someone that has done us wrong. When meanness is used in tandem with anger, we can use it to our advantage, such as finding a solution to problems like racism and global warming. This partnership of emotions provides a sense of urgency to act, and the courage to standup to those who bar the way—like the urgency and courage exhibited by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students, and the change they’ve been able to accomplish towards gun control. However, meanness alone can be cruel and unfeeling.
Around eight or nine years old, my family and I were at a birthday party at a bowling alley. My mom took me to the restroom gripping my shoulder like a bastón. As I exited the bathroom stall, my mom said something in Spanish—probably, “pendejas”—while walking by two young women, in their early twenties, elbowing them in the back as she went. The women were cheerfully fixing their long dark hair and makeup until my mom’s elbow knocked the smiles right off their faces. A few minutes after we were back in our lane, the manager came over and kicked me and my family out.
My mom wasn’t angry. She elbowed those ladies in the back for some other reason. Like, their jealousy inducing youth and happiness. Their carefree hair flicks blowing rage deep into my responsibility-laden mother. There are no redeemable qualities for this attitude. She doesn’t use this meanness to fight social injustice, like the time a racist Canadian called a local carnicero a “fuckin’ wetback.” Well, she will use her meanness for this, but only when they call her a “fuckin’ Mexican” first. In my mom’s world, the carnicero just has to take it or defend himself. Her instant rabia reserved for her own humanity. But then, that’s my bias showing. No one is obligated to defend anyone but themselves. For every person who protects themselves against injustice, someone is willing to uphold others. My mom spent her life defending herself from sometimes real and sometimes imagined offenders, so the reactionary state of meanness is all she knows.
Yet, because being mean is all someone knows doesn’t make it an excuse to treat others like shit as my mom did the young women. Meanness creates a thin cataract over our eyes. So, we see, but not too clearly—especially ourselves. I see my mom’s type of meanness, this cruelty popping up in real life conversations and virtual feeds, like a friend posted on Facebook, “Sorry, but why would anyone put their kids through that?” in response to the families being teargassed at the border. This meanness shadows the essential questions:
Why, after knowing these people were traveling this way for weeks with a clear objective, is the U.S. so unprepared? Why do those in power feign helplessness as if teargas is the only route they can take? Who will hold this government accountable when we’re focused on victim-shaming? To echo Martin Luther King’s son, why do we treat people of color so mean?
Meanness makes us inhumane. Like my mom, friends, news anchors, public officials, celebrities revel in it, “Watching the USA FINALLY defend our borders was the HIGHLIGHT of my Thanksgiving weekend,” for likes and views as FOX News instigator Tomi Lahren gained when tweeting about the teargassing of these same people. Even if Lahren doesn’t hold a lot of credible and intellectual weight, she holds an audience that can spread her meanness through the metaphorical distances of the Internet in the form of 7,862 retweets and 32,999 likes. The effects validating supporters and weighing heavy on the opposition. Like my mom chose not to see how her act would affect the young women, the people who align with Lahren’s meanness are also escaping the responsibility to think too far outside of the self. So, they don’t have to solve the real problems. They don’t have to acknowledge the humanity on the other side of that fence. They don’t have to recognize the privilege of their positions or the fact that they’re lucky it’s not them asking for help and that one day it could be.
I’m mean, too. After reading a school email exchange over an article regarding grading students too easily, I spent thirty minutes on Instagram debating whether to post an anonymous screenshot of a colleague degrading the students at our community college: “Because GenZ students don’t like to struggle doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t teach them the meaning of it.” Would the students she’s referring to agree that they “don’t like to struggle”? I doubt it. Her meanness, judging students without the ability to defend themselves, glossed over with a tough-love attitude, an “It’s in their best interest” approach. In full call-out culture fashion, my post was going to be of the “If I had a nickel for every time a colleague degraded a student or entire student population, I’d be rich” type. But, I stopped myself before I could rant through the character count. It didn’t feel right fighting meanness with meanness as a way to shame this woman into seeing her mistake. As much as I wanted to defend my students, I also wanted to assert my superiority because I don’t demean them in this way.
No one is blameless when it comes to meanness, and, often, people have a legitimate reason for it. Gurba explains our motivations for being mean as, “We act mean to defend ourselves from boredom and from those who would chop off our breasts. We act mean to defend our clubs and institutions.” Here, Gurba is addressing both meanness as cruelty and meanness with anger. The complicated way that meanness can be both useful and unfeeling, and the thin line separating the two. Through its complicated state, meanness can travel between the self and one’s group, which can turn into the toxic egocentric and ethnocentric mindsets that allow for a variety of small-scale injustices and large-scale human rights crisis to occur.
Like my mom, like the FB friend, like the school colleague, meanness keeps us from getting hurt, from imagining intense pain and sacrifice, and from questioning ourselves. This withholding an act of self-preservation from the uncomfortable and from both the changeable and unchangeable. Yet, meanness is more than a shield against our own vulnerability and ignorance, like the way I withhold my anger towards my partner because I don’t want to admit my jealousy. It is a way to assert our position on the hierarchical ladder. People act mean as a defense of their position. The mistreatment of others means that they are somehow above them. This elevation gives them the ammunition to say:
My mother, “They’re just sluts anyway.”
My FB friend, “I would never endanger my children like that!”
My colleague, “They’re all just lazy.”
All of these excuses a method of Freudian transference, a way to deflect from our own insecurities and from the issues within ourselves that reflect the problems of the larger society. More accurately, meanness is a defense against the helplessness of the terrible vastness of life’s problems, whose toxicity can range from hurting to killing others.
My mom bullied those ladies because they represented something that she was no longer. She was mean to those women for every unrealistic beauty standard and gender norm society and culture has placed on her. She is mean because of the racism she encounters at grocery stores and our local Target. She’s mean because if the world won’t treat her right, then why should she do the same for others? This is what I thought was cool: The power that would allow me to remain hurt-free because I could make others hurt instead.
Yet, my FB friend’s and colleague’s meanness shows how quickly this unfeeling attitude can spurn out of control, how it can place empathy on the back burner. The conversation around asylum becomes, “How could someone do this to their children?” instead of, “Why and how is danger and displacement a risk worth taking for these people?” The shift in syntactic focus allows for us to ignore this group’s motives as if there is no possible reason for this journey just because we would never do that, which also ignores the fact that we don’t have to. The lack of empathy, the feeling of superiority, leads to the cruelty behind enjoying the inhumane treatment of the already vulnerable.
A similar formula takes place with my colleague. Instead of asking the questions, “How could I better understand my students?” and “Why do my students not like to struggle?” there is a judgment of their worth, which is devalued because of the assumption “they don’t like to struggle.” The level of pain these students might feel because of this attitude is in no way proportional to the pain and suffering of the asylum seekers, yet the unfeeling attitude and unwillingness to see from the students’ perspective stem from the same place. In an area made up of mostly first-generation students of color, devaluing their efforts is going to lead to a continued, unjust handicap of their abilities since we’re focusing on an assumed weakness, not a proven one. The myopic lens of meanness doesn’t allow for one to ask questions and examine the outlying factors.
Gurba argues that even though someone is mean they don’t deserve to be dehumanized. This is shown by the way her younger, mean self treats the world with hard skepticism and much-needed criticism after she was sexually assaulted. Regardless of her meanness, Gurba is still a victim deserving of all the rights bestowed on human sovereignty. For Gurba, meanness is not an excuse to refuse them justice. People are mean for a reason, and sometimes that meanness can blind those who are not from seeing the humanity of those who are mean. However, meanness promotes one-way empathy. The victim of the meanness is the one who is left to understand the aggressor, while the aggressor is left guilt-free. At least, this is anecdotally true for all the mean people in my life. I know my mom. I know her like the scars throughout my body. But, my mom’s meanness doesn’t allow her to grasp who I really am. When I challenge her behavior, she would rather attack then take the time to see where I’m coming from.
I understand the use of meanness as a form of communal and self-defense. Yet, beyond this, meanness is a tool to keep an other othered—the other being those from the arbitrarily outlined borders of another country, especially countries made up of people of color. This othering displaces both the victim and the perpetrator. After years of my mom’s meanness, my family has stopped inviting us over for the holidays. If my brother and I are upset with her, she stays home watching Netflix by herself. I’ve promised myself not to be mean. Not because I think I’m better, but because every day it is made clear what is at risk. Meanness permits us to forget the humanity of those we’re mean to. Meanness is exhausting. Meanness keeps us from being vulnerable. When I feel the temptation to be mean, I throw cold water on the feeling. Meanness only offers an elusive pleasure like the warmth that spreads across the body after a shot of whiskey during a cold evening. After the warmth passes, the body, the heart feels even colder.