When conversation turns hurtful
I recently spent an emotional night consoling a close friend. If I had told her three months ago that she'd be sitting in my room, eyes full of tears, trying to understand why one of her best friends completely threw her under the bus, she would've called me crazy. Now, it seems that her experience is too common. During high school, far too many students go through complete and unexpected betrayal.
The exact details of this event are not important, but there are a few basic ideas in her story that are necessary to understand. My friend had a falling out with someone she was quite close with. Because they ran in the same social circles, this gave rise to some awkward interactions, but they managed to avoid confrontation. They kept their distance and achieved a precarious détente.
One night, when my friend was not able to be with the group, her estranged friend decided to let go of whatever hurt he was feeling and rip into her with all he had. Hearing about it after the fact was hard, especially when she found out how many of her so-called friends chimed in with their own contributions. It was not until she found out that a friend she had practically grown up with was just another eager participant in the dismantling of her reputation. She then truly understood, and felt, the gravity of the situation.
Ever since this happened, my friend and I have been searching for an explanation. Eventually, she and the long time good friend talked it out and he was full of contrition and apologies. But when she left, we both had the sneaking suspicion that if the same circumstances presented themselves again, he just might take the same route.
There is a mountain of research on the phenomenon of "groupthink." Sadly, people seem willing to do things in a group setting that they would never consider doing on their own. All it takes is an instigator and a bit of support from some key influencers. The next thing you know, everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. In the end, it probably comes down to matters of acceptance and social status. People seem to be rewarded for participation and punished for remaining silent. The same dynamics seem to apply whether the topic is teenage drinking or cruelty. High schoolers seem to crave both acceptance and elevated status. Unfortunately, the easiest path to both comes at the expense of others. The easiest way to rise is at the expense of someone else. Do this in a group setting and it becomes an act of bonding. It's no secret that people often come together to gossip, but from what I've seen, the hottest trending topics seem to be the most negative.
My friend's experience, and my brief search for an explanation, has led me to shocking and disturbing questions. Is it possible that we bond more through denigration than celebration? Is this a fundamental part of the human condition? Stereotypes, something that we are all educated to fight against, are certainly all about putting others down. By casting them as evil, they become easy to subordinate, and by subordinating others, we elevate ourselves. The history books include extensive examples of such acts of hatred and the atrocities they bring. It saddens me to see a form of this behavior routinely ripping the hearts out of high schoolers in our community.
Soon, she will be over the trauma of this event. She has already forgiven those who only recently acted so hurtfully, and is ready to move past it all. But, no matter where these relationships go, the realization of how easy it is for people to fall into the groupthink of hurt, will stick with both of us and inspire a vigilance to resist this temptation at all costs. When it comes to the denigration game, the only way to win is not to play.
Samantha Monello is senior at Wilsonville High School.