It Doesn't Get Better?
When middle school bullies rule the world

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 21 May 2022

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I found myself actually bothered by Elon Musk’s tweets today. For the most part, I’ve ignored him the same way I ignore most of what happens on that platform. I check out my own highly curated list of users for links to interesting articles I may have missed, and try not to get fooled into reading the provocations from people looking for attention.

But something about the world’s richest man making so many misogynist, bullying, and alt-right posts in the name of “free speech” or “owning the libs,” has got me sad. The once-genius — if Mercurial — entrepreneur has replaced Donald Trump, our former President, as the Internet’s Troll in Chief.

I guess I’ve been “triggered,” as we like to say these days. I feel like I did back in middle school, when the bullies ruled the cafeteria no matter what the adults said or did. I know Joe Biden is now President, and — whatever his flaws — he models a compassionate approach to engaging with others, respecting their differences, and never stooping to insults. But in a landscape dominated by trolls like Musk and Trump, Biden comes off more like a substitute teacher incapable of actually protecting anyone from abuse on the playground.

Whenever I got too upset about being bullied or, worse, being unable to protect a friend from being bullied, I remember adults telling me “it gets better.” Like we tell LGBTQ+ and non-binary kids today. It gets better. Just wait until you grow up. People will be less horrid than they are in seventh grade. And you will find your people.

But as I look around at adult America (or Russia, Hungary, Turkey, Brazil, the Phillipines,…) I’m not so sure. It doesn’t get better, it gets worse. We have regressed. We are back in the middle school cafeteria, being subjected to the hopeless, counter-factual, cynical rantings of the most powerful bullies of our time — who pretend they’re joking, or that their victims are somehow the oppressors. And these bullies are not social outcasts, but the winners of our society’s political and economic contests. The world’s richest man. The last — and maybe next — President of the United States.

In fact, it’s now the kids who are better. The young people with whom I interact are quick to correct me if I use a wrong pronouns — but that’s because they’re trying to treat their peers the way they want to be treated. They may post foolishly compromising pictures of themselves on social media, but they rarely if ever attack one of their contemporaries the way our adult trolls or their hired bots do.

So maybe it does get better, or will. We adults may have lost the ability to tell our kids that our adult lives are better than their tortured adolescence. But by respecting the example they are setting, we can strive to be more like them, ourselves. And we can tell them that while it didn’t really get better for us, if they hang onto the conviction that their words matter, that freedom of speech is not just a right but a responsibility, and that people deserve our compassion and respect, maybe they will earn themselves a better and more civil public conversation than we did.