Thursday, October 14, 2010

Land O'Bullies

(News-Herald, October 14) October is either National Anti-Bullying Month or National Bullying Prevention Month, depending on whom you ask. That means that once again, Americans will focus their attention on a problem for a few weeks, talk a lot, and then move on to whatever shiny new bauble the media dangle in front of us (see also, BP oil spill, school shootings, flag burning, Lindsey Lohan).
Because I teach, people have been asking if bullying is worse these days.
Sure, bullying has always been a problem among school students. Strong bully weak, smart bully dumb, popular bully outcasts, outcasts bully the mainstream. And yes, some students have often been treated horribly while some have whined about one mean name.
But the answer is, of course it’s worse. Bullying is worse throughout our whole entire country’s culture—why wouldn’t it be equally awful in schools?
We can define bullying a variety of ways. Using physical or emotional abuse to dominate or coerce or silence someone. Overpowering people to confirm that they are small and the bully is big. Being mean to someone on purpose.
In our culture, it’s not simply that we fail to disapprove—we applaud bullying. Simon Cowell is only one of the people who have achieved celebrity by bullying. Viewers are sad he’s leaving, because they will miss, not his insights or his wisdom, but the way he could tear some poor contestant apart.
In politics, it’s even worse. Obama took heat from Democrats from day one because they wanted him to push the Republicans around to get revenge for all the years in which Republicans pushed them around.
Our political “information” comes from people who claim to be entertainers. Is their entertainment providing thoughtful analysis, carefully balanced research, or bridges between differing points of view? Naw, forget that stuff—they compete to see who can be the most unrestrained, obnoxious bully. Olberman, Maher, Beck, Limbaugh, Coulter—all vie for attention by trying to heap the roughest insults, the most shocking slanders, the best use of the Big Club of media to beat on the heads of those they disagree with.
At times, we pay lip service to the idea “Bullying is not okay.” But mostly what we really mean is “Bullying is perfectly okay under certain conditions.” Those excuses include:
End justifies means. If we think it’s essential that somebody bow to our will and take a particular action, we can believe that anything that pushes them in the “right direction” is okay.
They were asking for it. What this usually means is, “That person annoys me and I have the strength to smack him up physically or emotionally. So I will.”
He started it. This is why the victim card is so highly prized—if I’m the victim then I’m just standing up for myself, not picking on someone. Hitler didn’t say, “Let’s get the Jews because we can.” He said, “The Jews are victimizing us. Let’s stand up for ourselves.”
I’m Right. Diane Gramley and Joe Wilson are a perfect match. The AFA has made a regular habit of using bullying tactics to get their way. Joe Wilson came to town and used bullying tactics to make his movie. I have no doubt that both will swear up and down that they are not bullies—they are just Really Really Right, and their opponents are Really Really Wrong, and Standing Up For What’s Right is not bullying.
All of these people are wrong. Frederic Douglass observed over a century ago that slavery was not only bad for slaves, but also bad for slave owners. When we treat other people as if they are less human than we are, we ourselves are diminished.
This is a rough and tumble nation and always has been. Ending bullying is about as likely as ending gravity, and while bullying should not be excused, it would be a smart use of time and energy to help young people develop the strength, support, and resilience to deal with it through means less radical—and permanent—than suicide.
In the meantime, if we adults want young people to deal with their differences and disagreements with decency, empathy and reason, we’d better take a look at our own world and ask where, exactly, they can see such behavior modeled. Young people reflect the culture they grow up in. If we adults don’t like what we see when we look at them, we’d be well-advised to remember that we’re looking in a mirror.

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