The Value of Life

As I began to say in my last post, I have a lot of thoughts and feelings on the subject of bullying. Bullying seems to be becoming a more and more common occurrence among young people (and even the not-so-young)— one that is utterly unacceptable and reprehensible. The bullying crisis we find ourselves in is particularly appalling because it is preventable.

I believe it is naive to say that children are blind to differences. Children are keenly aware of what sets them apart from others, yet this awareness is almost always displayed as inquisitiveness. Little boys and girls have an almost scientific interest in each others bodies and behaviors. Who hasn’t heard countless stories about children showing each other their “bits” and wondering why they aren’t the same? I remember being little and asking my mother why the African-American boy in my Sunday School class had “muddy skin”? She was appalled that I had uttered such a thing, but soon realized that I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I was very upset that she wouldn’t let me look like that (especially since I thought it meant I got to play in the mud). My next door neighbor growing up desperately wanted to be Jewish because she loved her cousin’s yarmulke.

But, at some point, usually puberty, these differences often become confusing and threatening. Teens and young adults are experiencing such turmoil within their own selves, often feeling freakish and isolated, that they have difficultly viewing others’ traits with the inquisitiveness they did as young children. This not only can contribute to a child’s likelihood to bully, but makes them terribly susceptible to the horrifying emotional effects of being bullied.

In a world where everything a child does can be transmitted far and wide in a manner of seconds (via cellphones and the internet), a person’s value has ceased to have anything to do with their attributes and everything to do with their entertainment factor. Our children aren’t being taught that the value of life is intrinsic and that all people deserve dignity— instead they are learning that there are no boundaries they can’t cross in the quest for short-lived gratification, especially at another’s expense.

And that is where we, as adults, must step in. Not only do we need to be highly attuned to the signs of bullying, but we must create a culture that VALUES others. Children these days are constantly bombarded by false images of what “perfect people” should look like, what they should wear, and how they should behave. Not only does this make for shallow, vapid children, it supports an environment where the smallest perceived difference can mark a child as a target for bullying.

What our children need to be learning is that by devaluing another human being, they are devaluing themselves. In a culture of bullying, no one is immune. All it takes is a slight change in the unspoken code and a child that once ignored the torment of others can easily become the target. If, instead, we raise children to have tolerance of others, we safeguard them against such possible attacks. This is a fundamental necessity to preserving human dignity.

Other than attacking bullying directly, we as adults must recognize that children take their cues on how to treat others from how they see adults treat each other. We must, therefore, fight to preserve the dignity of our fellow man. How are we to teach children that bullying is wrong when similar behaviors and the devaluing of others is a problem that runs rampant through our society?

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college she attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world. — Eleanor Roosevelt

The following video is part of the It Get’s Better project which is working to reach young people who are being bullied, especially those suffering from gay bashing, and show them that things can get better for them.

A Final Note

I think it’s important to recognize slang as a form of ostracism and possible bullying. So many kids throw the word “gay” around without a single thought. They use it to say that something is stupid or weird. They use it to joke with their friends. Do they realize that it’s disrespectful? Sure they do. Do they realize that they could be destroying someone’s life every time they say it? Probably not.

When my brother was young, he was quite possibly the sweetest child that ever lived. He was always getting little notes sent home from his teachers talking about how he had befriended the new kid or stuck up for the kid who was being picked on. He was what I dream my children will be like. He loved to go to the theater with me— I had to take him to see Annie Get Your Gun 3 times— and he loved coming to the coffee shop where I hung out and playing chess. He never once hesitated to make friends with someone I knew because they were “different.”

He was 11 years old when I went away for college. It was hard because we were very close and I worried about him not having someone to take him to do those cultural things (the rest of my family is not so inclined). Each time when I came home, for holidays and summers, I could see a bit of him that had changed. He didn’t want to do the same old things we’d always done. I knew it was part of growing up, but I kept feeling there was something else there.

The first time I heard him say something was “gay,” it took just about every single bit of my willpower not to slap him. He was 13 years old. I explained why that was inappropriate, that by saying something was “gay” because you think it’s stupid or weird, you are implying that you think gay people are stupid or weird. At the time he understood what I was saying and reassured me he didn’t think gay people were stupid or weird, but that it was just something the kids said. I stayed on him about it though, always correcting him if I heard him say it.

But, by that point, I had already lost him. Somehow high school turned him into a redneck. Gone was the child who loved musical theater. He was replaced with a young man who laughed when his friends made homophobic and racist remarks. As a child he never met a stranger, but the fear of those who are different has been so effectively instilled in him by his peers that he is now afraid of cities because they are “full of rapists and murderers.” While never being outwardly hostile to someone for being different, he is genuinely uncomfortable and a bit afraid to be around homosexual men, blacks, Muslims… That, my friends, is how powerful hate speak and slang are in brainwashing young minds.

It makes me very, very sad to be around him sometimes now. I still love him and I still see things in him that I like, but his fear and mistrust feel like a failure on my part. I feel like I should have stayed here and shielded him from those influences. But then I remember that he’s just one child. One child among millions. And that it’s not enough to change one child, although it is a start. We have to change the culture that supports this kind of fearmongering among children.

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2 thoughts on “The Value of Life

  1. Hi L!
    I definitely agree with your post. Young children see no boundaries in regards to that. They are alright with those differences… It just is and they just are. They need no explanation. Any malice that they grow up believing and practicing is caused by adults. A majority of society’s norms, acceptance, and beliefs are expounded upon children; they are molded into this through media and society. It’s actually very oppressing when you look at it that way.

    I hate to say it, but religion has a lot to do in regard to the suicides of LGBT teens. It doesn’t need to, but a lot of it carries over hate and prejudice that is centuries old. A lot of religion teaches people that aren’t fully accepted that they are bad people, that they should be ashamed, that no one will accept them and that they have no place. How can that be right? Religion at its best can do great things, but we’ve all seen what it can do at its worst. It doesn’t need to carry on that hate and judgment. Why does it? Children are not the only ones that bully. Adults are also a power behind this too.

    In the case of the most recent suicide, the person, an adult himself, really, was exposed in relations with the same sex. Had it been with the opposite sex yes it was still wrong of the people who invaded his privacy, and yes it would still affect him negatively. But the fact that it was with the same sex amplifies that and exposed him to judgment and hate, because it really isn’t accepted by a majority. If that type of judgment, mentality, and condescending behavior makes someone feel so terrible that they feel the only way out is to take their own life, then something it definitely wrong. And it has been that way for far too long.

    This is something that I have a hard time understanding. In the overall scheme of life, sexuality, gender, skin color, race, etc. does not really matter. These things do make us who we are and characterize us, but they do not make us bad people or any less of a person in any way. There is a quote that “perversion is simply having the courage to allow one’s self the freedom to not blindly follow the masses, and the intelligence to realize that just because something is commonly accepted does not necessarily mean that it is right”. Perversion is defined as deviating against what is accepted. Depending on who you ask, we all deviate.

    Unless someone has gone through a lot of this, I think it is often hard for others to realize how it affects someone and how much damage it can cause. Growing up in abuse, I know far too well what it feels like to simply be one’s self and yet be hated, mocked, and hurt for doing nothing wrong. I certainly know what that feels like, and no one should feel that way. There is far too much of that in this world. If history has taught us anything it has taught us how not to treat others. I really think people just need to step back, out of their comfort zone, and look around and realize how amazing our differences are. We need to celebrate this. We need to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and think about how we would feel if we were treated that way. Live and let live.

    There is a fine line between what is right and what is wrong, and it is crossed far too often. The mentality and condescension of ‘elite’ groups, whether they be political groups, religious groups, etc. who feel the need to condemn and expound upon others that are different is grossly offensive and completely overrated. It’s sickening.

    However I definitely feel that there is a shift in the universe, first coming lightly, ever so slowly, and maybe not for the best at first, but I sincerely think it will make us as the human race, better people on a higher level.

    So yes, excellent blog post, and I definitely agree that this ethnocentrism, hate, judgment, and so on, must end.

    • I knew I could count on you for a wonderful reply!

      You are right that a lot of the hatred stems from adult groups and organizations- be they religious, political, or social. It’s like the lawsuit the ACLU filed against 2 school districts in Tennessee last year (one of them being where I lived in at the time).

      The ACLU sued the Nashville and Knox school districts after a high school student discovered that the software’s default setting blocked sites categorized as LGBT, including the sites of many well-known LGBT organizations. However, the filter did not block access to Web sites that urge LGBT persons to change their sexual orientation or gender identity through so-called “reparative therapy” or “ex-gay” ministries – a practice denounced as dangerous and harmful to young people by such groups as the American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association.

      Internet filtering software is mandated in public schools by Tennessee law, which requires schools to implement software to restrict information that is obscene or harmful to minors. However, the “LGBT” filter category does not include material which is sexually gratuitous and already included in the “pornography” filtering category.

      The message that that must have sent to LGBT teens would have been terrible- tantamount to state sponsored hatred. How can we expect children to understand that bullying is wrong if we send messages like that? How do we hold them accountable for bullying when all they have to do is flip on the television to see some adult in a powerful position denigrating his fellow man? What about all the politicians talking about the threat of Muslims who have lived among us for decades? How do we safeguard those children from other children when so many are devaluing their lives?

      It’s disgusting.

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