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.