However well-intentioned, today’s anti-bullying movement lacks sufficient context or meaning to be successful. Wonderful people staff the movement, but a movement that sees things in isolation misses the mark. It is much easier to feature heartrending stories of children and their pain than to confront the real causes of the anguish. Individuals are blamed — mean and clueless people — instead of an economic and political society that produces bullying.
Supporters of the anti-bullying movement celebrated a victory in April when the Motion Picture Association of America changed the rating on the documentary Bully from R to PG-13. Joined by celebrities like Justin Bieber and Demi Lovato, as well as 35 members of Congress, more than 500,000 people signed an online petition to lobby for the change in the movie’s rating. As Katy Butler, a seventeen-year-old anti-bullying activist wrote, now teenagers will not be “robbed of the chance to view a film that could change their lives, and help reduce violence in schools.” Ellen DeGeneres gushed that fewer kids will die now that they can see the movie.
But can a movie fix schools and save kids? In reality, we live in a world of bullies. Those with power are constantly bullying those without. Capitalism is a system that encourages intimidation. What is economic inequality but bullying by the elite over the rest? Or think about those Abu Ghraib photos. What is the torturing of Arab prisoners by US soldiers if not bullying? International diplomacy runs on bullying, too. The current inability to deal with climate change on an international level is primarily due to bullying by international corporations and their government supporters.
Bullying is a depressingly common aspect of American schools as well. Let’s be clear, bullying is awful; it hurts us and those we love. Nearly all have seen or experienced it. When I was in elementary school, Billy, a friend of mind, suffered from polio. Kids mocked him all the time. I still retain the image of him trying to hit the kids who were bullying him with his metal crutches. In junior high, I saw the toughest kid in the school pick up the only black male student in my class by his collar and hold him in the air. The bully and his tough pals told the young kid, who, like me, was in his first week at the school, that as long as the kid did not “get out of line,” the bullies would not hurt him. I felt terrible, but could do nothing. My arms hurt too much from being punched by every upper classman I saw. This was the initiation at the school. Any ninth grader could hit any seventh-grade boy in the arm as hard as possible during the entire first week of school. I tried to hide between classes that week.
But this bullying did not come because the kids at my school were especially mean; it came because we lived in a society that was disrespectful to the disabled and was rife with racism.
Many anti-bullying activists, to their credit, do attempt to pinpoint the causes of bullying. Jessie Klein, author of The Bully Society, said in a recent interview that “the real issue behind school shootings and school bullying is the hostile school environments with which our children are forced to contend. Social isolation has tripled since the eighties; and in the same time period, depression and anxiety rates for children (and adults) has soared.”
This is probably right, but at present most of the energy in school is spent on test scores and attacks on teacher unions. Stopping social isolation requires that more money be put into public schools, not less. To her credit, Klein argues: “Schools need to do everything they can to create compassionate social environments where students have real friends and meaningful bonds with other students and school faculty.” I wonder if Bill and Melinda Gates, who are working with the Koch brothers’ American Legislative Exchange Council on their education efforts, are willing to put their great wealth into this?
And to the extent that the anti-bullying movement has a core, it is in trying to protect those in schools and in workplaces who are trying to openly understand their sexuality. Part of the genesis of the movement comes from LGBT activists trying to protect LGBT students. Even UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon issued a statement last year that homophobic bullying of young people constitutes a “grave violation of human rights.” Syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage jump-started the “It Gets Better” campaign to provide hope for bullied LGBT kids. This is quite laudable.
But in the movement as a whole, hypocrisy reigns, and not just at the governmental level. Take Drew Brees, the talented quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, who has been very vocal against bullying. Yet just last month Brees was defending his football teammates who were involved in a financial bounty system in which they were paid to hurt opposing players. Kids look up to sports stars. What message is he sending?
Bullying, fundamentally, comes from two places. First, bullying is inhumane, but probably not inhuman. While we continue to learn more about our species, I suspect some power relationships are hardwired. But ultimately, bullying comes from the dominant culture. We live in a time in which those less powerful are being constantly bullied. Klein argues that much bullying comes from male-dominated culture. If that is so, it needs to be confronted throughout society, a nearly impossible task in a time of endless state-sanctioned war.
Compassion and empathy are crucial human traits. But as we exercise them, we must think about the causes of the pain we see in our fellow humans. While we try to be humane toward those with whom we interact in our daily lives, our efforts at large-scale change need to confront the real causes of the large-scale pain. Our kids are trained by the bully society in which they live. A mean society will produce mean kids.