Monday 4 November 2013

Thoughts About Bullies

As my regular readers know, I had some concerns about Nathan possibly being bullied earlier.  While I was looking through the Globe and Mail, I found this column by Margaret Wente, speaking out against anti-bullying laws.

From the column, it appears her argument falls into three pieces.  While we all agree that it is a tragedy when kids commit suicide and that there have been several high profile suicides which cited bullying as a cause, she doesn't believe that bullying actually leads to suicide.  Her evidence is that the teen suicide rate has held constant for years. 

The second part of her argument is that laws would not be a deterrent to bullies.  And the third is that kids who commit suicide are mentally ill since most people experience bullying and turn out fine.

I've got a few problems with her logic on this.  Bullying has been with us for a long time, probably as long as we've forced kids into close proximity in schools.  Cyber bullying may be a new phenomena but it's really just a technological step up from the traditional methods.  So the teen suicide rate may be staying constant because a certain percentage of teens chose to opt out when bullied.  Also, detecting teen suicide can sometimes be a challenge, since it can be hidden under reckless behaviour.  Not every tragic accident is actually an accident.

I will agree that anti-bullying laws will not likely be a deterrent to bullies.  I don't actually believe that bullies are bad people.  Mostly, they're just immature kids with little to no empathy.  Most of them think they're being funny, and maybe they are, to their immediate circle of peers.  But not to their victims.  Kids suck at figuring out impacts in advance, that's why we don't let them vote, drive or have autonomy.

The third part of her argument is particularly tricky.  I feel it's very dismissive of mental illness, almost smacking of a "good to be rid of them" undertone.  So I want to break it down very carefully.

Kids with mental illness are more likely to be isolated and bullied and less likely to have the emotional and social tools to deal with it.  People in general are uncomfortable with those who do not act as they expect, it's a social defence mechanism designed to protect us as part of a herd.  It's not conscious but it does take conscious efforts to overcome it.

When someone is different, often teachers and other adults are leery of them.  The other kids are quick to figure this out and will often start bullying the targeted individual.  If that person reacts in a satisfying way, bullying escalates.  The adults who should be stopping it are slow to react, often coming from a "if they'd just act normal, this wouldn't be happening" frame of mind.

This is the perfect storm which can cause suicide.  The victim doesn't have to be mentally ill.  Just different enough to become a target.  It's not the periodic "outs" which most people experience but rather a consistent and unending level of torment.  Day after day, week after week, year after year.  Eventually, some of the victims break, unable to tolerate one more day.

Laws aren't the answer.  They would just be a tool for revenge.  What would solve the problem is a dramatic change in society.  We would have to start consciously working to overcome our prejudices about those who are different.  We would have to start embracing those differences as part of a wide tapestry of human experience.

That's a big step and one which will probably take several generations to achieve.  We're still working on other civil rights issues after all.

What could help right now is if we made an effort to ensure that every single child had access to a network of caring adults.  Even one voice telling a kid that they believe in him or her can make a huge difference.  We've cut off our kids from these networks because we're afraid of predators.  But I think they are needed.  Parents can't bear the sole responsibility and, frankly, most teens do not want to tell their parents everything.  But they do want to be able to talk to someone.

I could also make an argument against Wente's theory that most people are bullied and turn out fine.  I could argue that bullying leaves psychic scars, just like any other form of abuse.  I could argue that a culture which accepts bullying discourages people from standing up for those who are being attacked and encourages them to turn a blind eye to others' pain.  I could argue that we're better than that as human beings and we should expect more of ourselves.

But I think I want to finish with this thought:

Right now I have two precious and wonderful little boys who are different.  For now, they accept that as being largely inconsequential.  It's just a part of life, like liking different shows or wearing different clothes.

At some point, someone will likely try to teach them differently.  I've tried to build a solid foundation which can resist jeers and casual cruelty.  But it greatly saddens me that anyone would look at their pain and imply, however lightly, that they deserve it.

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