There was a guilty verdict in the case of Dahrun Ravi where his secretly taping Tyler Clementi and broadcasting it on the Internet was decided to be an invasion of privacy and also a hate crime, especially since it led to Clementi’s suicide. All this happened at the same time as a new documentary called Bully is garnering an enormous amount of buzz due to both its vivid portrayal of bullying in schools but also because a student named Katy Butler launched a campaign to get the MPAA to change the film’s rating from an R to PG-13 so that middle and high school students could see it without parental supervision (and also, probably, so schools could screen the film without a problem).
I support Butler and her efforts. I haven’t had the opportunity to see the entire film yet but based on the trailer, I can tell that it aims to send a powerful message. I certainly felt something, especially during the portion where, following footage of a beatdown on a bus, an administrator tells a parent that she’s been on the bus and those kids were “just as good as gold.” And obviously, I felt a certain amount of anger and rage, so it’s definitely an effective trailer.
It’s also a film that should get the attention it’s getting, especially if it goes deep into the issue and doesn’t succumb to what so much media regarding bullying or so much of the anti-bullying movement succumbs to, and that’s painting with a broad brush and offering pat solutions. Your average news media story on bullying seems to have a pre-written narrative: they find a very extreme example of where someone was bullied and winds up committing some sort of violent act in response; they bring the bully and his/her clueless or enabling parent on the air to vilify him/her; and they make sure to portray the victim as sympathetic but not too sympathetic, almost daring you, the viewer, to say “Well, I can see why he/she was bullied.”
Your average anti-bullying speaker seems to do the same thing. You get some guy who knows “teen speak” very well to hold a multimedia-based assembly that shows pictures of victims and describes what happened to them in detail and how they felt, then leads the student body in a love-in, telling them that all they have to do is go out of their way to be nice to people and it will spread throughout the school and everyone will stop bullying.
It all makes for an easily presented story, especially since it is clear cut, and even though the last two paragraphs do sound cynical, I still find it disgusting that any student would be afraid to come to school because he or she feels unsafe. And as a teacher, it pains me to say that for all of our talk in education about bullying prevention, we miss so much of the bullying that goes on in the halls. That’s not for a lack of trying, but many bullies are smart enough to conduct their bullying away from teachers’ eyes and when they are caught, they are manipulative enough to put on a good face. Some even ingratiate themselves with faculty members or administration so that if and when they are called on their behavior, the response is much like the administrator in the trailer.
Time was, the victim was helpless and the bully was someone who, deep down, was just as afraid as the victim. Time was, we would give advice like “Well, you need to fight back” or “Ignore it and it will go away.” Those were simple solutions but if you have ever been one of those receiving said advice, following that advice sometimes made life worse. Violence should never be an answer to anything but if that winds up being the case, sometimes the bully responds with more violence and sometimes the one defending himself gets into more trouble because of Draconian no-tolerance policies. Ignoring the bullying works in some cases because bullies are kids too and they sometimes have short enough attention spans that when they see their behavior is not getting the response that they want, they will get bored and move on; however, very often they don’t and are persistent enough that their victims’ silent treatment becomes motivation for more–and sometimes worse–abuse. It’s like they become obsessed with making that kid’s life a living hell, far beyond any rational being’s statute of limitations on that sort of behavior. In fact, it’s almost sociopathic when you think about it.
People seem to think that these solutions still work, though. The comments on articles about bullying seem to carry a lot of “When I was a kid I solved this problem with my fists” or “Oh, just remember that your life will turn out better than theirs.” That is if the commenters (mostly anonymous, of course) aren’t calling bullshit on the issue and saying that our society has become “too pc” and that we shouldn’t punish kids for being kids. The latter group is a cruel part of the problem; the former group is naive. Bullying is way more nuanced than any of them–and quite frankly, many of us–want to believe.
On October 20, 2010, there was an organized effort to get people to wear purple to school in honor of eight homosexual students, including Tyler Clementi, who had committed suicide in recent weeks and months due to homophobic abuse in their homes and at their schools. I wore purple and wrote a post on my old blog about why I wore purple that day. Part of it was because I definitely supported the rights of students to be who they are, express who they are, and not feel that they should be afraid to come to school because of who they are. Part of it was to honestly talk about what I remember from my days in school, because I was definitely bullied but it was not as clear cut and vicious as what we’re used to considering “bullying.” I mean, I was your typical nerdy kid who didn’t wear the right clothes and spent his Friday night watching movies and reading comic books (and I still read comic books). I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke, I didn’t do any drugs, I didn’t have sex (though that wasn’t necessarily by choice).
There were times when I had a “kick me” sign on my back, had someone throw my backpack down a flight of stairs, or endured a bus ride sitting next to a guy who threatened to beat the crap out of me if I said so much as “boo,” but I was never afraid to come to school and while I wasn’t part of the popular crowd, it seemed that people seemed to like me. Still, there were people I thought were my “friends” who decided it was hilarious to come up with a very offensive nickname for me, or made fun of me for using a certain bathroom because it had doors on the stalls, or would mess with the things in my backpack, then tell me that I just needed to learn to “not to take things so seriously” and “take a joke.” You know, “ribbing,” “busting balls,” and all of the other things that guys do to one another.
And I wasn’t completely innocent, either, which is typical. Something that I’ve never seen pointed out in the anti-bullying things I’ve watched or attended either as a student or teacher has been the fact that there’s a sort of hierarchy of bullying. I was an immature teenager with pretty bad self-esteem who for all of his good grades was very ignorant and I thought it was hilarious to make homophobic jokes about the men who passed through Sayville on the way to Fire Island or use the word “gay” as an insult. I even remember seeing an article in Newsday one time about what it’s like to be a gay teenager and wondering why anyone would want to be out in high school. But again–and maybe this is just passing the buck or an excuse–it less me trying to be mean and more out of ignorance, something that I have honestly worked hard to correct and not perpetuate, which is why I’m very supportive of students’ rights to be in my classroom and in the building and not have to hear “fag” or “queer” or “retard” or any other joke/insult/epithet that some asshat loves to use because he thinks it’s hilarious.
But me actually being a mature adult and not contributing to bullying is not going to save the world, mainly because bullying is not a problem; it’s a culture, and to change a culture you need more than a dog-and-pony show of a film or an assembly. Culture change is a long and very tough process and sometimes it takes place without being fully visible and quite frankly because people took the time to look at everything, and I mean everything. You cannot rid schools of bullying if an administration continues to allow parents to steamroll over faculty members. You cannot rid schools of bullying if you continue to glorify athletics. You cannot rid schools of bullying if your discipline policies are as one-size-fits-all as the state’s curriculum standards. You cannot rid schools of bullying if the same students seem to get away with being abhorrent behavior. You cannot rid schools of bullying if you continue to socially promote students who aren’t ready for the next level. And you cannot rid schools of bullying by making them simply do something that’s visible. That’s simply slacktivism and the problem will persist whether or not you donated something/ signed something/ watched something/ wore a T-shirt.
That sounds very cynical, I know, and just because I wrote it doesn’t mean I don’t want Katy Butler to succeed in her efforts to get the MPAA to change the film’s R rating (I signed the petition). I do. I want students to see this movie. I’d love schools to screen this movie for parents and students. But I also want to see real follow-through. You cannot shut the lights off after the show’s over and say, “Well, we solved that problem.” Because that’s not how this is going to work.