In the late summer of 2012, a Coquitlam, BC girl named Amanda Todd committed suicide in a very theatrical way, first recording and publishing a youtube video that expressed her grief over the online bullying that she had experienced, and then ending her young life. Her suicide created a shockwave of emotion through the province, and a sensitivity to the issues around online bullying.
In a seriously misguided attempt to do something (or appear to be doing something), the premier of the province announced a large sum of money that was to be put toward the issue of bullying in schools. Every school in the province was mandated to send a representative to one of the workshops that were set up. This was indeed an example of “throwing money at a problem”. It was naive and misguided to think that a couple of workshops could change the situation in a meaningful way.
The problem with all the anti-bullying campaigns that I’ve seen is that they tend to look at ways to deal with bullying after it happens. They tend to focus on catching, and rehabilitating or sanctioning the bully, and on teaching people what to do if they’re bullied.
There are a couple of reasons why this doesn’t work. First, no campaign that focuses on the behaviour of the victim can ever work. Otherwise, the problem of rape would have ended centuries ago as women were forced through religious law to suppress their sexuality. But a far more important reason that anti-bullying campaigns don’t work is that people, particularly children, have not experienced for themselves what it is like to be the victim. Without that experience, it is hard for us to see how much something hurts.
I’ve always cringed when people use the word “retarded” to describe either a person with an intellectual challenge, or to describe something ridiculous or foolish. I’m not more sensitive than anyone else; it’s just that I happen to have a sister with Down’s Syndrome, so I know a thing or two about how hurtful the word can be. I would never want my sister to attend a movie in which the word was mentioned even once, as it’s such an unbearably cruel thing for her to have to hear the word – a word that rang in her ears throughout her childhood in public schools. My sister knows that she’s an outsider. The word just serves to remind her of that fact.
The “R-Word” is just one example of how language can hurt. But there are many. Amanda Todd fell victim to “slut discourse”, people tell racist jokes, and there is much hurtful language around people who are attracted to people of the same gender. It’s not until we have been marginalized, or have had close relationships with those who are marginalized, that we can really understand the harmfulness of our own language.
Nor is the problem just language. It may have a deeper root – one possibly wired into our biology. Evolutionists might suggest that as a species we are not wired for an inclusive society. Perhaps our early days as a species, we needed to be xenophobic in order to survive. To ensure that we wouldn’t become casualties of natural selection, we had to eliminate the weak, who are unproductive and would be a burden on our resources, and we had to protect ourselves from outsiders with whom we were competing for scarce resources. That hangover of evolution has left us with this propensity for cruelty toward anyone who his different.
The issue of “bullying” is far too complex to be solved by a politically expedient anti-bullying campaign, or by a few placards placed around a school. To end bullying we need to examine its causes. We need to give children a strong liberal arts education that teaches empathy and critical thinking. We need them give them drama classes that encourage role play and teach the important skill of empathy. We need to connect children to visionary teachers who will model inclusion. We need to expose children to stories that allow them to see the importance of gentleness and kindness. We need to set up schools as places of not only learning, but of community. And above all, we need to examine ourselves. We need to recognize our own transgressions, to move past them, and to try always to do better.