The efforts to reduce bullying in schools has already shown the dangers inherent in using the heavy hand and and often empty skull of government authority to adjust social norms. The laudable goal has already led schools to impose their wills where it emphatically does not belong: in the private interactions and communications among student over the internet. This week, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius provided another example of the perils of the government trying to impose a social taboo where it didn’t exist before.
Sebelius was a guest of the Stuart-Hobson Middle School in Washington, D.C., whose students were shown a new anti-bullying video from the Cartoon Network that among its messages urged children not to call people names like “stupid,” “fat,” and “jerk.” Immediately after the screening, CNN’s Don Lemon moderated a panel discussion of the issues raised by “Stop Bullying: Speak Up.”
“What do you think is the best advice for people who are going into watching this film and anyone who is watching?” Lemon asked.
Sebelius answered, in part: “I think, very important, is for kids to understand how powerful you really are. You might feel like you’re not big enough, not strong enough, not–don’t have enough tools. But just saying, ‘Stop it! You know, you’re being a jerk!’–walk away, get away from this person can make a huge amount of difference.”
Censorship and mind-control is tricky, isn’t it, Madam Secretary? Even “bad” words describe real things, and it’s hard to express certain ideas without using them. So what are middle-school students supposed to take away from the combination of the film’s message about not using the word jerk and the Secretary’s message that it is sometimes essential to call a student a jerk, when he or she is being one?
Let’s look at the possibilities:
- Using jerk is bullying when it is used against you, but OK when you use it against others.
- The good people—you know, the people the kids and Sibelius like and agrees with—can use jerk as they see fit, but the bad people—those whom the students and Secretary Sibelius don’t like—can’t. Got that?
- The anti-bullying Obama government will tell you when it is acceptable to use certain words and who can use them, especially since the rules are obviously too complicated to explain clearly and consistently.
We can see, in this exchange, how Democrats, progressives and President Obama stepped in the muck of self-serving hypocrisy when they attacked Rush Limbaugh for his choice of words in bullying Sandra Fluke (yes, that’s what he was doing), after their allies had used the same words and worse to denigrate conservative women. Authoritatively declaring when words are and are not acceptable is so susceptible to abuse, especially when joined by the government, that it is inherently suspect and even sinister. I haven’t seen the film, and if its message is that students should show courage and confront bullying and bullies, that’s an appropriate and important message. To the extent that it tries to control thought and language, it is misguided, as Sibelius promptly demonstrated by her hypocritical gaffe. You don’t need to use specific words to hurt and intimidate others: bullying is conduct, not language. I don’t want high officials of the government involved in telling children what words to use, or worse, who gets to use them and for what purpose. That’s a little too close to to the First Amendment for comfort.
Changing attitudes toward social conduct is serious business, and it requires fair, thoughtful and serious people considering the limitations of their message and avoiding unintended consequences. So far, I am not convinced that the Obama Administration can be trusted to handle such a task, and worse, not use the valid goal of reducing true bullying to help muzzle critics by denying them the use of words that the “good people” can use with impunity.
Sebelius was right: calling someone a jerk who is being one can be the right thing to do. But if using the term jerk is also equated with bullying, it means someone has to decide who gets to use the word and who doesn’t. I don’t think the Cartoon Network is up to the task, much less the Federal Government.