Anti-Bullying Mis-steps: The Perils of Changing Cultural Norms (Part I)

It's a simple rule, really: if they call you a jerk, thy're bullies; if you call them jerks, you're a hero.

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.

 

23 thoughts on “Anti-Bullying Mis-steps: The Perils of Changing Cultural Norms (Part I)

  1. Educators and parents can collaborate to identify types of peer-to-peer aggression that: 1) will be handled with a 10 second intervention, 2) warrant micro-consequences and monitoring for patterns, and 3) are severe and require more intensive intervention and remediation. Calling every negative peer behavior “bullying” is problematic. Encouraging children to use name-calling to deal with verbal aggression not only compounds the offense but increases the likelihood of dangerous escalation. on the other hand, Stan Davis’ research-based approaches to bullying prevention offer practical guidance for schools. As Rush Kidder’s work supports “ethical fitness”, Davis’ work is the gold standard for bullying prevention and nurturing school cultures “where everyone belongs.”

  2. I don’t understand. Did K.S. or the Obama Administration author or produce the film? If not, your charge of hypocrisy seems unfair. Is she obliged to agree with every word of the film merely because she was present at a screening and is against bullying?

    I agree with you that this illustrates how complex these issues are. What one anti-bullying advocate sees as bullying, another anti-bullying advocate might seem as reasonable language depending on context.

    • You have to admit, being part of the promotion of a film that cautions children not to use certain words and then to immediately advise the same students to use the same word is…well, inconsistent? Contradictory? I’ll yield on hypocritical, but whatever it is, it’s not helpful.

  3. Words, words, words. Actual schoolyard bullies don’t respond to those, except to conclude that you’re a wuss. They also tend to strike when and where no teacher or other adult is present. That’s the criminal instinct in its formative stage.

    You’ve got a bully problem, kid? Two choices. Stay close to friends all the time or return him the favor. If he’s a lot bigger than you, get friends who’ve been through it with him before and gang tackle him. Pay no attention to spaced out teachers who tell you that you’re just as bad as the bully. You’re the injured party and THEY were not doing their own jobs to begin with.

    If you’re a boy, standing up for yourself is what defines you. If you’re a girl, get that “definitive” boy for a boyfriend. If you’re not sure of your sexuality, strip in front of a mirror and find out. If that doesn’t work… sorry.

    • You’ve got a bully problem, kid? Two choices. Stay close to friends all the time or return him the favor. If he’s a lot bigger than you, get friends who’ve been through it with him before and gang tackle him. Pay no attention to spaced out teachers who tell you that you’re just as bad as the bully. You’re the injured party and THEY were not doing their own jobs to begin with.

      Very good advice.

      How should they handle the aftermath?

      • Probably a good lawyer, these days! You go and punch Butch in the nose and you’ve not only violated his civil rights, but you now become the bully yourself. And if Butch is sexually ambiguous (or cleverly claims to be) you’ve now got Eric Holder on your poor little butt!

        • Probably a good lawyer, these days! You go and punch Butch in the nose and you’ve not only violated his civil rights, but you now become the bully yourself. And if Butch is sexually ambiguous (or cleverly claims to be) you’ve now got Eric Holder on your poor little butt!

          Can one not simply refuse to respond to the accusations?

    • Good job being a sexist jerk. Women need a strong man to protect them. Men need to stand up for themselves. What a load of hooey.

          • There’s nothing wrong with men being men, any more than there’s something wrong with blue being blue, sky being sky, or small stones found under my shoe being small stones found under my shoe.

            There is something wrong with the idea that there’s only one correct way to be a man, because when society buys into that idea, the result is a lot of suffering for all the men who can’t live up to the male ideal. (There are other problems with it, too, but that alone is reason enough to be against it.)

                • What I’m saying, Barry, is that men and women are (gasp) different. Not just physically, but mentally as well. It’s not social, as some suggest, but is predominantly inherent to our natures. It’s shaped by our divergent biological imperatives and, in turn, shapes our likewise divergent outlook on the world. Yet, of course, there is a good deal of overlap… as there must be, since more than occasional “heat” is necessary for a long-term relationship. But the differences remain profound. It’s like two different sized cogs that nevertheless mesh and make the machine of human life function. Those who deny “le difference”- incredible as it may seem- are at best misguided, at worst seriously deranged.

                  • It’s shaped by our divergent biological imperatives and, in turn, shapes our likewise divergent outlook on the world. Yet, of course, there is a good deal of overlap… as there must be, since more than occasional “heat” is necessary for a long-term relationship.

                    There are also significant mental differences among the members of a particular sex. It is not that there are any mental traits exclusive to one sex, even if it is more common in one sex than the other.

                    • We’re still members of the same species! But again, there’s the factor of differing biological imperatives. The physical disparity between human men and women- among the most pronounced of any higher species of life- reflects this. Certainly, there is a fairly broad parameter of range in the overall picture. But the general differences are still notable, both mentally and physically.

                    • The physical disparity between human men and women- among the most pronounced of any higher species of life- reflects this.

                      How is the disparity greater than that among ants, cats, or flies?

                    • The physical disparity between human men and women- among the most pronounced of any higher species of life- reflects this.

                      I’d love a citation for this and a definition of “higher species of life.” Human males and human females are much more physically similar than, say, male birds of paradise and female birds of paradise.

                  • And what evidence do you have that these generic statements mean that in the same situation, women should seek protection and men should stand up for themselves?

  4. Among those you referenced, the only mammalian one was the cat. But you’ll notice that, when not in advanced pregancy, most mammals are difficult to differentiate by sex at a glance. Certainly the apes are! The difficulties and growing helplessness of a human female during the gestation period (brought on by the need to acommodate that huge head during birth) has led to a number mental and physical divrsities between the sexes.

    I could go on aboout this all day, but my laptop battery is running low! That’s one thing you can’t chalk up to sex.

    • Among those you referenced, the only mammalian one was the cat.

      So, only mammals are “higher species of life”? You really don’t know anything about biology, do you?

      But you’ll notice that, when not in advanced pregancy, most mammals are difficult to differentiate by sex at a glance. Certainly the apes are!

      Not to others of their own species. That’s also a silly statement as humans are apes.

      The difficulties and growing helplessness of a human female during the gestation period (brought on by the need to acommodate that huge head during birth) has led to a number mental and physical divrsities between the sexes.

      Uh what? The physical changes due to this are pretty localized to one piece of anatomy. And mental changes? Any evidence to support that view?

      In the discussion about how christianity reacts to science, I think your statements in this thread should be my new exhibit 1.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.