National Commentary

Bullies Mimic Their Parents

bentonmugThe troubling spate of student suicides and extreme distress resulting from bullying and taunting in the first weeks of the new school year have brought the nation’s attention, at least briefly, to a very serious, structural and endemic problem.

bentonmugThe troubling spate of student suicides and extreme distress resulting from bullying and taunting in the first weeks of the new school year have brought the nation’s attention, at least briefly, to a very serious, structural and endemic problem.

The cases are well known, from a 13 year old who hung himself in reaction to relentless anti-gay taunts, to the Rutgers freshman who jumped from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate posted a video on the Internet of him having sex with another male. Then there was the openly-gay student body president at University of Michigan who was subjected to relentless harassment by a deputy in the Michigan Attorney General’s office. And there have been others.

Credit various national groups and sympathetic celebrity spokesmen for jumping in to address this problem swiftly, including the Trevor Project, Kathy Griffin, Chris Coffer (the openly-gay star of the TV hit series “Glee”) and many others, including the organizers of vigils and “Purple Wednesday,” an Internet-led call to wear purple on Oct. 20 in memory of the suicide victims. Special kudos also go Anderson Cooper, who has devoted his “360” show on CNN every night this week to the subject of bullying.

What is too often overlooked in addressing the problem of bullying (a satisfactory catch-all phrase for all sorts of intimidation and sadism expressed by certain young people against others) is the extent to which such behavior mimics the behavior and attitudes of various adult role models, especially parents.

Since the onset of the latest recession and the election of Obama, there has been an unprecedented permission given in our society to grown ups behaving like angry playground bullies. The conduct of those unleashed by pro-Wall Street groups such as Freedom Works to disrupt and shout down discussions of health care reform at congressional town hall meetings in the summer of 2009 was far beyond the pale.

Any parent concerned for the behavior of their child pushing weaker classmates around should look into the mirror first, and look at what the major media and certain political forces have encouraged to be unleashed in the land.

For example, as the “free speech” case of the hate-filled Westboro Baptist Church goes to the U.S. Supreme Court this month, it has provided  tons of free publicity for the hate-mongers, who are shown on national TV over and over again holding their repulsive signage.

The fact is that but for the media, there would be no point to the tiny handful of Westboro Church’s bigots engaging in their antics. Just like the minister in Florida who threatened to burn copies of the Koran. He was simply a media creation. Had he been ignored, then his actions would have had no impact, and Internet exposure would not have changed that.

Sadistic assaults by the stronger against the weaker, the sad fact remains, is at the core of modern society, and bullying is only a symptom. It is traced, among other places, to the British all-boys school system, where the scions of global financial empires are taught to systematically cut their teeth, as it were, on the flesh of their juniors. The accounts of these systematic practices are legion.

Organized sports has also played a major role in this, with teams forming a fraternity of the privileged, empowered to lord it over the less-physically talented or strong. The language of taunting is routinely sanctioned, often with subtle encouragement by coaches. Athletes are groomed to be set against aesthetes as they’re trained to be fodder for the battlefields of war.

Not just the overt victims of bullying are affected by this. We all are. Most of us have grown up learning to adapt to the bully culture, often by crafting ways to avoid the attention of a bully and staying silent in the face of brutality and injustice. Our self esteem remains tarnished by this and we learn never to really stand up for anything.

Most of U.S. law, in principle at least, is based on protecting the weak from the excesses of the strong in the name of “equal justice under the law.” But what should we do when laws are not enforced or punishments are not commensurate with the crime?

 


Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected]