I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all these dead young people. We seem to be entering a cultural moment where we’re all obsessed with bullying the way we were all obsessed with kidnappers in white vans after the Adam Walsh movie came out in the early 80s. I don’t necessarily mean to imply that this is a bad thing: It Gets Better is great, sure. Awareness is great.
But who, exactly, is not aware of schoolyard bullying? We’ve done it, or been victimized by it, or both. We’ve told the children we love to turn the other cheek, or to fight back, or to rise above. Still, these dead children. This is not the same thing as what I went through being made fun of for wearing hand-me-downs, or for being a nerd. This is something more. There’s a cycle at play here, a mean, nasty, low-down snake eating its own tail. There’s something serious going on.
To me, the snake looks like this: Our public and political rhetoric is mean as fuck–cynical, sinister, nasty shit; adolescents develop their understanding of language from media consumption and their parents, and that vitriolic language suits the horrible mood swings, jealousy, and rage that just about every adolescent experiences at some point; the language of rage pours out in the direction of any peer who is different, because difference already feels threatening when you’re in puberty, and our national discourse reinforces every imaginable notion that difference = danger; teachers and administrators, particularly those in small, closed-minded communities don’t just sit by–they often participate,* further alienating those adolescents who already suffer tremendously from their own sense of isolation; adult apathy and/or participation reinforces pubescent meanness, which snowballs; a child takes his or her own life.
It’s worth noting that the hatefulness and abuse so often revolve around sexuality. Sure, all those young men who may or may not have actually been gay or known they were gay yet were tortured; but Phoebe Prince was tormented for her expression of sexuality, too. In her case, that expression came in the form of sexual precociousness, something we explicitly encourage in our pre-teen and teenage girls in this country, and then punish when it shows itself. The first time a boy kissed me I was sixteen; the first time another girl called me a slut I wasn’t even out of middle school.
Meanwhile the “mean” kids act out, express their rage and angst and frustration at the expense of those less enfranchised with popularity, or family money, or talent, or whatever, and their actions are implicitly rewarded, and ten years later they scream back at their television screens and make posterboards depicting the President of the United States with a bone through his nose. Lather, rinse, repeat.
And we call the children bullies.
Sure, they have some culpability. They ought to learn to be nicer, to be more accepting, to exhibit some kindness. They ought to know one another’s limits. But let’s be honest. What we have isn’t a handful of bad seeds in a handful of small communities all around the country. What we have is a system–or a set of systems–that tells all of us that we are weak if we don’t fight, weak if we aren’t strong, weak if we aren’t the aggressor. Weak if we don’t topple Saddam Hussein’s statue. Weak if we don’t wipe out the Taliban. If we don’t take all the oil from those brown people across the sea. A bully holds up a fist and takes your lunch money. These kids are active participants in a system that victimizes anybody who’s gifted with less. A system designed to keep those without power powerless, to keep those with power standing on their backs. They are more than bullies. And they are less.
Somebody should teach those kids a lesson.
But in a world where none of us is qualified to deliver that particular message, who would that teacher be?
*If you don’t believe this happens, go ahead and visit my hometown, or any “tight-knit” suburban whitebread community. You’ll find it there.