Bullying. It has been in the news an awful lot as of late, due to the very publicly aired suicide of Amanda Todd of Coquitlam - a city an hour's drive from here. I am not going to re-tell her story. The information is easily found online. Suffice it to say, her story has brought the issue of bullying, both online and in person, to the forefront. A painful subject, bullying is an issue that sparks controversy as well as dialogue among experts and common folk alike. I've read several articles and heard several more interviews on the CBC on the subject over the past few weeks and thought I might as well throw in my two cents along with everyone else.
Why do some people feel a need to bully others? A bully is 'one who hurts or browbeats those who are weaker,' so I suppose the action has something to do with a desire for power over others. But what makes someone desire power over another, particularly over someone perceived as being 'weaker' than themselves? Perhaps it comes down to an individual misconceived notion of one's worth being caught up in a sense of domination. If the meek are to inherit the earth, it sure seems like the strong hold it hostage an awful lot in the meantime.
My girls, who are still in the public school system, said that everyone at school has been talking about Amanda Todd's suicide. My elder daughter who is nearly sixteen is questioning the validity of her classmates' jumping on the 'Oh that's so SAD, that should NOT have happened. If she were in our school I would NEVER have treated her the way those mean kids did' bandwagon. My daughters reaction? "Oh really? You're sure about that? If this girl who used drugs, drank bleach, and made a misguided decision to expose her breasts to someone on line, leading to the photo going viral, went to our school, you would reach out to her? I don't think so." I added that my daughter and her friends would most likely have thought of her as 'messed up' and avoided getting close to her. It takes a pretty unusual teenager to assess another beyond appearances. Sadly, the truth is, it usually 'takes one to know one' in that sense.
By all accounts, Amanda Todd did not lack support, either at home or by the school system. Her mother said that right before Amanda's death she appeared to be doing better and had told her mother so. My sense of things is that, for teenagers, their peer group often wins attention over any other source of opinion. Being called 'whore' and 'porn star' repeatedly by her classmates, after every attempt to change schools for a new start, obviously took its toll. What is wrong with people? Why do they have to be so mean to make themselves appear better than others? Where is the charity? Where is the basic human respect? Where is the kindness? I have heard it said often that we need to create a different climate in our schools, one of acceptance of others' differences, of tolerance, of generosity of spirit, and with this change in climate good will come. No doubt. But if that climate only exists in schools and not in the home or the work place or the world at large, how much headway for change can the school make? I leave these questions for the experts to ponder and quantify.
The CBC has a topical call in radio program called Cross Country Checkup. I wasn't planning to tune in that Sunday afternoon two weekends ago, but I was on my way to an arts council meeting and the radio was on in the car. The topic was bullying and suicide, and one caller got my attention before I had to turn the car off and go into my meeting. He suggested that the hero worship of athletes in high schools does its part in promoting bullying. Athletes tend to be revered by teachers and students alike in many cases, but this sort of admiration can often lead to the admirer overlooking other qualities that are less attractive. (I can remember a few of this sort from my own school days.) The caller went on to say that high school sports, and often the sports world at large, promote aggression, domination, competitiveness, and as we've recently seen in the world of cycling, extends to cheating and drug use. And while in other areas of life these qualities would be reprehensible, they are often accepted in sport, and those who question them are labeled 'whiners' and 'weaklings'. Hm, I thought, as I turned off the car, he may have a point there. Later, I asked my two teenagers what they thought of the caller's idea. They both thought it had some merit. One of them said, "Well, you can be stupid, and a jerk, but if you're good at sports, they all love you. If you are stupid and a jerk and not good at sports, you get no respect at all." The other said, "I think there is something to that. A lot of behaviour gets overlooked if you are an athlete at school." When I asked my husband, who was an athlete in school, but somehow managed to stay aloof from the politics (I think that was in great part due to skipping a lot of classes to go skiing) he said, without hesitation, "Absolutely. Just look at football and hockey. Guys purposefully coached to 'take someone out', intentionally hurt them, take late hits, cheap shots, and often they get away with it. Why should they? Why are acts of intentional injury tolerated in sport?" Of course this got me thinking in an expanded way about the world we live in, and why bullying is such a problem at all levels.
Unfortunately, I didn't come up with any real answers or profound thoughts on the matter. I know that the world of sport, our schools, our workplaces (I recently heard a program on the quite serious problem of bullying among nurses in hospitals), and our society in general is struggling to deal with the issue and making some advancements. Our own elementary school here has a policy of celebrating each child's gifts and strengths, no matter what they are, and I applaud that policy. Still, the domination of the alpha males and females still carries so much weight in our world. Perhaps the reasons for that fact are more primitive than we would like to admit. I suppose it is up to each of us to look hard at ourselves, our children, our spousal relationships and cut off those bullying tendencies at the knees. Bullying takes many forms - it is a curious shape-shifting thing. It can be as subtle as using persistent and manipulative language to bend the will of another toward our own agenda, and as outward as the big kid pushing the little kid off the swing in the playground. I remember my own mother saying in no uncertain terms to my big brother when his teasing went so far as to hurt or push me to desperation (I once spit on him from the upstairs balcony in retaliation), "Stop being a bully!"
Perhaps the best way to deal with the bullies in our midst is to keep talking about the subject, to keep bringing it out into the open. I just hope it doesn't take the tragic death of another young girl to bring it up again.