Tuesday, April 1, 2008

School Bullying: We Have Met the Bully; He Is Us

“Truth that makes a difference,” I wrote in my last blog entry. That’s the kind of truth I’m interested in discovering on this blog pilgrimage. That kind of truth requires doing battle—with oneself, first and foremost, so that one keeps pushing to expand one’s horizons when the human impulse is to close in on oneself and become comfortable with the familiar, with the well-worn little truths that comprise one’s grab-bag of certainties.

Discovering truth that makes a difference also requires collaborating with others who are battling for the truth. Truth is not just out there, to be plucked, like a fruit ripening on a tree. Truth has to be searched for and found. It has to be made. It has to be struggled for. Truth that makes a difference is the goal of dialogic exchange in which a community of truth seekers struggle together for the truth. Truth that makes a difference is agonistic: it is found at a certain cost, the cost of challenging the purveyors of misinformation that passes for truth in any society, the cost of struggling with oneself, and the cost of forming bonds of trust and collaboration with others.

Finding that kind of truth in the world in which we live is not easy. For one thing, many forces collude to rob us of the power of solidarity. Believe it or not, there are those—many “those”—who do not wish for us to find the truth. There are many power brokers for whom the solidarity of truth-seekers, the formation of communities of discourse seeking together the truth that makes a difference, is extremely threatening.

These power brokers do all they can to distort plain truth, so that the quest for truth is always fractured, always across a terrain full of crevices and boulders, never simple. They do all they can to sow seeds of suspicion among those who would, in the natural course of things, benefit from seeking together the truth that makes a difference. The power brokers who wish for the world to remain the same (since they benefit from how things are currently arranged), who try to stand astride history and shout stop—these power brokers do everything in their power to thwart the formation of communities of solidarity that band together to engage in a shared quest for truth that makes a difference.

I have been thinking about truth, solidarity, community, and social transformation lately, against the backdrop of questions about how to address school bullying. Even that conversation, about what seems such an obvious need, an urgent need, is fraught with complexity because of the inability of many of us to find common ground regarding issues of gender and education. The plain truth—that children ought not to be beaten into submission or to have their futures mortgaged because they do not conform to preconceived societal expectations about gender behavior—even this plain truth is not plain to many folks, because of political currents that have twisted and distorted our social lenses about gender roles and about the goals of education.

To be specific: I have been listening to responses of people in my own area to the bullying of Billy Wolfe in the Fayetteville, Arkansas, school system. And I have been dialoguing with e-friends who share my concern about school bullying. As I listen and engage in dialogue, I notice some key issues surfacing, which ought not to demand attention, but which have to be discussed, because the right-wing talk machine has been so successful for so long now in distorting the consciousness of Americans about gender issues and the education of our youth, that we cannot see plain truth, and cannot discover the truth that makes a difference, as we look at the phenomenon of school bullying.

Some of those to whom I have been listening lately are asking whether the phenomenon of school bullying really is any different now—any more pronounced—than it was in the past. After all, as they point out, in schools all over the world, bullying of the “weaker” by the “stronger” has been going on from time immemorial. Are things really any worse now? Isn’t the process of taking boys who are prone to wear their feelings on their shoulders and toughening them up good for everyone concerned—for society, which needs men to be men, and for the bullied boys themselves, since they will live in an adult world that expects men to be men?

It’s not that these assumptions are always vocalized outright in discussion of what happens to boys such as Billy Wolfe. But they are the kind of strong unexamined social assumptions that make addressing school bullying difficult in American culture today. These are the unvocalized justifications that many school administrators and some parents use to shrug off school bullying: it goes on all the time; it has always gone on; it’s salubrious practice for real life, particularly for the “too sensitive” boy. Lighten up. Boys will be boys. Don’t intervene in the benign social Darwinism of the school playground, unless you want to tip longstanding scales that keep our social mechanisms functioning, and cause social chaos.

My own take on the bullying problem is that it probably has always been there, but is more serious today for a number of reasons. First, there's the rise in violence in schools (and society at large), and the ready availability of weapons. Grudges that used to be settled by a fistfight are now settled with knives and guns. The growing tacit social acceptance of violence as a way to resolve disputes in adult life, as well as in the lives of the young, when combined with the availability of weapons and the willingness of school children to use them, raises school bullying to an entirely new level at this point in history.

Then, too, the Internet has made communication—including communication in which bullies egg each other on and organize to target an individual—frighteningly easier. As the story of Billy Wolfe (and other recent stories of school bullying) indicates, websites, email, and other tools of e-communication are now being used to make school bullying more “effective” by far than it ever could be in the pre-Internet age. Posting a child’s picture on a website and goading others to hate him allows more and more people to join in the blood-sport of chastising the “weak” link in social chains of power. It allows the bullying to become organized, to extend beyond schools into every area of a youth’s life. It produces a new level of refined cruelty, in which a taunt can pop up in an email at any time, or leap out from a webpage on which the bullied person clicks.

And, finally, I think that there's a heightened awareness of gender and sexual orientation issues, again, partly due to the Internet. Youth today are more aware of their sexual orientation or more willing to explore gender variance at ever younger ages. To a degree almost unimaginable to us who grew up in a world in which the flow of information was confined to print media or the relatively localized media of television and radio, the Internet allows for instant worldwide communication about issues of gender and sexuality that permits ready access to information unavailable to youth in the past.

For many of those who have a vested interest in seeing rigid societal thinking about gender roles shift, this heightened information flow has seemed promising. What I think many of us have not anticipated, however, is the effect of that information flow on the lives of youth exploring gender identity, in a world in which the same information flow permits those opposed to questioning of traditional gender roles to organize.

LGBT youth, and youth questioning traditional gender roles, are now in a double bind. In a way previously unimaginable, they have access to information regarding sexual orientation and gender issues never before so readily available to youth. They also have ready access to information about others who have fought through these issues and become role models for LGBT youth today.

But their bullies also have access to information that permits them to organize, to target, to extend the taunts and threats to every area of a youth’s life. LGBT youth today experience increasing backlash precisely because there is, at one level, increasing ease about coming out. The easier the process of coming out becomes—on the surface—the more difficult it simultaneously becomes, because of the intent of organized groups full of hate to counteract the easy transmission of information about gender and sexual orientation in the Internet age.

I speak deliberately of “organized groups full of hate.” The real bullies, the real villains in the school bullying tragedy, are not first and foremost the youth who kick, hit, taunt, or shoot. The real bullies are the parents, school administrators, church groups, bogus therapists, ex-gay ministries, the media, and manifold right-wing think tanks that disseminate ugly, false information about the gay “lifestyle” and about gender roles to youth inclined to bully.

The problem of school bullying won’t be resolved effectively until the real bullies are exposed and addressed. As Alice Miller’s stunning reflections on how Western culture treats youth note, we are a culture saturated with belief in our extraordinary concern for our youth, who at the same time constantly murder the souls of our young people. Miller’s life-long study of the societal issue of violence towards the young convinced her that the flip side of our sentimental belief that we do everything to protect the young is that we ultimately care very little about the well-being of youth. The too-much protestation in which we engage hides the sordid reality that we do not truly care a great deal about the well-being of our youth.

As a society, we have long been callous about acts of violence perpetrated against the young right in the family circle—the key locale in which young people suffer assault. We do very little to protect young people from what Miller calls “soul murder”—the death of hope, of belief in oneself and one’s potential, the belief that one’s life counts and will make a difference in the world. Miller concluded, after years of exhaustive psychotherapeutic research, that even when youth are not physically assaulted in our culture, their souls are often subjected to murder, because we do so little to safeguard and cultivate the souls of the young.

As an educator, I have become increasingly convinced that something is very awry in our educational system, and that this dislocation of the goals of our educational system is intimately related to the murder of the souls of our youth. We do a decent enough job (in some cases, in some areas, depending on income levels and social status) of educating young people’s heads. We do a dismal job of educating their hearts, of cultivating their souls.

We cannot, in fact, cultivate the souls of youth when we do not cultivate our own souls. I am not talking about the soul here in classic religious terms. I am talking about what is inmost in a human person, what makes that person tick, about what shines forth inside a human being to make that person different from any other human being.

Though for some people this language has specific religious reference, for others it is a useful way to describe humanistic goals without reference to a specific religious tradition or any religious tradition at all. The language of soul need not be left out of our school system and our educational objectives on the ground that it has religious roots. It is a language that is also spoken by those who want to build a better world without necessarily adverting to religion at all.

Our educational system cannot speak the language of soul, or address the murder of the souls of our youth, or stop the problem of school bullying, because our educational leaders themselves too often lack soul. I have thought this for a long time, as an educator. I thought about this problem of lack of soul with a renewed interest yesterday, as I read Patrik Johnson’s article “Rise of the ‘Rock Star’ School Superintendent" in the Christian Science Monitor at

Johnson reports on a troubling phenomenon in American education today: the ascendancy of a generation (and class) of highly paid bureaucratic “educators” who administer schools, but who have little apparent interest in or understanding of education itself, and of the classic humanistic goals of education. The name of the game in American education today is, frankly, to beat the testing game. Schools—at every level, from kindergarten through higher education—must demonstrate tangible results in the form of test scores.

This impulse in American higher education has resulted in a system of scamming by which schools do all in their power to up test scores, without caring much about what students actually learn—or about who students become, in the educational process. Even worse, the need to scam results in the hire of more and more educational administrators who are, frankly, simply, appallingly soulless.

These administrators thrive in climates in which they can balance fiscal account books, even when doing so requires the same scams that delude people into thinking that test scores are rising. They thrive in climates of obfuscation of the truth, of half-truths, of deliberate lies to governing boards that are, increasingly, comprised of hard-nosed business leaders and not educators.

These “educators” are also highly paid, disgracefully so. The Monitor reports on one candidate for a position in a suburban Atlanta school system, whose demands prior to hire include not merely a very cushy salary (many times more than a teacher is paid), but a Lincoln town car, a chauffeur, and a personal bodyguard.

I speak of what I know. I speak of what I have seen and heard with my own eyes and ears.

I know these “educators.” I have had to interact with them. I have tried to talk to them about educating youth, about shaping the character of future leaders, about cultivating the soul of youth. I have had no success in reaching these “educators.” Their interest is not in the soul. They are tone-deaf to the language of soul and character.

The increasing prevalence of these “rock-star” educators throughout the American system of education points to problems with the system itself—which is to say, problems with us. The Monitor article quotes Walter Fluker, executive director of the Leadership Center at Morehouse College in Atlanta, regarding what I am identifying as a loss of soul in American education today. Fluker says, "Leadership always is symptomatic, a warning sign of what's happening at deeper and more fundamental levels.”

I conclude from this observation that if the scam artists who are increasingly the rock-star “leaders” of our educational institutions thrive, it is because we allow them to thrive. The problem is us. We are the problem. We do not value our own souls or the souls of our youth.

Until we do so, we will not successfully make our schools places in which the souls of children—and the bodies of youth deemed gender-inappropriate—are safe from murder. We have met the enemy: he is us.

1 comment:

colkoch said...

Your choice of photographs is priceless for their understated symbolism.

We are the bully. Every time we sit back and give the pope and his lackeys room to bash gays, we are the bullies. I don't care if those at the top of Catholicism think they are right, the damage done at the level of our children is horrific. All I have to do is look at how they perpetuated the abuse crisis to know at the most basic level, children don't matter, clerical choices do. Until, and if, the Church ever chooses to change it's teaching on sexuality, bullying will start at the pulpit and continue thru the entire teaching spectrum. It's never about the kids, it's about adults justifying their choices.