Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Bullying Begins with Words

"Where do they get these ideas?"

October is Anti-Bullying Month and I've heard some version of that question repeated over and over in different environments. Adults are shocked and shaken when they find out the magnitude of bullying that takes place in schools, on civic campuses, and in cyberspace. The latest trend is suicide by bullying. A number of young people have taken their own lives because this form of terrorism is so unbearable.

We just lost another youth to suicide here. The person was bullied in school and in her social life and she took her own life because she was discovering herself and her sexuality and found her budding affections were for the same gender. She was called “fag” and teased and “outed” by peers.

This scenario has repeated itself all over the United States and has prompted many professionals, teachers, legal analysts and leaders to develop materials for youth to combat bullying. The materials are coming from reputable sources like the Southern Poverty Law Center and Voices Education Project and accompany a new movement called “It Gets Better” which gives youth a forum and hope that life is better after high school. It is designed to let kids hang on while being battered with words.

Of course the communities are aghast at this trend. Neighborhoods are shocked. Schools and educators and clergy are outraged by this behavior of children terrorizing other children. They are concerned about the predator mentality and cruelty exhibited by youth. They wonder how youth can have developed this aggression and cruelty at such a young age? They are confounded, dumbfounded and are at a loss to understand it. Shock and outrage accompany the trauma and drama of it and prevent a real examination of this trend toward human indifference and lack of empathy for others.

Something really important is being missed in this movement...
Why do kids lack empathy? How is it they are not making human and humane connections? Where do kids get the idea that bullying someone else is permissible social discourse? That revealing someone’s secret life, struggles and woundedness is acceptable? That exposing it with glee is entertainment? Where do these kids get such ideas?

They get it from witnessing terrorism. By their role models. By the adults around them demonstrating how it is done. Yes those same adults—who are shocked at the behavior of some youngsters who take pleasure in the torture of other youngsters. They are the adults who cut people off in traffic and make hand signals that have nothing to do with courtesy. They are the parents whose daily TV diet includes reality shows where people are bullied by competing against or scheming and scamming other people. They are the same ones who watch TV sports that erupt in to fist fights or the grownups who armchair referee championship wrestling. They are just as likely to tune into the program that hosts a competition to make someone the idol and latest star in the entertainment industry while spitting cruel critiques and making fun and even film montages of the less than talented only to laugh, humiliate and make fun of them at their own expense.

These are the parents whose programming includes the insider celebrity shows that mock and hold up to scrutiny the daily lives and dramas of celebrities while a fresh faced and smiling reporter ridicules and gleefully reports their missteps to an audience hungry for gossip and fodder in salacious or sensationalized story. These are same people think nothing of tossing the latest tabloid into their grocery cart in the checkout line—that tabloid that exploits people who are gifted not for the purpose of thanking them for sharing their genius but for denigrating them for fun and profit.

Celebrities and sports figures make good targets for the bullying they endure on a public stage. The famous deserve it don’t they? How dare they be so famous! So talented! And while we are enamored with their entertainment genius, we secretly envy their fame and hate them for it? The celebrities can't possibly defend themselves against all who would take advantage of them, ride on the coattails of their fame, or condemn them; what are they going to do—spend every day in court while their gift of music or art goes ungiven? Can they personally speak to you or come to your home and debate the veracity of the latest gossip, story or allegations? Can they plead with you to not believe the latest invented story about them contrived only to sell copy? Can they ask to be left alone; how effective would that be? Are they in a position to expect your empathy or compassion while their lives are being held up to public scrutiny and sometimes dissected by analysts who don’t know them and have never met them? Accusations are not truths but labels take hold and follow those in the public eye for years even without substance or in the wake of being disproven. Once something is introduced into the collective memory, it is hard, if not impossible to extract it.

How short is our collective memory. Once upon a time there was a Princess who used all her talent and all her fame in service to humanitarian and social change to uplift the value of human life. That was the Peoples' Princess who died in a car crash while being chased by those salivating over the photos that would expose the latest tidbit about her private life. We did not personally know her but we fondly called her “Lady Di.” She was ours and she was abruptly ripped from our lives while being hunted and chased for sport and profit. Lest we forget how our appetite for the latest gossip caused the woman’s death. Not me you say? If you’ve ever bought a gossip magazine or watched celebrity TV, you are complicit. The exploitation of the famous and celebrities is a national and global pastime that goes unexamined for its consequences to the human and to our humanity.

There was another humanitarian who gave $300 million of his fortune to children and children’s hospitals and causes round the world. He was someone whose love for children was twisted and made ugly by an industry only interested in selling stories and increasing ratings in their magazines and newspapers. Someone who to this day is called by the ugliest of words despite being exonerated in a court of law where a prosecutor piled on false charges hoping something would stick and he could make a name for himself by the claim of putting away the most famous man in the world. The press got it wrong. And they didn’t report that his accusers were extortionists out to grab cash from the deepest and most famous pockets on the planet. They called him “Wacko Jacko” and “freak,” accused him of trying to change his race when in reality, he had a skin disease that kills the cells that produce skin color and protect the tender flesh underneath from burning by the sun’s harsh rays. They made fun of the umbrella and mask that saved his life. A fickle public with a short attention span demands that celebrities hide any evidence of aging so as to stay in front of the camera and in the spotlight. It makes people change their face to avoid being "washed up"—and then makes fun of people who have “work done” to keep that famous face fresh and relevant in an industry that values surface beauty only. That is the same public that focused on the changing face—while missing the message in the man’s lyrics that were prayers while his music the means of praying for change and a more human and humane world.

Bullying is not just for school children anymore. Sometimes it takes place on a global stage. It occurs when the investigative reporter is told by his producer to "ask the tough questions” or they are told to “hold their feet to the fire" in a dialogue that is more brow beating than news gathering. It is in the pundits who pander and the talking heads who offer their opinion while the network plays it over and over until it becomes the popular “truth.”

The daily diet of cops and murders, investigations and desperations of housewives and others, horror and bad news, and forming gangs or tribes who “gang up” on reality contestants in order exclude them and demonstrate group dismissal and banishment. Exclusion and excommunication is made a game. That kind of “sport” looks a lot like the sport taking place on lots of playgrounds only with a younger audience.

So where do they get their ideas? Hmmm. Good question. ‘The tribe has spoken.’ And the children were listening.

If you want to create a better world and more humane human dialogue on this planet check out the curriculum at Voices Education Project. You might be very surprised at what you find.

1 comment:

Kim B. said...

Thank you for this article Rev. Barbara. Your words astounded me because as I was reading it, I realized how accountable we all are for this state that we are in today. It's very easy to become sad while reading your words because our lack of empathy and need for sensationalism has changed the narrative of this planet. It's very heart-wrenching because when you put it all in black and white, the magnitude of what we have done and do to others is significant. With that said, I am choosing to think that we can resolve this problem. I think the first step to solving a problem is to acknowledge it. I do see some people starting to do just that, including you. I've also heard there are journalists who are addressing bullying from a media perspective. I think if this issue can be addressed on many fronts, we can start to change how people treat one another and improve the human condition. Michael Jackson and Lady Diana certainly are wonderful role models on how that is done. It's important that we continue to bring light on those who are positive role models and not on the negativity, sensationalism and violence that we see today. I will most certainly work to do my part and perhaps as each one of us does their part, it could result in a ripple effect and perhaps tip the scale in a positive direction. Thank you for your words. I learn something every time I read one of your articles. We can make a change to help eradicate this issue; I'm keeping the faith. I know we will. We need more people like yourself to step up and stand up and speak their voice. I vow (yes I said "vow") to do the same. Thank you!

A few Thoughts...

When I think about it, my own life is no less rich and the living no less inspiring than my pioneering ancestors and I come from a long line of Indians and outlaws so don't ever turn your back on me!

Life is, after all, a slice of human consciousness lived from its place in human evolution. "From here to eternity" as it were-- from earth to the stars, from personal space to cyberspace, from a small local footprint to the world reduced to the size of a notebook and sitting on your lap!

As a child I lived with the perpetual and immenent threat of annihilation. That's child abuse! It wasn't a kid-friendly world and I couldn't understand why the grown-ups who were in charge weren't doing something?

So at age seven with my face in the window eyes turned up into the night sky and staring at the stars I made a vow: "When I am a grown-up, I will do something."

My writing is that something and I write to "simply change the world." If that sounds like a lack of humility it isn't because I know that one person absolutely can change the world and I've met some who have.

Kay Kennedy put together an anthology that puts the reader in the midst of history to view it from the inside out.

When I was in high school and even college, history classes were stale and boring featuring memorization and regurgitation of dates that coincided with events that had no human face, certainly no magic, and no life!

Anthologies are great fun and stores are rich remembrances. History books chronicle; stories are little narrative slices of living. History comes alive through story. I often think of my grandmother and her story, her life-- the history she lived. In her lifetime she saw humankind evolve from horse and buggy to man on the moon.

I was a sixties kid and for the youth of the sixties, turmoil, disillusionment, and revolution were everyday 'business as usual'. Like a radio perpetually on low volume, fear and death dronned on in the background. The superpowers threatened to extinguish all life on the planet, the Vietnam War was escalating and peers were being escorted home under American Flag blankets. The civil rights and equal rights movements were testing human civility, and faster than one could recover from one shock another real life hero would fall to yet another assassin. Despair was commonplace. Contrast that with a man on the moon... we could conquer space travel but couldn't make nukes or war obsolete! It was a time when youth needed hope because hope was scarce. When it was finally resurrected, it came in the form of idealism and a philosophy of brotherly and universal love. Perfect principles; imperfect execution.

For others who contributed to "Looking Back," the history is different for each because the "times" were different as well as the perspective of the individuals. The stories of human societal evolution are enlightening, heartwarming, poignant and spellbinding. They put a human face on the past.

And there are people now who are putting a face on the future...