I'm not sure what bullying is anymore. I'm not sure if it's a shadowy part of human nature, a rite of passage we must navigate in some respect during our development, or a crime.
Surely the case of a South Hadley, Mass. teenager, Phoebe Prince, who committed suicide after enduring several months of torment from other teens, is enough to tip the definition toward the latter. But to do so, I think, would be a grave mistake.
Bullying is a difficult problem to face head on. There are so many dark roads to explore. As a child, do you tell someone or suffer in silence? As a parent, do you intervene or counsel your child? As an administrator, if you don't punish are you permitting? Is there a line drawn that can't be crossed?
Experts seem to disagree on what causes children to bully.
Some believe bullies are children with low self-esteem or who suffer from social isolation. Others believe bullies are most likely kids who have an easier time of making friends, are popular and possess an average or above-average sense of self-esteem. Some believe bullies are incapable of understanding the feelings of others but are expert at reading behaviors. Some say bullying stems from innate or basic survival mechanisms, while others profess it to be something we learn and therefore can "unlearn."
But how do we "unlearn" as a society?
A school district in Mississipi manipulated its school’s prom — turning it from a school-sponsored social event, into a private, parent-held party — expressly to exclude one girl, Constance McMillen, a lesbian who would have escorted her girlfriend to the dance.
Maybe my definition of bully is different than yours. My definition includes the kids with short tempers, the kids who want to be liked, the kids who are afraid to stand up for what they know to be right. It includes the kids who don't care and the kids who's parents don't care. The kids we'd just as soon throw away. The kids we've pegged as having no future. It also includes communities that would allow segregation and maltreatment of someone else because they are different.
From a "Breakfast Club" standpoint, I can see we are all bullies, we are all victims, we are all in a place where we do the wrong thing and have to live with the consequences. Yet we all wish to think of ourselves as underdog and the hero in one.
The common thread seems to be the ability to have others follow the lead others who may be relieved the target is painted over someone else. Animals, even human ones, tend to pounce on those they perceive as weak, those who won't challenge their authority. We are nothing if not predictable.
As much as we seem shocked by the thought of the viciousness of kids calling each other names in an effort to assert power, we are happy to watch any number of powerful people do the same, from the halls of American governance to the judges’ seats on American Idol. Its tactics are not new to any generation of politicians or pundits.
When the news about Prince's suicide was reported, the impression I got initially was that the girl was physically tortured. Report after report after report, however, seemed to indicate the girls who used ugly names and behaved in a reprehensible manner were jealous and small-minded, and likely someday, if they ever mature, will have to live with the tragedy their words put into action.
They will have to face the repercussions just as each of us has to face the results of every choice we make. We also live with the questions and regrets when the paths we choose lead us to places we couldn't have imagined.
It's not easy defending a child whose words cannot be condoned. It's difficult to look past the malignancy some of these New England teens have continued to spread, trying perhaps to avoid the sanitizing effect the bright light of scrutiny has cast on their words and actions.
But I can't help but think the answer, if there is one, lies somewhere beyond punishment -- somewhere within.
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