Despite numerous efforts to the contrary, our schools remain hotbeds of bullying. Cautionary tales abound: the disenfranchised, alienated teen who acts out his pain with a gun – the mocked and taunted girl who hangs herself in despair. Parents, teachers and administrators wring their hands, blame the system and each other, and launch sensitivity training programs, all to apparently little avail. Bullying continues, the strong torture the weak and teenaged life proceeds along its Darwinian path.
Of course, bullying is partially a consequence of the herd mentality of adolescence. Most of us recall those years with at least a few shudders and some astonishment that we got through them, if not unscathed then at least alive. Bullying is about power; for the young, who must maintain a precarious balance between the known world of childhood and the mysteries of what lies beyond, identity is paramount. Being part of a group is, for most, the path to the reinvention of the adult from the child, a primary way to establish individuality and purpose.
This need, to be accepted by one’s peers, is what bullies exploit. Bullies reduce complexity to one-dimensionality (smart, shy, awkward kid to “loser,” for example) and then attempt to cull their victim from the herd. They prey on the weak, defenseless or solitary and in doing so, either establish or redefine the group’s values and solidify their own ascendancy. Bullies are single-minded, unempathetic, and manipulative . Above all, they depend upon the passive, compliant support of others. They can’t exist without it.
That said, I find it puzzling that despite the fact that everyone roundly condemns the culture of bullying in our schools and neighborhoods, it nevertheless seems to thrive. I wonder: could bullying be tacitly encouraged by the current state of political debate?
You know who I’m talking about. Much has been written about the loss of civility as our national discourse has been co-opted by a particular breed, of which Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck (who recently compared the Administration’s criticism of Fox News to the Holocaust) are emblematic: the Professional Bully. (And now Sarah Palin joins their ranks.)
Self-proclaimed El Rushbo, for example, seldom disappoints. Last fall, after Olympia Snowe flexed her independence with reluctant support for allowing the health care reform bill to pass committee, I figured this would prickle his ire (and his misogyny). Yes! On Limbaugh’s website I discovered not only that Senator Snowe is a ‘joke’ but that the entire state of Maine, presumably for the scurrilous act of electing her in the first place, should be ‘sawed off and allowed to sail out to sea.’
Professional bullies are schoolyard bullies writ large. They spawn their following of amateur bullies (often the same people who bemoan the culture of persecution that prevails in so many schools) eager to associate themselves with the Cool Ones and let somebody else do their thinking for them. (However, they perform their own yelling.) I suppose there’s a piece of each of us still stuck in the quagmire of adolescence where bravado is easy to mistake for courage, insults seem like wit, pronouncements of infallibility trump informed argument, and shrillness drowns out nuance.
Professional bullying is a growth industry: recession-proof – heck, it’s recession-friendly. Its prevailing deity is not Principle but Notoriety (as long as it doesn’t come cheap) and the rules are simple: Don’t bother with niceties of persuasion since, god forbid, you might have to concede a point or actually shut up while somebody else opines. Au contraire. Ridicule is far more effective, and hey, who wouldn’t relish the chance to shout down the opposition at every opportunity? Now, that’s got to be a rush.
However, perhaps the worst of it is that Professional Bullies knowingly blur the boundaries between image and reality, entertainment and information, and in that (ironically) gray area they hold sway. Whatever the issue, it becomes all about them.
For teenagers, bully-charisma might exert a seductive influence since it mimics their black-and-white landscape of winners and losers. But for adults to succumb is simply laughable…if it weren’t so damned scary. As parents and teachers attempt to eradicate bullying from schools, try to instill values of empathy, respect for diversity, tolerance of difference and the willingness to be vulnerable as part of learning about the world beyond one’s experience, isn’t it also necessary to identify those bullies who, in their positions of prominence, continue to operate unchecked? The First Amendment is sacred, of course, but it doesn’t come with an obligation to buy what’s offered, especially when the goods are tainted with egoism.
I believe the ultimate goal of education is the nurturance of children becoming discriminating adults who take an active, positive role in the world. Growing up means embracing the possibility that one might be wrong, that doubt is part of faith and issues are complex. Behaving like an adult might be a bitch but it’s no joke. Perhaps we should be grateful to the El Rushbos for demonstrating what one is.
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