Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Wayward Ones

Perhaps it is the thrill of power, the sense of control, that propels a bully toward wanton acts of violence and cruelty towards those who can not easily defend themselves. It is no doubt a reaction to a life at home where the rules and the constant nagging of parents about things a child deems “stupid” or “idiotic,” causes the child to feel powerless themselves. Maybe it is being exposed to unseen or untold brands of violence, unexplained and unmitigated, that make a child feel the need to duplicate what they have seen. You could ask, but very few bullies will ever come clean honestly about what drives them.

While that knowledge would undoubtedly make it easier to diagnose the possible growth of bullying tendencies, it is not ours to be had, save under the most dire circumstances, usually well after something horrific has taken place, something that cannot be undone so easily as by therapy or social intervention. When the bully has pushed and pushed and pushed, and the psyche of the victim has collapsed, too often this leads to self-destruction in one fashion or another – cutting, alcoholism, drug use, and far too often, suicide.

We must, of needs, be passive bystanders in most cases, as the signs are unrevealed to us. Most of us are in no position to intervene in towns and cities far from us, even though we hear of these destructive episodes and blanch. We need not look too far, however, to find the very things we shudder from, playing out under our noses, in the halls of our own schools or behind the closed doors of our neighborhoods. These hidden events, accumulating in the shadows, can bring the horror to our doorstep.

The horror visited a small town in Pennsylvania mere days ago. Fourteen-year-old Brandon Bitner walked in front of a tractor trailer truck, apparently distraught over constant bullying he had been receiving for some time. Being bombarded and battered by insensitive comments and homophobic slurs on a continual basis, perhaps the straw that finally broke the camel's back was an assembly called by the school to address the topic of bullying. The net result of the assembly was not an increase in tolerance or a mitigation of anti-social behavior, but the shrugs of shoulders, jocularity, and for Brandon, a continued, if not intensified, assault on his person. The scale tipped, and he felt his only recourse was to end his own life.

We can chalk up the sheer number of reported cases to a heightened sensitivity to the issue, but what still pales to that is the viciousness of the incidents. Not a viciousness in the physical sense, but more a complete and utter lack of empathy of the attacker for the victim. In some cases, the attacks were oblique, in others, directed, but in all cases, those who uttered the words and phrases that sent these young people over the edge were remorseless. It was as if they were talking about visitors from an alien species and not members of the human race. Nowhere was that seen in more stark relief than the blatant homophobia shown by many, who attacked many of these young people based on perceived ideas of their homosexuality, whether or not there was any truth to it. From public forums to private “pranks,” the disregard for their fellow humans cast a pall on our country, that hangs over us like a suffocating cloud.

While all bullying is particularly cruel and contemptible, the need by some to hurl homophobic epithets and question the sexuality and gender identity of others is more troubling in its prevalence, as if reliving the days of Jim Crow. While some would deny it, homosexuals are being marginalized to a level as great as blacks, and on a scale unimaginable in the time of the Civil Rights movement of the 50's and 60's, thanks to the auspices of the Internet and 24-hour cable news. While racism is quite abhorrent to us, homophobia seems to get more of a pass, perhaps due to the incorrect perception that being gay is a “choice,” as if anyone were actually given to chose such a life, rather than having to deal with impulses they don't understand at a time when they are maximally vulnerable, their teenage years. Some may repress it, others may try to “deprogram” themselves, and still others hide it, but it is part of the core of their being, and there should be no shame in it, anymore than there should be shame in being black, or Jewish, or female. As in all such cases, the persecution of homosexuals has been a product of the centuries, of fear, of misunderstanding, of dogma, of the need for a scapegoat for the failure of others.

Still, bullying in general is the problem. Where parents, teachers, and school administrators continue to talk and talk and talk about the problem, but take no concrete action save to create the misnamed and often laughable “bully-free zones,” the torture of some at the hands of their classmates will continue unabated. And it is not as if the adults do not know how the system works, for we were all in that situation at one time in our lives. Many of us have known the sting of anti-social behavior, the scurrying through halls to get to the next class, hoping to avoid further maltreatment, the seemingly interminable rides home on buses, the humiliation in the public arena of the cafeteria. For the adults who are charged with the protection of our children to turn an unsympathetic eye to this, or chalk it up to a “rite of passage,” is a form of degradation of its own, of those who will someday be the bearers of the hopes of a nation.

We must speak now. We must bring pressure now. School boards must be held to account. Superintendents and principals must be encouraged to take a more active role in policing students. Teachers must be given free reign to be the eyes and ears of concerned parents, watching over our children with the same level of concern that we would. Where they will not do what must be done, pressure must applied through the ballot box and the budget. Our voices must be heard, so that the voices of our children might be heard, and the scourge of bullying eradicated from the halls of learning, once and for all.

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