Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Stacy Lipson, Michael Smerconish and the Problem of Bullying

An old high school friend of mine sent me a Facebook message recently. Following her recent 20th reunion, she told me, a small group of people had gone into Wichita to have a few drinks together; that group included T, a man who had made my junior high years miserable with an unending procession of physical bullying. Even reading his name years later filled me with anger and a kind of dread.

Simply put: I still hate that guy. Even though a generation has passed.

My friend understood. She told me the topic of T's bullying had come up over drinks: I wasn't, it turned out, his only victim. And it turned out that T, a little older and wiser, had some regrets. "He said he hadn't thought of himself as a bully but now, looking back..." my friend wrote. "Anyway he seems like a decent guy now, really."

That is, I guess, a relatively happy epilogue to my childhood angst. But we're in a media moment that is focused on bullying because, well, not everybody makes it to the epilogue. It's a moment that caused Stacy Lipson, a great Philadelphia writer and one of my Tweeps, to reflect on her own childhood experience of victimization:

You may think you understand. But you don’t. You can’t understand unless you’ve experienced it. And if you have experienced it, you know how it feels. The anxiety, fear, and sadness that seem to be a part of your daily experience. The wish that some day, not too far off, the abuse would stop. The wish to be someone else.

I don’t like to talk about what happened to me as a child. I never thought I would need to. But I think it’s important for parents to realize that bullying is an epidemic. It’s not going to go away anytime soon, and once one child starts, the rest can join in. It’s time to do something. Children need to realize the power behind their words and actions, and parents need to make sure that their children are listening. Hard.

Of course, everybody knows that bullying is wrong. Which is why I've been stewing over Michael Smerconish's Sunday commentary in the Inky which strikes what I'd (probably unfairly) call an "objectively pro-bullying" tone. It's not that Smerconish favors beating up weak kids; he just wants to know what the big deal is.

My hunch is that the underlying behavior hasn't gotten any more vicious. Nor has the prevalence of bullying itself increased. Rather, the attention paid to it has.

I went to school with plenty of bad kids who picked on classmates. Today, kids like that have cell phones and Facebook at their disposal. Meanwhile, an increase in absentee parents means the bullies encounter less discipline at home.

And yes, an overeager media has oversaturated many a news cycle with coverage of the latest bullying case with tragic consequences. The result is both a hyperawareness of behavior that has always existed, and an ever-expanding list of what is classified as "bullying."

Yes, coverage of the subject is intense now and, yes, it will go away soon enough. But rather than treat this as a "teachable moment" -- say, how do we get kids and parents to clamp down on vicious and unacceptable behavior -- Smerconish would rather gripe about the spotlight. Maybe he thinks he's being contrarian. But in this case, he's sending the wrong message.

My own childhood experience colors much of my adulthood. My politics derive, in large part, from a hatred of bullies. (Let's just say that George W. Bush and his frathouse personality provoked something visceral in me.) I sometimes fear taking my toddler to the playground because of worries he might be bullied -- or, worse, that he'll end up a bully. And though I'm an exceptionally peaceful guy, I can lose my cool in a major way if I sense that somebody is running roughshod over another. I can see 40 from where I'm at, and yet my feeling is still very intense: I fucking hate bullies.

Stacy, bless her, has done a fine job of reminding us the pain bullies can cause, the lasting damage they do. Michael Smerconish just wants the story to go away.


brendancalling said...

"Michael semrconish just wants the story to go away."

of course he does. that's because smerconish and his ilk (dom giordano, christine flowers) are bullies themselves. it's reflected in their columns, the topics they choose, and how they approach those topics. they are almost always on the side of the powerful, and take a sick joy in mocking the powerless.

KhabaLox said...

I can't believe that Semrconish follows this:

"Nor has the prevalence of bullying itself increased."

With this:

"Today, kids like that have cell phones and Facebook at their disposal."

and manages to keep a straight face.

I would agree that it's very likely that the number of bullies hasn't changed substantially over the last 30 years, but the technological tools at their disposal makes them much more efficient and powerful. The victimized kids used to be able to retreat to the relative safety of their neighborhood or home or room. Sure, they had to go back to school the next day, but they had a respite each night and on weeknends. Not so anymore. They can (and are) tormented 24/7, and now that most everyone is carrying a HD video camera in their pocket that can instantly upload videos to the web, the victimization can be shared with the whole world. Would the Rutgers student have committed suicide if his roommate has only publicly taunted him verbally?

J said...

I don't know if comparisons are pertinent, but let me frame this by saying that I and my older brother endured as much as your school threw at you, and as someone who receives a lot of work from Education majors, you'd think that, for at least 4 years now, bullying has been the #1 impediment to successful education all these years . . . and that, worse, so-called "cyber-bullying is *just as bad* as physical bullying. Every time a student turns in something that asserts just that, that virtual bullying in any way approximates the nether-shriveling dread of going into that locker room again, onto that playground, onto that bus . . . I feel my bile rise. But I'm tired of the subject, too. Solutions? I'm all ears. But not more hand-wringing and back-patting that we're "vigilant" or "listening", which just so much of it is.