Posted by David A. Lehrer
Today’s New York Times has a thoughtful op/ed by Slate’s Emily Bazelon, the author of “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy.” Bazelon writes about the problem of bullying and some of the myths that surround the issue.
Bullying is a particular form of harmful aggression, linked to real psychological damage, both short and long term. There are concrete strategies that can succeed in addressing it — and they all begin with shifting the social norm so that bullying moves from being shrugged off to being treated as unacceptable. But we can’t do that if we believe, and tell our children, that it’s everywhere.
The definition of bullying adopted by psychologists is physical or verbal abuse, repeated over time, and involving a power imbalance. In other words, it’s about one person with more social status lording it over another person, over and over again, to make him miserable.
But when every bad thing that happens to children gets called bullying, we end up with misleading narratives that obscure other distinct forms of harm.
Although she has authored a book on the subject and would stand to benefit from the increased attention and concern about bullying, she admonishes her readers to be careful. The media hysteria that sees an epidemic of bullying virtually everywhere and sees the normal slights and tiffs of childhood as evidence of a culture gone bad has prompted her caveat that kids haven’t suddenly turned rotten.
In fact, our concerns about this recently discovered ill has resulted, as Bazelon points out, in adults in some ways contributing to the incidence of bullying by adopting laws that “straightjacket their response to a bullying accusation, rather than allowing them to use their judgment and take account of context.”
I had first-hand experience of this many years ago when one of my sons and one of my nephews (now both in their thirties) attended an LA Unified middle school and were involved in a physical altercation with a would-be bully. They responded to the bully’s assault in kind and ended his obnoxious behavior.
My son, nephew and I were called into the vice principal’s office and told that the LA Unified’s rule was that a kid who responded in any way other than to call a teacher (or other adult) to help was viewed as equally culpable as the bully and that both (bully and victim[s]) would be equally punished.
I distinctly remember telling the v-p that those weren’t my rules and that I have told all of my kids (my nephews and nieces had been similarly admonished) that if they are intimidated or pushed around by anyone they have my ok to respond in kind, “you don’t have to take s**t from anyone” were my exact words to them. I told the v-p that if the District wanted to assign detention to my kid and nephew that’s their decision, but it will have no effect on how my kids act in the future. Our rules differ than LAUSD’s.
If that rule still obtains in the LAUSD there is little doubt that it helps foster more victims and bullies. The failure to take into account context and kids’ needs to respond to intimidation has helped create an asymmetry that Bazelon recognizes, “Bullying victims need sympathy; they also need help learning to be resilient” (emphasis added). Treating victim and aggressor alike encourages passivity and victimhood, not resilience.
Ultimately, though, for all the bullying hysteria, the “epidemic” may be a manageable problem that can be dealt with by reasoned responses,
by many measures, teenagers today are faring better than they were a generation ago. The rates of teenage pregnancy, binge drinking and drunken driving are down. So is violent juvenile crime and even fighting on school property.
Those heartening developments help explain why bullying is holding our national attention: as a society, we have the wherewithal now to attend to a psychological harm that has long deeply affected kids, but which adults used to mostly ignore. Bullying is a problem we can and should address. But not if we’re wrongly led to believe that it’s everything and everywhere.
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March 11, 2013 | 4:10 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
Kids, young adults and ideologues of different stripes often see the world as a straight line progression---the world gradually, but inevitably, becomes more enlightened. Martin Luther King, Jr. summarized the view, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Many of us, as we get older and witness the recycling of issues and debates, are less sanguine about the course of history.
I am by nature an optimist and generally subscribe to the notion that as times change, as the benefits of tolerance and equality and liberty become obvious, more and more folks will become advocates and adherents of policies that promote those virtues.
That was what made reading a Wall Street Journal review last week so fascinating. In a museum review, Richard Holledge, describes a bit of antiquity that went on display at the Smithsonian last Saturday, the Cyrus Cylinder---a 2,600 year old football-sized barrel of clay with cuneiform writing on it. The writing proclaimed the King of Persia, Cyrus’, intention to allow freedom to the diverse peoples he ruled over after conquering Babylon. His realm stretched from Turkey to India.
The cylinder proclaims:
I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements, and the gods of the land of Sumer and Akkad which Nabonidus---to the fury of the lord of the gods---had brought into Shuanna, at the command of Marduk the great lord… I returned them unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy. May all the gods that I returned to their sanctuaries…. every day before Bel and Nabu, ask for a long life for me, and mention my good deeds…I have enabled all the lands to live in peace.
Given the vastness of Cyrus’ empire, it is instructive that he decided that allowing each group to worship their own gods and to return to the lands from which they came were the best policies.
His actions inspired Jews, whom he allowed to return to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon, to describe him in the Book of Isaiah as “the Lord’s anointed.” Thomas Jefferson, by virtue of an ancient history of King Cyrus (Xenophon’s Cyropedia), viewed him an inspiration for the Declaration of Independence.
The Cylinder was only re-discovered in 1879, yet for over two millennia its author inspired those who sought to follow in his path.
Clearly the “arc of history” is exceptionally long---especially for the very region ruled by Cyrus which today rejects most of the notions that prevailed over two millennia ago. When it will bend towards justice again is anyone’s guess.
The Cylinder is a reminder that history and its course are fickle, unpredictable and don’t inevitably follow a straight line upwards. Progress isn’t assured, but rather is the result of leadership, determination and the willingness to protect and defend its fruits.
The Cyrus Cylinder will be coming to Los Angeles, at the Getty Villa, later this year (October 2- December 2).