Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Will bullying remain a top issue of discussion in 2012?

I just got off the phone with a very close friend of mine, who went to high school with me. She has a daughter the same age as mine and gave me heartbreaking stories about how her beautiful, adorable child is being tortured by girls at school.

I wept hearing about this. The conversation segued into a discussion of our experiences growing up in Williamsville, where Jamie Rodemeyer committed suicide last year and made headlines. It seems to me that bullying has seriously changed with the advent of the Internet, social media, and a general culture that foists adult issues onto children who aren't equipped to handle them.

When my friend and I were passing through Williamsville's cursus honorum in the mid-1980s, we were called names and snubbed by your run-of-the-mill jerks, but we never came close to suicide. Many of the "bullies" I hated were going through private crises, which I only learned about decades later, as an adult. One kid who always picked on me had a sister who was coming out as lesbian a few years older than he was, and he took out the family stresses on me. My friend thinks things were just as bad back then, but I cannot resist the perception that things have changed. When we got called names on the school bus and beaten up from time to time, we felt like our humiliation was something we could shake off with time. It was something that tormented us internally but not something that we feared would follow us around for life.

With Facebook and a much more venal political environment today, kids get terrorized and feel as if they have no way of shaking off the stigma of someone abused. The insidious satire of pundits like Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, and Dennis Miller has also linked vicious rhetoric with the public's conception of some kind of political activism. When kids see Jon Stewart and Bill Maher mercilessly dehumanizing their political opponents on TV each week, with an unbridled self-righteousness, they do not necessarily learn that civic engagement is important; they learn, rather, that it is cool and justifiable to hound people in public and make them feel terrible about themselves.

I continue to condemn the gay and lesbian activist community for forcing sexuality issues "out in the open" without taking stock of the dangerous effect of such publicity on children, who are too young to deal with the weighty issues that accompany discussion of gay and lesbian politics. Yes, homophobia is horrible. But outing conservative closeted gays and constantly eviscerating any conservative politician who does not agree with gay identity politics has not made life more livable for gays. Rather, it has taught young people that bullying is a legitimate conduct that adults use for serious political purposes -- and it has taught young people that bullying is intertwined with what people desire sexually and how they act on their desires with their bodies.

Girls tend to bear the brunt of the worst bullying, because other girls bully them with all the traditional female forms of abuse -- gossip, humiliation, cliquish exclusion, attention to their apperance -- with new boyish forms of abuse that they have gained with mainstream feminism. Girls not only call other girls fat and ugly; they now accuse them of being lesbians, call them prudes and sluts simultaneously, and beat them up.

It's all horrible. I cannot help but cry when I think about it. I do not blame conservatives on this one, though. Liberals have created this environment, with Jon Stewart and Bill Maher at the top of the Most Wanted list.

I worry for my daughter but I do not want to be paranoid and infect her with paranoia either. Because of my family's current poverty, my daughter attends a public school in a poor neighborhood where most peers are working-class whites, with a few Hmong, black, and Hispanic immigrants mixed in. Strangely, my daughter seems to be doing fine in this poor environment, not experiencing the torture that my friend's daughter endures in a wealthy white suburb where 98% of the students are white. I don't know what to make of it all. My daughter seems to have inherited my outgoing personality and my wife's imperviousness to neurosis, having skirted both my sensitive personality and my wife's tendency toward introversion.

Let's see how bullying evolves as an issue. I disagree with my high school friend because I still think that things have changed. I think if I were bisexual today, at the age of fourteen, in the neighborhood where I grew up, I would be a suicide case by the age of fifteen. Growing up in the 1980s, I could stifle all that for long enough to focus on being a hard-working student and graduating with a top-notch high school education (I still maintain that I learned more in four years at Williamsville South High School, public and class-diverse though it was, than I learned in my combined eight years of college and graduate school at Yale and SUNY Buffalo.)