Posted by: Godfångst | April 19, 2009

Bullying: It’s Not Just For ‘Queers’ Anymore?

The nightly network news has been covering a couple of bullying stories lately that are out of the ordinary, or at least as far as mainstream America is concerned. One is the case of Eric Mohat, a 17-year-old from Ohio who shot himself two years ago and whose concerned parents have sued the school district in an attempt to get them to implement tougher anti-bullying restrictions. It seems that a girl and two other boys at Mohat’s school had also committed suicide in the same year. The other story involves Carl Joseph Walker Hoover, an 11-year-old boy from Ohio who hanged himself with an electrical extension cord. Both were tormented at school by bullies who frequently used the terms “gay” or “fag/faggot” to refer to them.

In both cases, the newscasters on both local (San Francisco Bay Area) and network news were quick to point out that these boys didn’t identify as gay, citing as “proof” things like church attendance, football, and Boy Scouts in the case of Hoover. The tone on last week’s ABC network news was one of incredulity–even grade school kids are bullying other kids who aren’t even gay.

It makes me wonder. Is anti-gay bullying more incredible, more newsworthy–and somehow even more offensive–when it’s aimed at those who aren’t gay? Are we finally going to start to pay attention to this issue now that it’s affecting ostensibly “heterosexual” kids and their families? And when we do pay attention, will it be in a way that really gets to the root of the problem?

“When you say ‘That’s so gay,’ do you realize what you say? Knock it off,” says teen idol Hilary Duff in a PSA for GLSEN (The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network). I respect GLSEN, but I can’t help but think that the ad, though well-intentioned, is spectacularly ineffective.

Of course they realize what they say. That’s why they say it. It works. “Gay,” “queer,” “fag/faggot,” “dyke,” “homo,” and other ugly anti-gay slurs are far from being reclaimed by the GLBT community. They’re still the slurs of choice for bullies. As a former 9th and 11th-grade English teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area who grew up in a small, conservative town far outside the liberal San Francisco bubble, I’d say that they’re even more common–and just as effective–as they were in my day, even here in the Bay Area, where the broad spectrum of human behavior is on display each and every day and we like to think that “kids should know better.”

And as much as I respect the Mohat family’s efforts to strengthen anti-bullying programs at their son’s school, I don’t think it’s nearly enough. I don’t think there’s a program in the world effective enough to counteract social messages being crammed down students’ throats every day. The program, based on the research of Prof. Dan Olweus, a Swedish-born researcher working at the University of Bergen in Norway, was already in place at Mohat’s school. Many, including Mohat’s parents, feel that the Olweus program is ineffective in an American setting–in Norwegian schools, research shows that 9% of students reported being bullied by 7% of their classmates. In American schools, the number climbs to 60, 70, or even 80% of students who report being bullied. The Norwegians aren’t living in the same society that we are, it appears.

Changes in social attitudes and norms bring change faster than any program ever could. But I don’t see Americans doing a whole lot to rethink our attitudes. When the news (and the parents) insist that these boys were not gay, I think, “WHO CARES? And how do we know that?” Why is that so important to mention?

In arguing about how to stop kids from victimizing each other or using words that hurt or whether or not so-and-so is or is not gay, we totally miss the point. Kids bully because it works, it achieves their ends, and they use anti-gay slurs because they’re the quickest way to cut right into a kid’s psyche–especially among boys. Use the phrase, “that’s so straight,” and you’ll see how no one could possibly use a reference to a perceived “normal” behavior to hurt another. Kids bully others based on gentleness, perceived physical weakness, academic prowess, perceived homosexuality, or physical characteristics because we’re a nation obsessed with preserving norms related to aggression, a certain set of physical characteristics and heteronormativity, among other things. And who teaches kids what’s normal and acceptable and what’s not? Not a Norwegian anti-bullying program, that’s for sure.

Bullying is a social problem, one of cognition and attitude, not a problem of behavior. Behavior is merely a symptom of the disease, not the disease itself. Expel bullies, tell everyone what bullies are thinking and saying is so so so wrong, get celebrities to support these ideas until you run out of PSA money. It’s a waste of time and energy if that’s all we do. We need to change our society’s values from the amygdala up, not just spend money on PSAs and programs and pray they’ll work. Bullying and anti-gay violence doesn’t spring from higher-order thinking. I believe we’re all clear on that. But what program has EVER made teenagers engage in higher-order thinking? If our entire society strokes the ugliest cells in the human brain until they spring to life, what do we expect?

We live in a country in which “gay” is not equal. It’s a status that will get you less respect, less opportunity, more harassment, more condescension, fewer rights. It’s something that can drive kids to suicide–whether or not they’re gay, apparently. If “you’re so straight” could drive someone to hang himself, we’d see the problem immediately. Kids *want* to bully other kids. That’s the problem. If we don’t address that, we should just put duct tape over their mouths or expel the “bad” ones and everyone else would get along, right?

Sometimes working in a high school was like being in a giant mosh pit. But I always knew that this was simply a reflection of society at large. This is a country in which guns with which teens shoot themselves are freely available. It’s a country in which we can’t count on religion to guide truly moral behavior–what religion teaches in the case of homosexuals, for example, often isn’t love and acceptance but pity or grudging tolerance at best–outright rejection and hatred at worst. We constantly judge, categorize, label, and rank people, as if it is part of our nature that we can’t reason our way out of. Aggression, competition, instant gratification thinking, impulsivity, and one-upmanship are rewarded in this land. Individual gain (on Wall Street or elsewhere), even at the expense of others, and a “fuck you” attitude to “weaklings” are not only tolerated, but encouraged, implicitly or explicitly, in almost every community, unless you’re a Quaker or something, and Quakers don’t get half the respect of your average hip hop star or casino owner. Civility and politeness are often viewed as submissive, “sissy-boy” behaviors, even by our elected officials, male and female alike. There’s a strong undercurrent of racism and sexism that we hardly ever deal with. People are proud of being street fighters and thugs. Images of violence are everywhere, from cartoons to songs to films to the streets of any city to the battlefields of Afghanistan. Everyone wants to be top dog, hero, rock star.

Homophobic, critical, judgmental, self-serving, and aggressive thinking breeds more of the same. Constant reinforcement of it just makes it worse. If it’s coming from songs, TV, movies, video games, gun shows, parents, churches, and family members, what chance does a little Norwegian program have against it? Or the entire country of Norway, for that matter?

Children usually act out what they’re taught on an everyday basis. No school assembly or sensitivity training video can undo that. If we lived in a society in which thinkers were respected more than fighters, in which society didn’t see even a hint of a fault in being “gay,” in which gentleness, community, and respect were encouraged more than aggression, materialism, competition and individual gain, we wouldn’t have to have programs to tell kids that what they’re thinking is wrong. They wouldn’t think it in the first place.

That’s not “gay.” That’s a better way of living. Why is that not the American Way? It should be.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: