Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Bullying is a horrible reality the state will not ignore
As recently as two years ago, the teen murderers who left 15 dead at Columbine were considered beyond understanding. What could explain such a heinous act?
Not so with Charles Andrew Williams, who shot two people at his Santee, Calif., high school last month. Andy Williams, it soon emerged, had been the victim of bullies. Teased, tormented and scorned, he couldn’t take it anymore. Williams was “desolate,” one sympathetic psychologist explained to Time. “He tried to reach out even to other kids’ parents. The effort failed, and his resiliency failed.”
Williams is not alone. According to the U.S. Secret Service, three-quarters of those involved in recent school shootings, including the Columbine avengers, reported being taunted and harassed. One survey showed 70 percent of high-school students have been victims of bullies or know someone else who has.
In bullying, public officials have found a cause of school violence they can do-or appear to do-something about. Washington is the latest state to mandate tht school districts prohibit bullying; similar legislation is expected to pass soon in Colorado.
School programs that stigmatize bullying are mushrooming, fed by Justice Department grants. Little wonder that when one Massachusetts mother whose son had been picking on a classmate got a call from school, she exclaimed, “Oh please, tell me that he was the one who was bullied.”
Here in the U.S., the mounting body count creates an urgency around the issue in schools. But the anti-bullying movement is not confined to the bullet-riddled lunchroom.
It is well-organized in the U.K., where, not long ago, bullying was the accepted organizing principle of elite education. Canada, Australia and New Zealand are also addressing the problem. Pioneering Norway, not a country known for its violent culture, was the first to institute an anti-bullying program, which now serves as the model for many American states.
Bullying is older than the playground. If we believe the research, bullying touches the vast majority of students. While that’s no argument for condoning it, it does raise the question: How did a human behavior so common, so-dare I say it?-normal, become the object of a multinational social-engineering project?
An entrepreneur selling a “hurt-free schools” curriculum on the Internet offers a clue. She promulgates a bill of schoolchildren’s “rights.” These include the right “to be yourself, whether you are alike or different from others”; “to learn in your own way and at your own speed;” “to know how to keep asking for help until the hurting stops”-rights her program presumably guarantees. The message is that a hurt-free environment is no longer a mere social ideal, but a non-negotiable demand.
It is no accident that these “rights” read like briefs for an ad campaign. Consumers are encouraged to demand their rights. They have been trained to keep asking until the hurting stops. And if we demand a hurt-free world for ourselves, how much more do we demand it for our kids?
But if consumer mores dictate that everything is due our children, it is equally true that everything is expected of them. In the wake of the Santee shooting, an elderly Californian called a Los Angeles Times columnist to ask how society could produce “such monsters.” (She meant the bullies, not the shooters.) In The Boston Globe, Eileen McNamara declared that “the bullying we remember pales next to the abuse” visited on children today. And a Washington state senator who
voted against his legislature’s anti-bullying measure as useless government interference sought to assign blame elsewhere, declaring: “We’ve got a generation that is perfectly uninhibited.”
He couldn’t be more wrong.
What we’ve got is a generation raised on zero tolerance. A generation in which 8-year-old boys risk expulsion for stealing a schoolyard kiss. One that ranks as the most surveilled, curfew-bound, homework-laden, pressured, disciplined, protected, behaviorally censored and nagged at generation in memory.
The anti-bullying programs, though admirable, are another way for adults to demand the young
be better than their own-or any
other-generation. “Names can really hurt us.” That was a theme of the anti-bullying campaign which, ironically, was in place at Williams’ school.
But as the students learned, bullets hurt us more. What pales against the bullying adults remember is not the ubiquity of the harassment, but the extremity of the reaction. The bullies aren’t the killers. The shooters are.