Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Bullying and School Shootings

I've been bullied.

I know that there are those among you who will take the opportunity to use this fact against me, to use it to discount my arguments, and to attempt to perform the closest approximation of violence available through a text based exchange.  I know that will be the result because that has been the result countless times I've brought this fact up.  If you think any of that is going to silence me, I'll again direct you to reread the introductory post, and you ask yourself why you think you can hurt or intimidate me into silence after I opened with that.

Bullying is my top youth rights issue.  More than voting, more than age of consent, more than property rights.  So if I care so much about this one, why wait so long to post anything about it?  Because the problems associated with this issue are so painfully obvious not one of them would need to be said out loud in a sane universe.  And as such, this post requires I put into words basic human decency.  And because the heartbreaking consequences of people so universally failing to act on this issue mean I tend to get omnicidal when I resume thinking about it, and that isn't conductive to careful, thoughtful analysis or persuasive writing.

Social rules are a series of lines we draw between ourselves and others.  Boundaries need to be agreed upon, and thereafter respected.  Much bullying is crossing one or two of those boundaries by just the tiniest degree.  Once that's been done, the bully relies on the fact that the infraction was small to shield him/her from consequences, then does it again.  And again.  And again.

Bullying is not a single incident.  It isn't one kid beating you up, or stealing from you.  That isn't what it is at all.  Bullying is a pattern of such incidents.  Bullying is a prolonged campaign of physical, psychological, and social attacks, each individually below the threshold that the authorities would care about, but collectively adding up to be too much for the victim to handle.  Bullying is slow torture, and needs to be treated as such.

So much advice we give kids fails to take this pattern into account.  We tell them to "tell an adult", but when a kid comes to an adult authority figure with a minor complaint, the adult is frustrated at the kid's inability to deal with something so minor.  So that adult says "just ignore it", not recognizing that this is a pattern, perpetrated by someone who will delight in the victim bottling up their obvious discomfort as they proceed to escalate the violence while the kid still has that "just ignore it" advice ringing in their ears.

Which brings us to the "fight back, bullies are cowards" advice.  There's only one healthy response to a prolonged campaign of torture that's being actively ignored by the authorities.  Whatever it takes to make it stop.  And a victim can't simply match like for like.  Repaying each small violation with a small violation of their own against their tormenter.  The tormenter will simply delight in their ability to provoke this new response.  So when we tell the victim to fight back, the only answer for them is to make it stop by any means necessary.  If that means someone ends up hospitalized, so be it, if that means someone ends up dead because the authorites refused to intervene when the situation was minor.  So.  Be.  It.  

That's why everyone knows that it's the victims of bullying who get into trouble and the bullies themselves are left to roam free.  Bullies know exactly where the line is between their victim being comfortable and not, and they also know exactly where the line is where their activity is too minor for any single incident to be responded to meaningfully by the authorities.  When a victim fights back, they don't keep that line in mind, because they've learned that the authorities aren't an issue, because the authorities have been ignoring months, or years of torture right in front of their eyes.

Of course, it isn't always that way.  Sometimes we have a real simple case for the authorities to handle.  A good old fashioned beating incident where the victim is attacked and left bloody.  And again the authorities fail.  What happened here is called "assault and battery".  It is a criminal offense.  The appropriate response to it is a criminal trial and criminal penalties.

That is the social contract every citizen is included in, adult or child.  Instead, authority figures in the school cover it up.  They minimize the incident to the parents, using phrases like "boys will be boys".  They pressure parents not to press charges.  And they again teach the victim that their pain will be ignored, and that the bully can act with impunity.  That the social contract does not protect them, and will only ever be used to hurt them.

Shootings aren't a cry for attention.  The victims who snap and start shooting people don't want attention.  They know attention won't fix anything.  They've been taught that the social contract doesn't apply to them, and that the only way that anything will ever change for the better is if they, on their own, make it impossible for things to continue as they had.

What these people are doing is solving problems in a perfectly natural way.  Without the social contract, this is the standard way human beings settle disputes.  We created the social contract in order to prevent incidents like this.  That is the only reason we have the social contract. 

Given how utterly useless the social contract has been in protecting tormented minors who are forced, day in and day out, to spend the majority of their waking hours in close proximity to their tormentors while authority figures ignore and minimize the abuse they're suffering, you should all feel blessed that shootings are as unfathomably rare as they are.