05 March 2013

Bully-land

Anti-bullying Respect Tour 2009 What would it take to eliminate bullying? Photo by Working Word.
In 2006, just about when we were all starting to see the light at the end of the Bush Administration, Sarah Vowell totally rearranged my perspective on U.S. politics:

High school ... is the most appropriate metaphor for life in a democratic republic. Because democracy is an idealistic attempt to make life fair. And while high school is the place where you read about the democratic ideal of fairness, it is also the place most of us learn how unfair life really is. Who you are is informed by who you were then. And every nerd has an anecdote or two to tell about how Nerds versus Jocks is not just some epic mythological struggle but a pesky if normal way of life.

Vowell's essay “The Nerd Voice” (originally published in as part of buy it over on The Partly Cloudy Patriot) starts from the observation that the differences between Presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush are neatly encapsulated in the high school archetypes of Nerd and Jock, and from that spins an entire worldview. Alongside the Nerd are the poor kid, the undocumented kid, the disabled kid, the gay kid—the Democrats’ patchwork coalition of the unpopular lunch table. Arrayed against them: the Jock’s friends the rich kid, the casual racist, the popular kid who never has time for less-popular kids, the socially powerful who need not even acknowledge that they have power. Natural-born Republicans, every one.

More than a decade later, it barely counts as a metaphor to invoke the social strata of the schoolyard in reference to politics. The image of the Bully and the Bullied—the only slightly darker angle on the Nerd and the Jock—is routinely conjured by folks on both sides of the political spectrum to directly describe the actions They want to perpetrate against Us. In this atmosphere, where bullying is simultaneously a political issue and a unifying theory of politics even as the political discourse feeds back to shape the interactions of children in the schoolyard, Emily Bazelon’s book Sticks and Stones offers the hope of understanding not just our own high school traumas, or the experiences of children who are bullied today, but the way social power is wielded in American society.

Sticks and Stones grows out of Bazelon’s extensive writing on bullying for Slate. The book is structured around three specific cases: a girl bullied by upperclassmen for (a least initially) picking the wrong haircut; a gay boy in a rural school district; and a girl accused of contributing to a classmate's suicide. The details of each case study inform Bazelon's accounts of the others, and all three serve as starting points for discussion of broader context: the history of public schools' legal responsbilities to protect students from bullying, historical and ongoing social research, and the evolving role of online media in teenagers' social lives.

Bazelon's handling of all this material is clear, precise, and cautious, even as she maintains empathy with (almost) everyone concerned in her three case studies. Early on, she establishes a working definition of bullying (from on the work of pioneering psychologist Dan Olweus), as "verbal or physical aggression that [is] repeated over time and that [involves] a power differential." This allows differentiation between bullying and "drama," or jostling for social status among near-equals.

That can still be a difficult line to draw, as the accounts in Sticks and Stones demonstrate—interviewing the bullies in her first case study, Bazelon rapidly establishes that what feels like bullying to the victim is percieved, by the bullies, as normal and necessary social interaction. They're concerned to learn that the bullied girl, Monique, couldn't handle their taunting, but not that they'd done something inappropriate.

Monique, in the eyes of these girls ... hadn't learned how to play the game; how to mock other kids and be mocked by them. This was the key to scaling the heights of middle school, if that was your goal. If you wanted to be one of the popular kids in Aminah's mental chart, you had to learn how to trade barbs, to give as good as you got. ... "You have to defend yourself," Gianna told me.

Sticks and Stones also draws a distinction between kids who bully from positions of social or physical strength (think Mitt Romney, the son of a governor and CEO), and those who bully to shore up a precarious position low in the social pecking order. As Bazelon recounts the case of Jacob, a gay kid dealing with anti-gay bullying in a rural New York high school, it emerges that his chief antagonist may fall into the latter category, the "bully-victim." Jacob's bully goes after him in a broader social climate in which queer kids are fair game—where a school administrator can shrug off reported harassment by blaming the victim: "To the extent that the child isn't ready to project their sexuality in a responsible way, the peers may not respond appropriately, either."

In that context, a socially marginalized boy looking to prove his toughness has an obvious target.

Bullying Photo by JLM Photography.
Bazelon also finds that the roles of bully and bullied can shift rapidly, as demonstrated in the experience of Flannery Mullins, one of several students at South Hadley High in Massechusetts who were accused of bullying a classmate, Phoebe Prince, until she committed suicide. (Bazelon wrote extensively about this case for Slate.) However, it emerges that most of what came to be understood as bullying in the wake of Prince's suicide originated as interactions that could have looked like nothing more than standard high-school drama over dating relationships—until they interacted, tragically, with Prince's family life and fragile mental health.

Except, what does that say about what we're willing to consider "standard high-school drama?"

The picture built in Sticks and Stones suggests that although bullying has become strongly associated with particular parts of society—queer kids, most notably, in the era of "It Gets Better"—there is something about bullying that is quite independent of any particular characteristic that may currently attract bullying. That is, to borrow a thought from Tony Kushner, it is conceivable that some future American society might treat queer young people just the same as it treats straight young people—and still allow all its young people to bully and be bullied, as part of the "normal" cost of growing up.

In other words, the problem of bullying is not about who, specifically, suffers the slings and arrows of life at the bottom of the social ladder. It's about the existence of the ladder, and what we—parents, school staff, peers—allow teenagers to do and say to establish and enforce their places on it. Sticks and Stones surveys efforts to change exactly these things, and while Bazelon's description of some specific programs seems hopeful, it's also clear that they require sustained effort by teachers, administrators, students, and parents—and everyone involved must start from the shared realization that a school's culture needs to change.

And, on some level, cultural acceptance of bullying is not about particular schools (though, of course, some are worse than others). It's about our expectations for the very experience of high school. Fixing that will take more than local anti-bullying programs, or legalized marriage equality, or even the best anti-bullying laws. It will require Americans to re-examine how we treat each other, and how we treat those less powerful than us, in the schoolyard and beyond.◼

I was able to read Sticks and Stones for free in advance of publication, via NetGalley.

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