Well, I survived Pink Shirt Day yesterday without wearing pink. But that doesn't mean I wasn't thinking about the pernicious practice of bullying and also about the troublesome aspects of the current anti-bullying climate. I'm glad to see that the Province newspaper is also on my wavelength; its front-page featuring of Jon Ferry's column (which I Facebooked about yesterday) was right on the mark.
Tellingly, at a meeting of a local organization yesterday, a pink-shirt-wearing board member congratulated me on the nice pink shirt I was wearing. He did it with such a straight face that I thought for a moment that maybe I had made a mistake and had actually worn one. Turns out he was just ribbing me, but it was the sort of "kidding on the straight" or "happy-faced criticism" that is designed to make a point.
But what exactly is going on when this sort of thing happens -- when you know you're taking a brave step by not wear a pink shirt? And where is it leading? On the latter question, I think that, given the direction we're going, popular culture will soon be treating bullying victims as quasi-celebrities. And, perversely, that will only encourage more vulnerable people to assume the mantle of victimhood. Can we be far from the day when emotionally needy teens willingly take on the role of bullying victims so they can be "special" and stand out? Remember: "that which you celebrate you encourage."
And given this, can we be far from the moment when we see a youngster strolling in the mall wearing a button reading: "PROUD to be a victim of BULLYING." It seems far-fetched, but it may yet come to pass.
Ever since the media frenzy over Amanda Todd's suicide, I have been increasingly concerned about the simplification, sensationalization and politicization of the bullying issue. One of the concerns, specifically related to Todd, was a possible unintended consequence of publicizing teen suicides -- that of perversely persuading teens to contemplate taking their own life. Call this the contagion effect.
On the general issue of bullying, I sense we are in the midst of some sort of moral panic, in which everyone is running around with their pants on fire, united only by their hyperventilated mantra that “we have to do something”. As one writer put it recently, this has consumed all too much “cultural oxygen.”
Do we really think that wearing a pink shirt will do much more than increase the ratings of the sponsoring radio station and pad the bottom line of clothing retailers? Oh yes, we’ll be seen to be “taking a stand”. But what will we do back home, in the workplace, at the community centre, or in school on the other 364 days of the year?
Slate.com editor and New York Times writer Emily Bazelon has written an important new book called Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. In a recent interview with the National Post, Bazelon said she believes people at large are ready for a more nuanced discussion about bullying and less hysteria. “I feel like [it] was so overblown and sensationalized that there’s a pushback. [Bullying] is a serious problem; it’s just not an epidemic,” she said.
So what’s the discussion we need to have that goes beyond the simple pink-shirt message of “standing up to bullies and stopping bullying when we see it happening”? Is it looking into whether we should enact a bylaw allowing police officers to ticket people who are being impolite or offensive – the sort of talk that could be construed as bullying? A neighbouring city is looking at just such a bylaw. But I, for one, think such a bylaw smacks of Big Sister, nanny-state-ism that sends exactly the wrong sort of message.
What we need to encourage is not rules from on high about how to be polite to each other, but personal responsibility and character-building. And that starts at the home, and then in community gathering places such as churches, synagogues and temples, and then in schools and the workplace. Respect and love others as you respect and love yourself. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – that’s the golden rule, and that’s a fundamentally moral stance that we -- and by we, I especially mean mothers and fathers – have to inculcate in our children.
So, join the throngs and wear a pink shirt the next time the big day rolls around, if you must. But if you want to do something truly positive, a better bet would be to follow the example of a group of students from Maple Creek Middle School who visited Council a few weeks ago, and perform a Random Act of Kindness.