A National Climate that Fosters Bullying

By Felicia Gustin
May 20, 2012

I caught a screening of Bully, the documentary that, in the words of its director Lee Hirsch “gives voice to the kids who deal with such torments on a daily basis. Through this unflinching look, we will make a difference for other young people across our communities and improve our collective response to this crisis.”

There’s no question that the film is a powerful indictment of the abuse endured by 13 million kids each year and that keeps 3 million absent each month because they feel unsafe at school. Bullytells the intimate stories of five young people and their families, giving a human face to a national crisis. The tragedies that unfold in this beautifully shot documentary are real, the emotions are heartwrenching and in particular, the incompetence of school staff and administrators is especially infuriating.

But after watching the film, I had to ask, how do we stem this epidemic when we live in a society where violence and militarism permeate every aspect of our daily lives, from popular culture to foreign policy?

According to Jessie Klein, the author of the new book The Bully Society,the rise of school shootings and childhood aggression are the consequences of a society that actually promotes aggressive and competitive behavior. An Adelphi University professor of sociology and criminal justice, Klein points out that bullying is an everyday reality in a society where children learn early that being sensitive, respectful, and kind earns them no respect. 

“Students are encouraged to be competitive and aggressive, to pursue success - socially and otherwise - with a single-minded zeal, and to step on anyone that gets in their way,” says Klein.

If we examine this broader view of bullying we can see how it is perpetrated physically, verbally, emotionally and sexually throughout our whole economic, political and social system. Boys/men bully girls/women, whites bully people of color, Christians bully non-Christians, straights bully gays (or those they percieve to be gay), bosses bully workers, the 1% bullies the 99%, the U.S. bullies other nations, the list goes on and on.

In an interview with Salon.com, Klein takes it one step further, arguing that the growth of social and economic conservatism has fostered the epidemic of bullying. She traces this to Reagan and the Reagan era. “He came to power talking about deregulating capitalism. There are many people who do believe that the more you help people, the less they will work, the more lazy they will become. There became an entire culture against people on welfare.”

This view has extended to the range of safety net programs that were once lauded by our culture as a way to help the most vulnerable and needy, from children and seniors to disabled and homeless to the unemployed to the uninsured. As we know, these saftely net programs are currently under attack by the Right.

In the field of education the shift is perhaps even more insidious. Schools, where bullying is so rampant, have been impacted by government policies which actually contribute to an environment that fuels it – first with Bush’s No Child Left Behind and now the current administartion’s Race to the Top program.

Tina Gurney is a 6th grade teacher and president-elect of the Garden Grove (CA) Education Association, the local teachers union. “Race to the Top pits school districts against each other to compete for federal education dollars,” she says. “Teachers are being forced to succumb to the rigidity of high stakes testing and the pressure on teachers trickles down to students who struggle to meet unrealistic expectations. The result is a climate that fosters despair, depression, fear and bullying.”

All this is not to say that we shouldn’t work to stem bullying in our schools. Working with young people to decrease violence in their lives is important and necessary, especially when hurting others or themselves are often the only options young people think they have. Whether the work is to protect LGBT and questioning youth or to transform the way schools respond to bullying, there is much that can and should be done to make schools safe and caring communities.

For over two decades, Sarah Crowell has been working with youth at Destiny Arts Center, a violence prevention, arts education program in Oakland, California.

“Young people in our programs are regularly exposed to violence of all kinds – gun violence, domestic violence, verbal violence, psychological violence and violence turned inward. As a communty-based organization committed to ending violence in the lives of young people, we often feel that it’s an uphill climb.

“Yet we know that all beings yearn for peace and that when we give youth the opportunities to be creative rather than violent and provide them with creative outlets as well as the skills to resolve conflict, over and over again we see that young people will choose peace.”

That spirit of hope is also the final offering of Bully; the documentary serves as a springboard for honest, open discussion and action. But for these efforts to have profound impact and be truly sustainable, they must be coupled with endeavors to tranform this society that views compassion and empathy as weakness and promotes agression, violence, militarism and war. We must work for peace in all aspects of our lives because, in fact, our children’s lives are at stake.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Felicia Gustin has been with War Times since the beginning. She currently works at SpeakOut, a national organization working primarily with colleges, universities, and high schools and dedicated to the advancement of education, racial and social justice, leadership development and activism. She is a long-time activist in international solidarity, peace, racial justice and labor movements. She was a journalist for 10 years in Cuba and is currently working on several projects - an historical memoir and a poetry collection, among others.

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