Cosmic justice? Bully for us
Editorial Cartoons, June 2012
Still, a few untidy questions remain. For starters, what kind of little monsters would do this sort of thing?
The answer is, maybe yours. Seventh-grade boys (the age of Ms. Klein’s tormentors) have entered their defiant years. They combine a need to test boundaries with a perilous lack of judgment. They take their cues from their peer group, not adults. They can be cruel and vicious without thinking about it. Approval of the group means everything. To get it, they’ll take foolish risks or even gang up to attack the weak. If you don’t understand the psychology of adolescents who have escaped adult supervision, I suggest you reread Lord of the Flies.
Pack bullying works like this: One person starts it. If no one else joins in, it dies down quickly. If someone else joins in, others will be inclined to follow. If a bystander speaks up, the joiners will often be ashamed and stop. If nobody speaks up, they’ll rip their prey apart. Nobody spoke up for Ms. Klein.
What makes bystanders speak up? They have a strong sense of right and wrong, even when it goes against the herd. They have internalized adult notions about conduct and respect. They’ve learned it’s wrong to pick on the weak. They have learned deference to adults, especially older ones. They have a little voice inside them that says, “You shouldn’t make fun of Mrs. Blodgett, because she’s your teacher.”
Schools alone can’t teach these things. Anti-bullying campaigns won’t work if kids don’t learn these messages at home. And if they haven’t learned them by Grade 7, it’s probably too late.
If you’re a conscientious parent, you’re far more likely to have a kid who will speak up on the bus. But modern parents have an uphill job. Deference to authority is deeply out of fashion. Outside the schools, the institutions that once helped to instill values and codes of conduct among adolescents have all but disappeared. The influence of churches, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and 4-H Clubs are waning. Today, the Boy Scout oath (“On my honour, I will do my best … to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight”) seems quaint, even risible. Yet nothing has replaced it.
You’re also fighting social media. As one student in Ms. Klein’s town told a reporter, “You don’t really see the bullying in school as much any more as you do on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and other social media because you don’t have to face the person to do your bullying.”
Social media bring out both the best and worst in people, and amplify the effects a thousandfold. The video of the bullied bus monitor triggered another wave of bullying directed against the young offenders, who got thousands of threatening phone calls and text messages.
No one will begrudge the money raised for Ms. Klein. It’s an overwhelming show of public sympathy. But it’s also like the money raised to fight Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony after another shocking video went viral. The money does nothing to address the problem, but it makes us feel better about ourselves.