By Madeleine Fletcher
I had the following thoughts after watching the video of the moving speech by Fort Worth Texas councilman Joel Burnswho recounted the recent suicides of teen aged boys in this country resulting from the harassing behavior of their peers who had taunted them with accusations of homosexuality. Burns sent a message of hope to gay teens.
I am moved to speak out, not just to teens. I address this to the country as a whole, because this is not an exclusively gay issue
Harassment in high school for whatever motivation is just one example of the general abasement of our customs and should be stopped by teachers, parents and clergy before it reaches anywhere near that point. I would like to alert all those who have lost the sense of collective behavioral norms since the breakdown of the previous social contract according to which bullying was seen as contemptible and specifically cowardly and specifically un-manly.
In previous times these rules of conduct were carefully inculcated in children by their parents their teachers and their clergy.
“Georgie-Porgie, pudding pie, kissed the girls and made them cry, but when the boys came out to play; Georgie-Porgie ran away.”
This rhyme, chanted in my childhood in Northampton Massachusetts, shows how everyone used to regard a child who habitually tormented younger or weaker children. Social conditioning meant that this tormenting was seen as contemptible. In like manner a large number of children ganging up against one child was specifically and invariably condemned as cowardly.
I gather from T.V. and print journalism that this sensibility has been lost from our collective consciousness in the U.S. today. We are the poorer for it. We seem to lack the moral courage to set out norms and force their acceptance through social pressure. In its place there is only whining and a focus on the victimization of the child who was sinned against. In focusing on the victim qua victim the media are victimizing him again.
Of course we are more sophisticated now, and we know that torturing animals or younger children is a sign of psychological trouble. Young people with these problems should be helped, but to ignore this behavior is to condone it. According to the reports in the video, these bullying activities were carried out over relatively long periods of time. It seems incredible that in spite of this fact, no one in a position of authority ever seems to have noticed the bullying or taken it upon himself to make it stop.
There is a sense of surprise that this violence should be occurring which I think is out of place. We should know from all evidence, including our own personal experience that violence occurs among adolescents, especially in the absence of other outlets for their energy. From the inner city we commonly hear of completely innocent young people with no connection to gangs being gunned down by violent contemporaries. It is up to us to articulate a new solution.
In this context, I note that their ideas on youth violence were the first thing the four gubernatorial candidates were asked to contribute at the meeting of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) on October 17, 2010. The strong audience response to the question showed that youth violence represents a major crisis for all residents of the inner city where it has grown to epidemic proportions. It seems to me that this city violence is a more heavily armed version of the out-of-control bullying which is visible in suburban schools, and that this phenomenon in both city and suburbs is symptomatic of a cultural virus in need of a cure.
For a start, we might begin by returning to the previous view of harassment as a despicable act and focus on controlling it and dissuading from it. As for the victim, we must realize that the victim can really be almost anyone conveniently at hand. Any victim of bullying needs to focus his thoughts on the truly contemptible nature of his tormentors’ behavior patterns, and in this way lessen his mental (but of course not his physical) suffering. It would be nice if Cambridge with its plentiful human and intellectual resources could lead the way towards a reset and strengthening of our collective behavioral norms.
In response to the current Massachusetts anti-harassment law, the city of Cambridge in its FY2010-11 budget has “request[ed] funding to advance an anti-bullying initiative.”
This effort to comply with the law merits a word of caution. The acceptability of behavioral norms is determined not by expert specialists in Psychology but by the collective will. It is only when it is commonly acknowledged that the difference between normal horseplay and harassment is defined according to the above two principles of 1) stronger against weaker and 2) many against one, that we can look forward to having made a stop to the slide of civil society into chaos.
Madeleine Fletcher is a member of the Cambridge Republican City Committee.