With a new school year upon us, we should not forget the insidious effect bullying has on children. Consider the poem “Incident,” by Harlem Renaissance writer Countee Cullen: in just three verses, Cullen demonstrates how easy it is to destroy a child’s sense of innocence and wonder.
“Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.”
We can feel the child’s joy as he sees someone just about his age (as Cullen tells us in the next line: “I was eight and very small, and he was no whit bigger”). Cullen’s child greeted the other child with a smile of friendship. But in response, the Baltimorean kid “poked out his tongue, and called me ‘N—-r.’ ”
What does such an emotional sucker punch do to a child? Cullen explains in the poem’s final couplet:
“I saw the whole of Baltimore from May until December.
“Of all the things that happened there, that’s all that I remember.”
Most people read the poem as an exposé of racism. Indeed it is, but I think that barely scratches the surface. “Incident” powerfully illustrates the way bullying assaults all human dignity.
Hostile Climates Stunt Learning
Such shocks have a way of implanting themselves like weeds in the mind. While some children respond to insults with the savvy and vengeance necessary to garner a higher place in the pecking order, others (too well-mannered or too clueless) will take a place at the bottom of the scholastic totem pole.
In the minds of many if not most children, this game—sometimes dubbed “playground politics” by experts—trumps anything else that takes place in school. One minute a young girl is innocently playing and having a good time; the next minute her friends suddenly turn on her.
For vulnerable children who experience such stings, school becomes a poor environment for growth and learning. Trying to make sense of the senseless is a daunting task, and it can suck the oxygen out of one’s natural curiosity and zest for life.
Even now, playgrounds and school hallways across the nation are echoing with insults and cruelties that will largely go unnoticed—or, just as often, be tolerated by the adults in charge. Modern anti-discrimination laws seek to protect students against such bullying on the basis of factors such as race, national origin, sex, and disability.
Gay or transgender students receive even higher levels of attention, thanks to the alliance between powerful LBGT lobbies and the federal government. President Obama’s administration has displayed a single-minded devotion to this specific area of discrimination with his personal endorsement of the “It Gets Better Project,” which offers special insulation to students who identify as gay or transgender.
At first glance it may seem these special protections help students. But the problem with such anti-bullying programs is that they depend on dividing and labeling children into categories. Children can sense the disparate levels of treatment proffered to them according to their outward appearance or political categorization—and this is not a good thing.
Rather than promoting an overarching ethic that respects human dignity across the board, anti-discrimination laws (ironically) divide and discriminate. They don’t allow us to point to the Golden Rule, which commands us to treat others as we would like to be treated, with an understanding that we all share a common humanity. Instead, they encourage separatism and impede friendship.
Today’s Anti-Bullying Policies Help Bullies Pick Their Targets
Today’s grievance culture has killed the spirit of the civil rights movement. Civil rights leaders intended to provide equal protection under the law to all people—but today’s establishment carves out protections on the basis of increasingly narrow demographic criteria. Modern anti-discrimination law compartmentalizes people into cubbyholes promoted by intersectionality theorists, and both media propaganda and celebrity messaging reinforce and support these classifications.
The overall theme embedded in each category of personhood is “oppressed versus privileged.” We can see this clearly in the current push to raise awareness concerning “privilege,” specifically “white” privilege. If you survey the vast array of privilege workshops mushrooming on college campuses—extracting Maoist-style confessions from clueless kids who basically repent of having happy childhoods—it becomes clear that anti-discrimination policies do not bring people together. Quite the opposite.
In the parlance of today’s anti-discrimination laws, “race” no longer simply means race. Instead, it means black versus white—or Hispanic versus white. Likewise, “religion” no longer means any and all religions: instead, it suggests something less unifying and more hostile, like Muslim versus Christian.
Sex most often means female versus male. Ditto sexual orientation: it signifies gay versus straight. The term “gender identity” requires us to divide the population into transgender versus those who don’t identify as transgender. The category does not exist for those who accept their biologically sexed body.
The list goes on. No one in the educational establishment even pretends to care about the whole child anymore. The idea that a human being should be treated with dignity and respect simply because they are human has become a quaint, even offensive relic among today’s so-called progressives.
Adults Force Children Into An Identity Labyrinth
The innocent child in Cullen’s “Incident” was able to look at the world with joy and awe, able to view each person as a potential friend. This outlook is second nature to people who still believe that we all share a common humanity.
But today’s identity politics dismantle this innocent outlook. Children learn instead to obsess about their skin color, genitalia, clothes, or class status. Identity politics force them to navigate a scary labyrinth in which any move deemed “wrong” by the establishment results in marginalization.
This labyrinthine system is perfect for bullies: they can easily see who is fair game and who is not. For example: if a child comes from a traditional Christian home, public school policy increasingly dictates labeling her family bigots. It doesn’t matter if the child minds her own business, is friendly to others, and sees the world “heart-filled, head-filled with glee.” New forms of anti-discrimination policy focus a bull’s eye on her demographic, and by extension, on her. By painting her as a bigot and distancing her from her peers, bullies believe at some level that they are merely validating school policy.
In such cases, harried teachers and administrators not only accept the stigmatization of children by their peers, but even assent to it as part of the “socialization” process, which supposedly prepares children for the “real” world.
Schools tend to be bureaucratic hives in which symbiotic relationships promote self-interest among administrators, teachers, and tuned-in students. Cliques enjoy the attention of administrators and teachers—especially those of high achievers, athletes, and queen bees. A lot of adults view such cliques as normal, and even see them as a positive socialization experience.
But power cliques are not just innocent circles of friends with common interests. They are often tribal entities—hierarchical pecking orders that inevitably push some students into social isolation. Many public schools are run by inner circles of student dictators who determine who’s cool and who’s not, who gets a pass to be left alone and who is targeted for degradation. These dynamics are not just tolerated by adults in charge—they’re often condoned.
I have observed plenty of situations that affirm this. In my children’s “Blue Ribbon” elementary school, a sorority of young teachers promoted negative socialization by giggling with and catering to a coterie of girls who were the worst offenders. All too often, I observed administrative support for such power cliques—particularly for the emotionally destructive ones, whose members pander to teachers and perform well academically. One teacher even told me that children should not be polite, but should rather conform to the cliques’ standards. The teacher never thought to proactively discourage such nasty behavior.
True, you’ll find posters in these same schools that implore students to “respect” each other. You’ll find programs called “character counts.” But it’s all window dressing. Unless a child resides within an approved demographic, his or her complaints will fall on deaf ears.
It Isn’t ‘Getting Better’
So have schools actually become “safer” places to learn? Are they less stressful? More likely to promote friendship and happiness? Less prone to incidents of emotional cruelty and bullying?
No. School taunting can lead to suicide ideation in children as young as six, as this recent Washington Post letter to an advice columnist illustrates. Experts often accept social taunts as a part of life, and view the resulting talk of suicide as a “normal” thing.
But the suicide rate has risen for youth, suggesting that kids feel more isolated and lonely than ever. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for age groups 10-14 and 15-24, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC’s latest report on suicide statistics in the United States (1999-2014) notes that the highest rate increase among females in the US occurred in the age group 10-14. Since those are prime middle school years, we can’t avoid the possibility that peer dynamics are a factor.
Kids generally have no choice but to go to school. In this sense, schools can function much like a prison to many children: because of their mandatory, regimented nature, government schools often promote hierarchical behaviors among children not unlike the hierarchical dynamics that often develop in prisons. Increased cases of school refusal have even led to the development of a “school refusal clinic” aimed at helping children overcome their school “phobias.”
No wonder student anxieties abound.
It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way
I remember my fifth grade teacher starting the school year by telling his students how things stood: all were expected to behave decently to one another, and he would not tolerate anything less. His code was universal and unambiguous, and we instinctively understood its basis in natural standards of virtue. He had an eagle eye for nastiness among peers, and students soon recognized taunting for what it was: shameful.
I doubt you could find a happier bunch of students in any classroom. It wasn’t just the teacher’s engaging style and sense of humor that captivated us—it was also his strong sense of fairness. Had he heard of anything akin to Cullen’s incident, he would have proactively investigated it. The offender would have been thoroughly dressed down, but in a manner that left open the possibility of friendship, or at least true apology and true forgiveness. My teacher fostered real healing, which allowed for real learning.
Sadly, what most people recall most about their school years is the socialization process they went through. Perhaps they enjoyed a circle of friends with whom they fit in, but all too often schools foster an atmosphere in which students endure a litany of degrading incidents. Many school administrators magnify the problem by allowing identity politics, political correctness, and cliques to separate students.
Like it or not, our schools are breeding grounds for all manner of neuroses. And we all pay the price.