Two weeks ago, my children’s school district celebrated anti-bullying week, the high feast of the public school year where children are taught that people who say mean things to other people are bullies, and bullies are the worst kind of people on the planet.
At some point during the week, a friend’s kindergarten son came home from school and made a less-than-respectful remark to his mother about something, likely chicken-nugget-related. “That’s not very nice,” his mother replied. The child then burst into tears, terrified that, by virtue of having said a mean thing, he had now become the kind of person his school taught him to despise and ostracize—the bully. Or, to put it in terms that the crestfallen five-year-old hopefully wouldn’t understand, after saying a mean thing, he became terrified that he was now marked for termination by the reprogrammed T-800 that now identifies all bullies as its prime target.
If you’re one of the few people who isn’t familiar with the Terminator film series, let me unpack that reference for you a bit by summarizing some plot points from the first two (read: the only good) Terminator movies: In the future, an artificial intelligence network called Skynet becomes self-aware and identifies humanity as a threat to its existence. So Skynet does what self-aware artificial intelligence networks do in these scenarios and creates a series of human-flesh-wearing cyborgs designed to infiltrate and destroy the remaining group of homo sapiens.
According to “The Terminator,” the downside of these machines, at least for mankind, is that they’re created specifically to kill humans and won’t be dissuaded by pleas for mercy or bribery. The upside however, according to “Terminator 2,” is that, if you catch a terminator, you can reprogram it to defend you from anyone or anything that wants to kill you. But an important thing to remember is that, even after you’ve cracked open that metal skull and rewritten some code, the killing machine is still a killing machine. By switching the musclebound robot from “kill John Connor mode” to “protect John Connor mode,” you haven’t instilled in the Terminator an appreciation for human life, nor have you eliminated murder from its hard drive. You’ve just taught it to point and fire its guns at anyone who looks cross-eyed at the kid who needs protecting.
The Terminator Principle for Bullies
For a few years, criminologists, and educators have noted that anti-bullying campaigns are having the opposite effected intended. Telling kids “you’re not allowed to bully in the forms of A, B, or C,” it turns out, is a fancy way of saying, “you won’t get caught if you bully in the forms of X, Y, or Z.” Likewise, students who do get caught and feel the wrath of the zero-tolerance policy tend to lash out even more at the bullied classmates who ratted on them, a surprise to no one who has ever watched a prison movie, read about the mafia, or had an older sister.
But beyond making students sneakier with their cruelty or more committed to it, another reason anti-bullying campaigns create more bullying is because of what I’d call the Terminator Principle, the notion that taking the bully’s weapons of labeling and social ostracization and reprogramming them to defend the innocent will inevitably make the innocent guilty of bullying.
In 2012, Dan Savage gave us a rather spectacular example of the Terminator Principle, when, in an address to a group of high school journalists, he called students “pansy-assed” for walking out during his speech after he repeatedly disparaged the Bible’s words concerning homosexuality and implied that anyone who believes homosexuality is sinful is de facto guilty of hating the same-sex attracted.
Those are not the words of a man opposed to bullying. They’re the words of a bitter John Connor who now delights in turning the reprogrammed killing machine on anyone associated with the jerks who made him feel small. Any students who sat at Savage’s feet to discover what it means to oppose bullying didn’t learn how to engender respect between people with differences. They just learned which differences you’re allowed to ridicule people for having.
Bad Behavior Gains Sophistication under Anti-Bullying Programs
Savage’s screed, however, shouldn’t surprise us. Human beings, it turns out, are horrible, sinful creatures that really, really like hating each other. Some of us do that by murdering each other. Most of us do it by lying about each other. If given the opportunity, pretty much all of us will do it by using sympathy for the mistreated as a pretense for mistreating each other, regardless of our age.
This is why the average elementary-school-level anti-bullying campaign is perhaps even more problematic than Savage’s vulgar brand. Tailoring the message to a younger audience that struggles to separate a person’s behavior from his humanity, elementary schools end up teaching students not to oppose acts of bullying, but to oppose bullies themselves—bullies being those mean, nasty, undefined villains slightly more dangerous to civilized society than strangers and hamburglars.
And how do you train a first grader to spot a bully? Asking that child to distinguish between repeated, intentionally demeaning behavior and simply expressing an unwelcome opinion is surely too tall an order, so just tell them that a bully is a person who says mean things. At least that’s the telltale my sons recently got from Omegaman, the curiously named anti-bullying superhero who visited their school.
Here Are Your Labels, Kids—Apply Generously
So what does this well-intentioned attempt to stomp out bullying accomplish? It teaches children that there’s a certain type of person so reprehensible that he should be marked for termination and then defines that person so vaguely that anyone who rubs them the wrong way can be made to fit the description.
The girl sitting next to you at lunch says that your breath smells like fish sticks? She’s a bully. Label her. Despise her. The boy at recess gets his “Go, Dog, Go” on and says he doesn’t like your hat? Let the hate flow through you. The kid on your bus says divorce is bad after you say that your parents got divorced? Make sure you and all your friends punch his name into the T-800’s computer and watch his reputation bleed. After all, that’s what Schwarzenegger Elementary School just taught you to do. But, like my aforementioned friend’s kindergarten son, just make sure you never say a single mean thing to anyone or speak aloud a critical thought or fail to validate the thin-skinned, hyper-sensitive kid in your music class who is currently murdering “Hot Cross Buns” on the recorder, otherwise the Bully Terminator will set its sights on you and it absolutely will not stop, ever, until your social standing is dead.
Bullying is a real problem, even a deadly one at times. And as options for online cruelty increase while the family stability that tends to curb bullying decreases, I understand why schools feel the need to address it with their students. But the greatest lessons my sons have learned in school about kindness haven’t come from motivational speakers juggling props in the gymnasium during anti-bullying week. They’ve come from fantastic teachers who, every week of the year, show their students what it means to treat everyone with respect, what it means to be a good friend to everyone, and what kinds of cruel words and actions won’t be tolerated from anyone.
This simpler method may be less flashy than the average administration prefers, and it certainly won’t achieve the goals of agenda-sporting anti-bullying advocates like Savage. But it’s certainly a better approach than handing kids the keys to a freshly reprogrammed Terminator and expecting them to use it responsibly.