Friday, November 15, 2013

Anti-Bullying Campaigns

On a recent car ride with my 6-year-old, we heard an anti-bullying commercial on the radio that began with a man verbally berating someone else before switching gears to ask, "What if someone talked to you like that?" My 6-year-old fell dead silent during the opening tirade and remarked afterwards, "That was really bad to say." I had to explain the purpose of the commercial. When I used the word "bullying," her ears lit up. "Bullying is bad." I asked her what bullying is, and she said, "It's when someone feels bad about themselves and so they say really bad things to other people to make them feel bad too." I cringed.

On the one hand, I am happy that schools are addressing the bullying issue early on, and trying to get kids to be nice to each other. I am all for playing nice. But on the other hand, I find the turning of the tables to question the psychological soundness of the bully to be distasteful and unnecessary. It got me thinking about how there is a cultural shift taking place, driven by public schools' reaction against what appears to be a serious and growing problem with bullying in schools. It is a shift toward handling everyone with kid gloves.

I remember learning the concept of the eggshell plaintiff in Torts class in law school. The basic idea is that once a person acts with bad intent (be it negligence, recklessness, or purposeful behavior), he is liable for any harm that flows to another person from his behavior, even if the harm exceeds what could normally be expected. For example, if I were to purposely drive someone off the road, and it just so happened that my victim had a bad heart, suffered a heart attack and died as a result of my aggression, I would be liable for the death even though one would not normally expect a death to result from this type of bad behavior.

I meditated on that concept for a long time, and it seems deeply fair to me. It has changed the way that I view people and has made me more careful, more prone to assume that people have weaknesses that I will never see and which should cause me to approach them with a deeper humility. I think this is the basic concept behind changing the cultural rules as to what is an acceptable way to treat other people, and it is good, at bottom.

But I also remember with amusement and some fondness a game that I used to play in one of my childhood neighbor's basements with a bunch of other kids. They had a wood burning stove down there with a small hearth. Each child in his turn would stand alone on the hearth for a couple of minutes and the rest of us would pepper him with whatever insults came to mind. The person on the hearth was not allowed to respond. We were each the aggressor and the aggressee, and then we went off and played other games together, games where we cooperated with each other, and games where we pitted ourselves in teams against each other.

I also remember being made fun of on a regular basis at school, and doing it to other kids too. There was some maliciousness involved, but not a lot- it was how in-groups and out-groups were formed. It was a normal process.

There seems to be a more sinister edge, however, to the bullying taking place in schools now. There was a recent story in the Buffalo News about an 18 year old girl who ran down her classmate with her car because they had been having a fight over text messaging. Perhaps the removal of the face to face insults, and the migration of bullying to the digital environment has blown what has always been a normal, if somewhat discouraging, part of childhood into a huge social problem.

I don't feel entirely uncomfortable with trying to wipe out this process. I think it has to happen (and probably will anyway, despite our best efforts). I think it teaches something that adults need; it is part of our social skill set. I do draw the line at violence against each other, but I think we have to be very nuanced and careful in our attempts at educating children against bullying, that we don't create a world in which we take the eggshell plaintiff rule too far. We should assume responsibility for the fragility of people whom we have wronged. But we shouldn't over-extend the boundaries of what is considered a "wrong."

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