One of the many bullying-survivor initiatives out there is It Gets Better. I have a mixed emotional response to this site and its name. The premise is a sound one: it aims to give hope to LGBT youth and let them know that life may suck now, but it will get better when you leave school and enter the big world. That’s great, but whilst it’s not an out-and-out lie like sticks and stones, pinning a teen’s life on the vague hope that it will get better at some indeterminate time in the future is a little bit rubbish. Sure, there are resources on the site for dealing with bullying now and the idea behind it is to maintain hope, without which we are all lost, but again and again, the site’s very title tells me that there is nothing you can do to fix your situation: you must simply endure it and wait for it to resolve on its own.
This wait is too long for some. Just Google for “bullied to death” and you will see many, many stories from and about people for whom the here-and-now proved too much. It did not get better for them, and suggesting that all they had to do was hang on for a little while longer (“a little while” could be your entire lifespan to date for some people) is not particularly helpful in my book.
Not only is the endure-for-years model bad for people who are bullied, it is bad for the bullies and society in general, too. The Wikipedia article on school bullying cites a Lisa Garby study that suggests that as many as 60% of people who bully at school will have a criminal conviction by the age of 24. If bullying is allowed to continue and the victim urged to simply hang in there, the life of the bully is on a poor trajectory, which will harm that person and also leave them in a place where they continue to harm others and, possibly, land them in jail. There has to be a better way.
The cure for bullying is for figures in authority to engage with the bully. A victim of bullying has had their power taken away, and the vast majority of people in this situation simply cannot take steps on their own to make it stop. The onus is on the school (in the case of bullying in school, of course, school is not the only venue) to address three issues:
- The victim: the victim must be supported and be told that bullying is never justified, that no behaviour justifies bullying, and that a victim does not bring it upon themselves (the same can be said for rape, of course).
- The bully: people are not naturally hateful to one another. As we have seen, the default position for most of us is blithe indifference. It takes a deliberate action on someone’s part for them to cross from indifference into negative action. People who make this choice must be taught that such decisions are a) decisions and b) harmful. Causing harm to others is not acceptable.
- The underlying cause: when someone takes the decision to harm someone, there is a reason why they are doing it. You can guarantee that the person doing the bullying wouldn’t want it to happen to them, so authority figures must work out why it is happening, what is causing that person to take that decision. It could be that the bully is acting out a horrible home situation: the school has a duty to identify children at risk and to involve the relevant child protection bodies.
I guess that I’m advocating a holistic approach to this. Separating the victim from the bully is often not practically possible, and can be counter-productive, as it can send the message that the bullying is justified but we’d rather not have to deal with it. Counselling the victim is good, but doesn’t go far enough. Ignoring the problem costs lives. The only way is to deal with the whole problem, to support the victim, to learn about the bully’s life and to work to support them too, to emphasise that bullying is not an appropriate response to your own life situation, and also to promote an environment where people are accepted in all their difference. If the school accepts and celebrates everyone from all situations with all presentations, there will be no characteristics that can be used as handles for bullying.
For Jane Lynch, the handle was her sexuality; for Laverne Cox, it was her transgender identity; for me it was the fact that some people decided that I was gay. In an environment where all of these things are celebrated, they cannot be used to justify bullying, and bullies-to-be will learn that we are all people.
G’Quon wrote, There is a greater darkness than the one we fight. It is the darkness of the soul that has lost its way.
The war we fight is not against powers and principalities – it is against chaos and despair. Greater than the death of flesh is the death of hope, the death of dreams. Against this peril we can never surrender.