The New (Un)Cool – Bullying As An Ugly Art Form

June 2, 2010
Time for Bullying to Stop

Photo Credit - Virginia Youth Violence Project

The media has been polluted with an abundance of teen and pre-teen bullying cases over the last few weeks. What is troubling is not the amount of bullying that makes the press these days, but the outrageous direction that bullying has taken and how little is being done about it.

Bullying is a terrible early manifestation of incivility that is all too frequently waved off by parents as “just a thing that kids do as they grow up”. I’ve always found it interesting that the parents that have a nonchalant attitude about bullying are rarely the parents of a child that is being bullied. I’m not sure whether that suggests that parents are simply not in tune to what their children are doing outside of the home or if it implies that parents may empathize with casual bullies because they were once bullies themselves. My apologies for such a pointed remark; bullying has touched my life personally and I admittedly have challenges remaining objective about the subject.

While this is strictly a personal observation, I think that the escalating culture of violence and irresponsible behaviors that have been broadcast through every media channel over the past 10 years or so has created an environment where children to young adults are encouraged to engage in ever more outrageous forms of bullying. As an adult, I find activities like mixed martial arts (MMA) or Ultimate Fighting to be entertaining. I find shows like “Jersey Shore” ridiculous, but like many viewers I find it hard to not watch. I see court jesters like Johnny Knoxville, Bam Magera and Steve-O on “Jackass” and, like most folks, I shake my head in disbelief (and often laugh) at what a half dozen guys with a shopping cart and very little common sense can do to injure themselves and others.

The problem is our children view these shows and activities almost as an art form; albeit an ugly and twisted form of performance art. The more insane and over-the-top a behavior seems on television or on the internet, the more that our children want to emulate it. When a trained fighter like Georges St. Pierre uses a devastating choke hold on an equally trained opponent, teenage boys think “hey, I’ll try that on Billy”. Well, actually they don’t think – they just do.

When the cast of “Jackass” engages in the activity of “sack tapping” or “junk punching” (pardon the graphic descriptions – but we need to deal with the facts on this subject) on unsuspecting buddies who are asleep or unprepared for the sneak attack, our kids feel entitled to take this “game” to the same level of intensity in the school yard. On May 29th, the media reported on a 14 year old boy being hit so hard in the groin that he suffered from a ruptured testicle that needed to be removed. Bullying has moved from merely terrorizing others to attempting to inflict serious damage. Our kids are watching Snookie get punched directly in the face on “Jersey Shore” by a surly, drunk and very large dude while on a night out at the bar. What message is that sending to young minds – and not just in influencing bullies but in suggesting how men should interact with women that are supposedly bothering them?

I’m no puritan when it comes to violence on television and in film. The difference is that I am not influenced to model the behaviors that I see on television or in film. I don’t watch the latest James Bond film and think “Okay, I need go buy a Walther PPK and an Aston Martin and attempt to infiltrate the world’s largest weapons-for-drugs cartel – and I’ll shoot anyone that gets in my way.” But, I know that my own sons are as susceptible as all other children to seeing an activity on television and thinking “Okay, I’m going to go down the street to my buddy’s house, get on his roof and try to bounce off the trampoline and into the pool.”

There can be no tolerance in our society for the forcible tattooing (or better described, torturing) of a learning disabled child by a group of bullies. In this event, we see the very worst of outrageous behaviors coupled with a complete absence and abdication of personal responsibility. This terrifying example of bullying showcases the two distinct types of bullies that our children face every day; the psychopathic bully and the copy cat bully. The psychopathic bully is pre-disposed to being a bully for any number of mental health disorders or issues they may be struggling with. The copy-cat bully emulates the behaviors of bullies they know or that they themselves have been bullied by. As an example, one of the first boys to apologize in the tattooing case readily admitted to the New Hampshire media that he had been bullied by others in the past (although he appears to never have apologized directly to his victim or the victim’s parents).

As you think about talking with your own child about civil behaviors and bullying, I want you to stop for just a moment before that conversation begins and get this vision in your mind. Put yourself in the shoes of the young man who was tattooed. You are surrounded by people you thought were your friends. They invited you to hang out with them. Then they pinned you down to a bench. You are threatened repeatedly that you will be beaten or worse if you move or tell anyone. You are tattooed multiple times with crude equipment, feeling the bee sting-like pinches over and over for what seems like an eternity. No one is there for you.

Are you getting the picture on how these outrageous bullying events contribute to the acceleration of incivility in our society? Can you see how this single situation has damaged every child involved? Do we continue to leave these behaviors unchecked, only troubling ourselves to feign interest when bullying gets national attention because another teenage girl has been bullied mercilessly on the internet and committed suicide? Do we tolerate the continuation of these bullying behaviors by adults when they enter the workforce and belittle, assault and even kill co-workers?

There are now more resources than ever available to identify and combat bullying. Yet, the pervasive nature of media both as an input device to our children’s behaviors and an output channel (think of students putting video of their beatings of other students on YouTube) seems to be negating all of the solid research and mitigation methods being suggested to defeat this problem.

Civility begins with one person; us. Each one of us must take that step towards our children and frankly, towards the children around our children, to instill that most important defense against incivility; teaching our children that every single life has intrinsic value and that value must be respected. Nostalgia for the “old times” is rarely a helpful model for changing behaviors today. But I think that one dynamic from when we were children would go a long way to fixing the problems of bullying. Many of us remember the time when, if we did something wrong and a neighbor or family friend saw it, no matter how fast we ran – that news would beat us home. When the entire community cares about the health and behaviors of all of our children, it makes it much more difficult for entrenched behaviors like bullying to be programmed into our kids.

If we don’t take these steps now, it might be your child or my child, but it will definitely be someone’s child who is pinned to the ground and beaten, or sitting alone in a closet thinking about hanging themselves or living with the shameful regret of having hurt someone so badly that they will never be able to walk again.

Civility matters.


Stop Bullying Now!

Dealing with Bullying – Teen Health

PBS Kids – Bullying

Love Our Children

He Was Someone

January 31, 2009
Photo credit - Max Ortiz/Detroit News

Photo credit - Max Ortiz/Detroit News

Coming home from work night before last, I heard an interview on National Public Radio with a gentleman by the name of Charlie LeDuff. Charlie is a reporter with the Detroit News, and a story that he recently published has caught a bit of national attention. While many might read his story and decide that any hope for a return of civility is completely lost, I actually think that Charlie and a man with no name and new shoelaces give us reason to believe in the value each of us has.

Charlie LeDuff received an anonymous phone call from a man who told him that someone was frozen in ice at the bottom of an elevator shaft in the old Roosevelt warehouse at 14th Street and Michigan Avenue in Detroit. After the building had burned in 1987, it was left to rot by its multi-billionaire owner. For nearly 20 years the warehouse has become a repository, not for Detroit city school books as it once was, but for homeless and forgotten citizens of the Motor City.

Charlie went to investigate, and sure enough, he found a man frozen solid in several feet of ice – head first in the cold tomb with his feet sticking out from the shins up. Charlie mentioned in his news article and the radio interview that the John Doe had new shoelaces. After rooting around to get some answers as to who the man was, Charlie was shocked to learn that the man had been there for at least a month – with a world of activity going on around him. People simply walked by the corpse for days and weeks on end. Charlie’s news report has a hint of quiet desparation in its opening line:

“This city has not always been a gentle place, but a series of events over the past few, frigid days causes one to wonder how cold the collective heart has grown.”

As I mentioned at the top of this entry, it might be easy for us to ascribe animalistic behaviors to the homeless who saw the corpse as nothing more than a shoe rack. Or, we could lament the apathetic and pathetic response of the Detroit Police Department when they were finally called, by Charlie, and failed to come out to investigate after the first 911 call. We could bemoan the state of American inner-cities and point to the failure of leadership as the reason for the conditions that created the situation that eventually led to this lost soul being frozen and forgotten. All of these observations, and more, might lead us to the conclusion that civility is irretrievable.

But, I think that Charlie LeDuff is breathing proof that civility is alive and well in the form of one single individual who is willing to acknowledge that intrinsic value in every human life.

Charlie called 911 again and followed-up with the police until they came and literally carved the man with the new shoelaces out of elevator shaft. When he was speaking on NPR, he said some things that gave me hope and pride.

“He was someone’s baby. He was someone, and he deserves an obituary.”

Obviously, if there had been someone in the frozen man’s life that cared and respected him as much as Mr. LeDuff did in his death, there probably would be no news story. But that is the point, isn’t it? In exercising a kind act, in offering a hand to a stranger, in consoling a friend, in letting someone have our place in line – is it not in these small acts of humanity and civility that we validate that intrinsic value in all people? Mr. LeDuff certainly isn’t the only civil person in Detroit, and it is sad that a senseless death is the catalyst necessary to draw attention to this fact. But, thank you Mr. LeDuff for having the boldness to print your story and to care about a man with new shoelaces.