Nelson, from The Simpsons.(Fox)
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Get It Better

Bullying is wrong, but so are facile solutions

Marjorie Ingall
October 18, 2010
Nelson, from The Simpsons.(Fox)

In the past few months, eight teenagers have committed suicide because of homophobic tormenting. A young girl killed herself after being repeatedly called a whore and a slut by her classmates. A group of young men in the Bronx brutally attacked two teenage boys and two adults for the crime of being gay. And The New York Times’ “Sunday Styles” section just ran a trend story about how girls are meaner at younger ages than ever before.

And the Jewish community is responding. On October 5, Keshet, a nonprofit organization that works for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews in Jewish life, published a petition called Do Not Stand Idly By: A Jewish Community Pledge to Save Lives. More than 3,000 people have already signed, committing to end homophobic harassment in synagogues, schools, and organizations. Non-Jews have their own initiatives under way: Dan Savage, the advice columnist and gay activist, recently started a project called It Gets Better, in which adult gays and lesbians post videos of themselves urging bullied LGBT kids to hang in there, because their lives will get better.

These initiatives are admirable. The only trouble with them is that they won’t do any good.

First, let’s talk about why Savage’s project, while well-meaning, isn’t very useful. If you look at Savage’s video, the one that launched a thousand narcissistic and dull videos of poorly lit gay people sincerely telling the camera that their lives got better (while also, frequently, dwelling on how crappy their lives used to be), you’ll see how it typifies a lot of the problems with the genre. Dan and his hot husband talk about how they used to be bullied, but then they moved to hip cities and met at a hip gay bar and now they have a hip kid and look, here’s a picture of their family in Paris! Unfortunately, for many tortured LGBT kids, there’ll never be a Paris.

“It’s a video for classist, privileged gay folks who think that telling their stories is the best way to help others,” as Rebecca Novack, a very smart blogger who wound up facing threats for daring to criticize the project, put it. “Telling folks that their suffering is normal doesn’t reassure them—it homogenizes their experience. It doesn’t make them feel like part of a bigger community, it makes them feel irrelevant.”

Worse, these videos, taken as a whole, are full of anti-religious fury and city-centric fervor. But in reality, not all religious people are haters; not all urban types are tolerant; and not everyone is going to have the financial wherewithal to move to Seattle or Manhattan or take trips to France.

Don’t get me wrong—I love some of these videos. Tim Gunn of Project Runway talking about how he tried to kill himself as a teenager? Heart-rending. The Youth Pride Chorus, non-white gay teenagers singing “O-o-h, Child,” with its “things are gonna get easier” chorus? Sweet! But I think most of the videos are much more helpful to the person recording them than to currently bullied kids who feel isolated, lost, loathed, and misunderstood by their own parents. It’s easy to hold out a nebulous promise that things will get better; it’s a lot harder to address kids’ current realities. Teenagers are not known for fabulous impulse control; suicide is about agony felt at this very second. They need help now.

I feel similarly about the Keshet petition. It’s preaching to the choir; anyone who signs is already opposed to harassment. The problem is that many Jews do not see their actions as hurtful, and that the most prejudiced people will never sign such a petition. There are certain populations who will never accept gay folks; we know that. But forget about them; let’s think about our own supposedly tolerant communities. When there was an outcry against the Jewish Standard’s homophobic kowtowing to Orthodox leaders offended by the engagement announcement of two men, did we look at our own houses? Do our synagogue bulletins encourage the announcements of same-sex engagements and weddings? Do our shuls truly include them in religious life, or do they only say, “We don’t have any in our community, but we’re tolerant.” That’s hurtful. You have to reach out, not just tolerate.

Signing a petition is like wearing a pink ribbon. Most of us already have awareness of breast cancer, just as we have awareness of bullying and homophobia. Lose the pink and go get a mammogram. Donate to organizations that work for access to health care; black women and poor women die disproportionately of breast cancer.

And this brings me to the bullying problem. When we divide the world into bullies and victims, demonizing the former and beatifying the latter, we don’t do actual kids any favors. For many kids, power dynamics can shift. A kid can be a loser or cool kid from one school year to the next, from one social setting or peer group to another, during the school year as opposed to the summer. When we ponder how to stop bullying, we need a nuanced approach.

The New York TimesMean Girls” piece was irresponsible in part because it suggested that mean girls have mean parents. Sometimes that’s true; sometimes it isn’t. Parents of strong-willed, socially savvy kids may need help nurturing their kids’ empathy. These parents aren’t mean; they’re trying. A lot of us have a hard time with discipline or are secretly pleased that our kids are strong and confident and way more popular than our nerdy selves at their age. We may not have as much time as we’d like with our kids. We hate saying no—to TV shows that treat meanness and teasing as a joke, to music that says that having a boyfriend or making conquests is the most important thing in the world—and we’re exhausted with trying to keep up with our kids’ multimedia, overscheduled, socially networked worlds.

So, what’s a thoughtful parent to do? There’s an elementary-school teaching approach called the Responsive Classroom that I think is also a great parenting approach. It fosters bullying prevention. The principles include valuing kindness and empathy as much as academic achievement. (Too many of us convey that good grades are responsibility number one; what if we insisted that values were?) Being responsive parents also means understanding that we learn through social interaction. When our kids see us bullying a telemarketer, making a fat joke, treating workers dismissively, calling someone stupid, they’re learning from us. If we don’t stand up for the downtrodden, if our kids don’t see us walking the walk as well as talking the talk by volunteering and by being kind, they’re seeing that words mean nothing. And finally, we need to stress constantly the importance of cooperation, assertion, responsibility, and self-control.

Bullying is a trendy topic right now, but it’s a problem that’s always been with us. The prefix “cyber” and the phrase “mean girl” have made a perennial concern seem new. It’s easy to mock helicopter parents, but a benefit to having parents trying to be more involved in their kids lives is that they can see bad behavior up close. But then we must own our responsibility rather than blaming others or dismissing bad behavior. Perhaps most important of all, we need to talk to our kids about being bystanders. The girl who giggles when her friend teases someone, even if she doesn’t engage herself, or the boy who says “dude, lay off” when his friend calls another kid a faggot have chosen to be allies instead of bystanders: The first kid has allied with the bully, and the second has allied with the victim. The latter kid is displaying behavior we have to model and talk about at home.

Easy solutions and easy outrage are just that: easy. We owe it to our kids to go deeper.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.