Jeremy Levy: Change anti-bullying attitudes

By Jeremy Levy , Daily Opinion Columnist
Published October 24, 2011

I found a very refreshing headline on The Huffington Post last week, “5 Reasons Why Current Anti-Bullying Initiatives Don’t Work.”

I was pulled into this article because too much of the content on the bullying problem is about rhetoric rather than content. Consider last Thursday, when the White House website went purple for Spirit Day. Created in October 2010, Spirit Day is a day in which supporters wear purple in an act of solidarity against anti-gay bullying. President Barack Obama spoke out against bullying in a video that was posted on the page. He was calm and spoke with perfect diction — trademark Obama. Without a doubt, presidential support sends a strong signal that the movement against bullying is gaining ground.

Before I go on, let me be perfectly clear that the recent surge in support of anti-bullying measures is a great thing. I find the “It Gets Better” website very powerful. But even the most heart-throbbing issues have a wonkish side. Looking beyond the zero-tolerance mindset of anti-bullying speeches, there is much less discussion of the real conflicts that public figures — including teachers, school boards, local, state and federal office holders — will grapple with surrounding the bullying issue.

So what are those issues? Let's turn to The Huffington Post article, written by Urban Education expert Christopher Emdin, to find out. His points largely show that the solutions conjured in public imagination do not necessarily work on the ground, and finding real solutions requires more in-depth discussion from those with experience on the issue. Here is a brief summary of his points:

1) “Zero-tolerance theory backfires”

Many anti-bullying initiatives impose severe punishments that only demonize bullies and do not remedy the cause of their behavior.

2) “Avoiding social media is not a solution”

Bullying is rampant on social media because children view it as separate from reality. The solution is to teach them that their behavior on the Internet is just as real as in the classroom.

3) “We address bullying with celebrity, not expertise”

While celebrities bring attention to the issue, they cannot offer much advice in terms of effective policies and programs.

4) “We forget that the bullied and the bully are both children”

By punishing children as if they are adults, we do little to change their behavior.

5) “We turn a blind eye to adult bullying”

Adults engage in name-calling and other bullying tactics all the time. The author uses politicians and sports casters as prominent figures who publicly bully.

My main comment is in regard to the fifth point, and to some degree, the second. Bullying — among both adults and children — is an inherently vague concept.

As a kid, I was always perplexed when adults told me that it wasn’t ok to make jokes at other peoples’ expense. Because wherever you look, most people do make jokes at the expense of others. Roommates chide each other about everything, while stand-up comedy ranges from teasing to outrageously offensive. Among adults, I simply don’t think this is going to change. Ending “adult-bullying” would require altering humor as we know it (and if you think “adult-bullying” is new, read Aristophanes).

The question with kids is where to draw the line between teasing and bullying. On one extreme, we can all agree that slurs — homophobic, racist or otherwise — are completely unacceptable. Similarly, we can probably all remember high school peers who were blatantly singled out and bullied. But beyond such cases, defining what constitutes bullying is not easy. In my mind, this is a key reason why zero-tolerance punishments are impractical.

Overall, I think my biggest point aligns with Emdin’s third point. Addressing bullying with celebrity and not expertise is similar to talking with rhetoric but no substance. Public figures make it sound like society knows exactly how to solve the bullying problem when, really, there are lots of issues to talk about. Anti-bullying campaigns are doing a fantastic job raising awareness. But will the campaigns ultimately be effective? I’ve read several opinion pieces in The Michigan Daily saying that Michigan’s state government is irresponsible for not passing legislation on the issue. They didn’t say anything about the legislation’s quality.

Jeremy Levy can be reached at jeremlev@umich.edu.