Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Bullying, Cyberbullying, and Hadley

If you live in the Boston area, you’ve probably already heard about Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old girl who recently killed herself in Hadley. Evidently, bullying she faced at school and online contributed to her suicide. I’m sure we can all agree that whatever the cause, this is an enormous tragedy, so I don’t want to talk about that. What I want to talk about are some of the kinds of responses I’ve seen to what happened, because a few in particular have really disturbed me.

Response 1: The girls who did the bullying are monsters.

I’m not interested in defending the bullies--no one seems to be disputing that Prince was bullied, and there’s no excuse for that. However, the idea that these girls are some kind of soulless monsters is damaging not just to them, but to all young people, including victims of bullying. Bullies aren’t evil, or heartless, or inhuman. They’re people. And that’s good news, because people can change. Monsters, by definition, can’t. If we cast bullies in the role of evil, it becomes easy to throw our hands up and focus on punishment, instead of prevention. It’s only if we remember that these girls, and all the others like them, are girls more or less like any others that we can be committed to ending bullying by encouraging empathy and healthy relationships, rather than instituting consequences that don’t do much until it’s already too late.

Response 2: Girls are horrible/this is why I hate girls/women.

Related to response 1, but broader. I don’t think I’m saying anything controversial if I say that girls aren’t horrible. Girls can be brilliant and kind and creative and all-around amazing. And like anyone, they can also be cruel. There are reasons that girls tend to bully in the way they do. Society encourages insecurity in girls, whether regarding their body image, their intelligence, or their place in the social hierarchy. Girls are supposed to simultaneously strive for perfection and refuse to admit their strengths and good qualities, even to themselves. This pressure to play the game of being the best but never admitting it can drive girls to attack targets they see as a threat, or who don't play the game (by being too confident or not self-deprecating enough). For more on this, I highly recommend Rachel Simmons’s work. We don’t do anyone any favors by acting like this behavior is just “what girls do,” because as above, if that’s the case, nothing can be done to change it and we all might as well give up now.

Response 3: There oughta be a law.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, there are a dozen bills in front of the state legislature regarding bullying. Twelve bills. People are suggesting solutions ranging from suing the school, the bullies, and/or their parents to charging the bullies with assault. But again, instituting draconian consequences doesn’t do anything to stop the bullying, it just attempts to address it once it’s happened. In addition, punishments for the bullies can actually worsen things for the victim. For example: a victim gets up the courage to talk to a teacher about the bullying she’s facing. The school has a zero tolerance policy for bullies, so the teacher goes to the principal and the bully is suspended. But her friends aren’t, and to retaliate they target the victim even more. Which isn’t to say that the solution is for girls who are targets to just keep quiet, ignore it, and hope they make it out of school reasonably intact. The point is that strict policies aren’t enough to really change behavior. The key is to give girls a space to talk about what’s happening, help them think about why it’s happening, and help them develop empathy for targets and strategies for what to do when they’re the target. Because girls are the only ones who fully know what’s happening “on the ground,” and effective solutions can only come from them.

So how do we do all that? I’m so glad you asked! I’m currently working on a curriculum that uses theatre to help girls do those things. I'll be elaborating on it in future posts, so check back soon!

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