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When One Guilty Verdict Distracts Us From the Embedded Nature of Bullying as a Social and Cultural Phenomenon

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Just yesterday, a New Jersey jury found the spying by Dharun Ravi of Tyler Clementi a hate crime. Many feel this will be a message to youth about how serious Internet maliciousness can be. My worry is it will only push people to be more devious. Here's some of why.

The week of Tyler Clementi's suicide I remember very well because I was in Denver preparing to teach a few classes on "Bullying from the Inside out" at the University of Denver's Professional School of Psychology. I remember telling students of my being troubled, of course because Clementi's death was so sad, but also because my more cynical take was the news would dwarf a violent set of episodes just revealed in Afghanistan, where American soldier Jeremy Morlock and others had been accused of killing Afghan civilians for "sport" and collecting their body parts -- including finger bones, a skull, leg bones and a human tooth, as trophies.

On March 23, 2011, it was reported in The Huffington Post a guilty verdict for Morlock and a sentence of 24 years in prison. In addition to the mentioned crimes, the article stated that Morlock had admitted a role in a group battering a fellow officer who told a superior of drug use in the platoon. Who knew, you might ask, and as it happens that after one January 2010 killing, soldier Adam Winfield sent Facebook! (exclamation point mine) messages to his parents telling of one murder with others planned. His father alerted staff at Lew-McChord base, but guess what? Yes sir, no action taken until the info came from another source five months later, when Winfield, saying he was warned he would be killed if he didn't participate, did in fact become part of a killing team.

Where is the concern for those civilians in Afghanistan, for the heartbreaking murders of civilians just this past week by the severely overtaxed American soldier, and where is the concern about how and why? We seem to have so little room for the examination of causes and are quicker to place blame and want our verdicts, all the better not to consider our own role in what may be a conspiracy of silence about our wars, at home and abroad. What are the stressors on people who kill and who kill themselves and what is a social climate that so often even endorses cruelty?

There are many people across this nation who would like to see Dharun Ravi deported and many others who also care little about Tyler Clementi's death and who see homosexuality as a sin bringing ruin to those who engage. In Rolling Stone, Feb. 2, 2012, in "One Town's War on Gay Teens" Sabrina Rubin Erdely spoke of the general social atmosphere in Anoka Hennepin, Minn. school district (formerly that of Michele Bachman) where the school district's policy directed faculty not to speak positively about homosexuality. After nine local students committed suicide, four of them thought to be gay or so perceived this was thought to be a cluster, and for sure the deaths were fed into by the climate of no talk allowed, thus no protection. According to the Rolling Stone piece, the thinking behind the no asking and on telling and no talking policies came from the perspective that "any form of gay tolerance in school is actually an insidious means of promoting homosexuality -- that openly discussing the matter would encourage kids to try it, turning straight kids gay."

Now, after the Rolling Stone article and national attention, the "no promo homo" school policy has been rescinded. But where oh where do the attitudes go -- not so quickly underground, me thinks. The Minnesota Family Council, closely allied with Michele Bachmann, stated just last spring that gay teens who take their own lives bring it upon themselves.

As part of what seems to me subjectively as a cluster of urgent issues coming up in September, 2010, we can in fact find on the site of The Minnesota Family Council, a blog from September 28 of the same year, entitled "Gay activists manipulate suicide tragedy for ideological purposes." It begins as follows, "Homosexual activists are beating the drum for homosexual doctrination of school children in Anoka Hennepin School District in response to the tragic suicide of Justin Aaberg, a teenager who had embraced homosexuality... " The piece goes on to say while of course harassment of anyone isn't acceptable, there is no reason for an "anti-homophobia" stance being accepted. What's more, the statement includes an affirmation that youth "accepting" the "unhealthy sexual identity and lifestyle" of homosexuality are at greater risk.

In a nutshell, which sometimes seems like a worthy though unpleasant metaphor, we seem all too prone to take one side of an issue, find our rationale and often enough our own target in given situations, finding ways at the same time, to prove our points.

We know too little about how we as individuals and as a country process our tendencies to blame, to punish and to distance ourselves from the reasons behind personal acts of violence as well as those socially sanctioned and those we tend to dismiss, such as the ongoing cruelty of much of Greek life on college campuses having nothing to do with homosexuality per se.

What seems to be least popular of all is to suspend our need to quickly nail the one culprit, and to ponder how these acts of cruelty get to occur and to have been condoned and ignored for years. Also to question what part we play -- either out loud or through our silence.

It's when we find parts of ourselves in Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi and all the characters in our public tragedies -- and when we look more deeply at context -- that we will be able to both integrate our imperfections and tame our urges towards scapegoating and towards violence.