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Bullying: Not Just for Playgrounds Anymore

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Bullying is not just for playgrounds anymore. An alarm has been ringing across the cultures of an entire globe catching the attention of leaders and educators who desperately search for its cure in programs that teach sensitivity and empathy to youth. All of the educational materials define bullying and tell how to recognize its many forms -- verbal taunting, physical harm, racial and sexual prejudice, cyberbullying and more. Bullying is defined as "persistent unwelcome behavior." How do we know when a behavior is unwelcome? We feel it; it deeply rattles our sensibilities -- sometimes to the bone, or in a new discovery -- to the bones of an icon.

Bullying can intrude anywhere -- at home, at work, online, on the highway, on the playground... and now it appears to reach even into the afterlife. Bullying almost rose to new heights to take an even more sinister turn recently when Discovery Channel announced its plans to air Michael Jackson's Autopsy: What really killed Michael Jackson? There was such a backlash of outrage by the family, Jackson's estate, fans and the general public, that Discovery was forced to "postpone indefinitely" the crossing of that line. So for now, that human indignity was avoided and humanity is safe; or is it?

Is something really important being missed in the campaign against bullying? Is the subject of bullying being viewed through a lens that is too narrow? We might need to back up a bit, widen the focus and adjust the scope to a broader fisheye view. Has bullying permeated an entire ecosystem? A worldwide ecosystem?

What makes bullying possible is a culture that blurs the lines of humanity and human dignity. Bullying survives when an ecosystem supports it. When that ecosystem accepts the dehumanization and inhumane treatment of its constituents, an "anything goes" climate renders its' narrative as empty of humanity. People are irreversibly harmed in such a climate.

Parents, educators and clergy are wringing their hands in shock and outrage at the behavior of youth asking: "Where do they get these ideas?" and "Where does this kind of aggression and indifference in our youth come from?" They seem genuinely perplexed. They only need look to the culture. What kind of culture would consider, even momentarily, that an invasion into one's mortuary is entertaining? Or acceptable? Discovery's program was advertised as presenting a graphic synthetic cadaver with a real and currently practicing physician conducting the autopsy with voiceover commentary by one of Jackson's many personal physicians.

What kind of ecosystem made Discovery think that an international audience would have an appetite for viewing the re-enactment of an actual autopsy -- of the most well known icon of the twentieth century? Of someone who is still a beloved figure to millions around the world? What made physicians sign on to such a violation of the sanctity of human remains, virtual or otherwise? More celebrity medicine? All cultures have recognized the sanctity of burial and respect for the mourning of those who were loved, those who loved them -- and who love them still. Discovery's cynical promotional photo for the program featured a shrouded body on a gurney with Jackson's signature sequined glove protruding from under the sheet. Does this represent the standards of humanity that we want to continue into this new millennium?

In the wake of Discovery Channel's major faux pas, some hard and uncomfortable questions have been thrown up about the culture and its ecosystem. The very same culture that can't seem to get its youth to behave civilly toward one another -- in institutions built to nurture and grow young minds. Discovery and its board of directors are to be congratulated for their change of heart and eventual good sense in pulling the program but one wonders what would make them, or anyone else for that matter, think that a mock autopsy of Michael Jackson for our viewing pleasure, would be acceptable? Is it because Jackson was bullied most of his life and apparently some at Discovery thought it acceptable to take that agenda beyond his grave? Does the Discovery debacle mark yet another seminal moment in our culture?

A culture where sadistic behavior toward others is epidemic, a deeper look finds a whole system trending toward cynicism, human indifference and lack of empathy for others. Why are the fundamental principles of tolerance, compassion and human dignity missing? Why are special programs necessary for children to make human and humane connections? Why isn't compassion and empathy already hard wired into human consciousness? And as we evolve into the twenty first century shall we leave our humanity behind?

How does this humane disconnect become possible? When the natural world is ignored or avoided, children never interact with the place where life's beginnings take form and the value of life and alive and breathing sentient beings is learned. Our connections with nature and animals are what help us to develop heart and compassion for all beings. Statistics about animal cruelty and torture punctuate this alienation from the sanctity of life. Where is it being taught that life is precious and valuable and who is responsible for teaching it? Where do kids get the idea that bullying is permissible and that callously exposing someone's private life, secret struggles and woundedness publicly is somehow acceptable? Where indeed?

It is hardwired into our culture and it begins with words and images. They are the symbols and language that form a culture's narrative. They illuminate the culture's dominant pastimes and preoccupations. It is how those words and images are used -- their nuances, meanings, semantics, semiotics, linguistics and sometimes their archetypal and evocative nature -- that forms and informs -- the foundation of the cultural ecosystem. What is culturally acceptable in communication and behavior among and between humans is determined by its architecture and memes -- a kind of cultural lexiconography arises.

Images and words have punch. They comfort, evoke, challenge, inform, expel, motivate, embrace, alienate, destroy, uplift and so on. They can objectify or humanize. When people are dehumanized with images and words, all sentient beings inhabiting that ecosystem are affected. Words and images harm; and they can heal.

The Journals of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, of Family Psychology, and the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, tell us that bullying creates children who suffer from anxiety, depression, loneliness, and PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and are at risk for suicide, peer rejection, conduct problems, anxiety, behavioral difficulties, hyperactivity, academic difficulties, rule-breaking behavior, reactive aggression and are also at risk for problems in young adulthood -- psychiatric disorders and criminal offenses. The question then becomes, what kinds of adults does this produce?

Those same experts say that sibling aggression when not mitigated and aggression at home, can migrate to schools. Most homes, of course, don't feature violence as the dominant means of navigating life as an acceptable cultural norm -- or do they? The experts also say that the average 4 to 6 hours of television per day that children and teens watch, serves up 4 ½ violent incidents per hour. In the last 7 years, TV violence has increased by 75% with a 45% of that increase during the 8 P.M. "family hour" and a 92% increase an hour later. The Pew Research Center says 75% of respondents to their survey would like to see tighter enforcement of government rules on broadcast content with 69% of those in favor of higher fines for media companies who violate code. Journalistic codes abound but are rarely followed or enforced. There are no real consequences for code violations with media often citing the first amendment as the reason.

How is it that the cultural ecosystem on the one hand intervenes in child-on-child violence with campaigns like 'It Gets Better' while supporting a cultural ecosystem of inhumane treatment of people and violence as a means of conciliation and problem solving? Given the current cultural undertones we might ask: does it really get better? Does that premise work? And do our children believe it?

Remember Columbine? Columbine crossed a cultural line. With the causal theories swirling around that painful event in the collective psyche -- the guns, violence, video games, medications, "Gothic culture," or psychological pathology, experts have speculated about the whys. Harris and Klebold told us why in their words via journals left behind, that tell how they lived in a culture of exclusion, superiority, homophobia and ridicule by the jocks. And they also told us they could find nothing redeeming about society in general. While that is no excuse for their violence, it was their reason. They cited feeling disenfranchised, bullied, disillusioned and powerless. Columbine was retaliation against an ecosystem that they felt didn't support them and tolerated a climate of dehumanization, violence, tribalism and exclusion.

The recent teen suicides crossed a line of acceptability and jarred adults to awareness. In examining teen bullying, we learned of suicides by adolescents whose budding hormones and sexuality found their affections involuntarily extending toward the same gender. Confused and conflicted kids were bullied, called "fag" and other sexual epithets and sadistically "outed" on the internet by sneering peers. While their death certificates read "suicide," the real cause of death is homophobia -- and an intolerant ecosystem that dehumanizes them as people. Young and tender human beings barely out of childhood -- a captive audience required to daily visit an ecosystem that torments them -- are ostracized and terrorized simply for being different -- whether in style, interests, affections, habits, economics, race, intellectual capacity, beliefs, or that all important superficial attribute -- appearance.

In order to believe that the future 'gets better' children need hope. They need evidence. They have to be able to imagine a brighter tomorrow. Hope is emotive and conveyed through images and words and. their reinforcement. Cooley's Looking Glass Theory cites the reflection of self in others as informing the opinion of self. Most visual references and reflections in children's lives come from television and film. What human characteristics, and inspirations do they witness that tells them there is a bright tomorrow? Desperate Housewives is rated number one in viewership and sensual vampirism linking blood and sexuality dominates the screen in theaters. There are cops shows, bounty hunters, forensic investigators that illustrate the darkness in human nature while reality TV gives us a slice of life few of us experience, and that invokes and rewards tactical treachery -- then admires that treachery as laudable strategy.

Nightly news is never good news and altruism is highlighted rarely. Television in prime time around the dinner hour features the famous and showcases them solely to make sensational mischief and contemptuous commentary about their missteps. Nowhere is bullying more evident than in the cult of celebrity. That genre sexualizes and dehumanizes early -- reducing even young adults to non-human objects. Tabloidization of television and press brings us the daily and nightly ritual of impaling the famous or nailing them to the cross of public scrutiny solely for entertainment purposes.

Celebrities, sports figures and politicians' private lives are picked over like the bones of last night's dinner during tonight's dinner hour. That's not journalism; it's cannibalism. And it's well known among those A-listers, that whoever criticizes a jaundiced journalist or TV outlet becomes fodder for the next day's tabloid headline. Vocal dissenters are moved on deck to be the next one bullied in print and images. Youth are enamored of celebrities, watch their foibles daily exposed with glee and we wonder why our children bully?

When a culture dehumanizes its constituents, its heroic, iconic or beloved figures and devalues them, the rules change. Devaluing humans with repetitive desensitizing eventually make the outrageous possible -- genocide, racism, classism, sexism, Nazism and all manner of other ugly isms that humans can impose on one another. The relaxing or devaluing of what it means to be human is a dangerous and slippery slope as Discovery Channel has just reminded us. An ecosystem supporting disdain, exclusion, isolation, discrimination, humiliation, latitude for making humans the butt of cruel jokes, banishment, and bullying in the extreme provides a rationale for terrorism and eventually, war. Aggression, cynicism and tribalism unchecked leaches into the soil of a growing and advancing culture placing it precariously on shaky ground.

Illustrations that diminish the sanctity of real human beings may be witnessed in schools, business, corporations, governments, in the disappearing corporate perks and pensions, the insurance industry, the media and on Wall Street and Main Street alike. It's evidenced in the images and words we use to scribe and describe the human condition. The trend of insensitivity toward other humans feeds and encourages an ecosystem with severe consequences yet to be imagined, as we move forward in the new millennium. As respect for the uniqueness of life and each life diminishes, dignity and our humanity erodes in the collective consciousness in step with the cultural foundation. Indifference is a slippery slope that can become a grand slide of humanity toward the bottom of a trajectory that allows abominations to become the norm -- poisonous gas released in a subway in Japan, an attack on New York's World Trade Center. That too is bullying; the only difference is the scale. Where does this war against human dignity and sanctity begin? It begins at home. It may be friendly fire.

What is supposed to be a sanctuary, the family living room, plays host to fear, political fodder, bad news, the insider who betrays, the outsider with the inside story, and a kind of domestic terrorism that ridicules the famous or momentarily famous. Government, politics and leadership features adults-behaving-badly with name calling and bullying on TV as those we would like to look up to, deride and condemn each other in uncivil debates while breaking ethics codes behind the scenes.

For the younger crowd, TV shows feature hopeful idols performing in competitions that foster distant and future hope. Hope lives! But the failed auditioning contestants then become fodder for filler clips that make fun of those hopefuls -- at their expense. Judges sardonically and gleefully review and ridicule the performances. Reality shows reward underhanded schemers in rival groups while pseudo tribal overseers ostracize the throw away individuals voted out of the game and off the program.

With our current twenty-four-hour news cycle, the major outlets must fill dead time while competing with each other for viewers. The end game is commanding attention while global markets drive the networks. Newshound journalists are taught "if it bleeds it leads" and are encouraged to sniff out the blood in the big story. Interviewers are coached to "ask the tough questions" that are frequently crude, rude and invasive designed not to get information or truth, but to lead the interviewee where the host thinks the most viewers will follow.

Cable news outlets begin broadcasts with the requisite "breaking news" scrolling at the bottom of the screen and if something is not particularly sensational before the broadcast--it will be by its end. The pressures of competition and dead time does not allow for proper scrutiny or fact checking. The lead story is then repeated, speculated about by pundits, reviewed in voiceover clips with "experts weighing in." The constant repetition of that imagined truth in sound bites today converts it to "truth" by tomorrow. Accusations become fact, guilt is assumed, and the court of public opinion lowers its gavel.

The cultural "isms" that define humanity are uploaded to YouTube. Both amateur and real shock-jocks circle in the cesspools of human foibles like sharks. The humiliation of real people, begun by showcasing the famous, is now considered good copy and no one is exempt -- now apparently not even the dead. No, bullying isn't just for kids. We are far removed from Walter Cronkite standards and the investigative journalism that defined the culture of the twentieth century. "Gotcha" journalism and exploitive film sells -- or so they tell us.

What are we role modeling to our children? What ancient gladiator sport do we mimic when we publicly dismember those who stand on the public stage? What ancient form of torture and death do we parody when we repeat yet unexamined or unproven, salacious "allegations" each news cycle? When we neglect equal air time to the exonerated? And even when a falsehood is proven, we revisit the accusation with each subsequent sound bite? When we continue it even after death? People's lives are ruined in record time -- during their 15 minutes of fame. And we gleefully high five those first out with the scoop, scandal or expose`.

Does that cultural ecosystem support the meme that life, as it advances will improve? Does the investigations and desperations of housewives and others, the bad news, the shaming and blaming of "reality" and real celebrities reflect to our youth 'it gets better?' Does the cultural fare highlight the lofty side, the dignity and integrity of human nature? Does it inspire? Does it provide a healthy ecosystem for the little people who have to grow up in it?

Has the fact that a dangerous line was almost crossed escaped our attention? Does the image manufactured to take us subliminally across a line or its meaning have an iconic message? It may well be so. There was another image introduced into our culture that became the iconic opposite of human devaluation -- it came from NASA and showed us the reality that we are all humans sharing a precious and finite ecosystem. It was the "Blue Marble Earth" photo from Apollo 17 introduced into our culture in 1972. Forty years and a generation or two later, the hope for collective human dignity still doesn't have a clear picture. That is why words and images are so important. Have we just witnessed an ecosystem already trending toward dangerous turf narrowly miss trespassing into its own mortuary? Discovery Channel may have brought us to a significant crossroads. Or maybe Michael Jackson has.

Maybe it was his fans who as one voice, spoke loudly and clearly. Many children loved Jackson and his body of work; many children today are discovering him for the first time. And the real human being buried under all the unkind dark tabloid caricatures living in the cultural lexicon of the twentieth century, may be slowly coming to light in the twenty first. Discovery did the ethical thing by canceling the program. Their plan was not a good one. But it certainly reminds us about bullying. Never before in the history of media has a culture witnessed one human being so bullied. On a global scale. Michael Jackson is the poster boy for bullying. It wouldn't be the first time Jackson gave us an image that reflected ourselves back to us. Discovery almost crossed a line that we might want to ponder a bit further.

It may have sounded an urgent alarm at the beginning of a new year and new decade. Perhaps there is yet another toxic ecosystem caused by humans that needs cleaning up in order to save its' mammals? Will we hear the call just made by multiple thousands of voices stunned into speaking out for a renewed integrity? For a re-examination of what human dignity means? For the return of reason and respect? For a more humane narrative on this planet? Where do today's children and tomorrow's global leaders get the idea that bullying is acceptable? Good question. 'The tribe has spoken.' And the children are listening.

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