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Rev. Barbara Kaufmann

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Bullying: Not Just for Playgrounds Anymore

Posted: 01/11/11 11:56 AM ET

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.