The spate of teen suicides lately, and specifically suicides resulting from teens being teased or bullied about being gay, is heartbreaking in the extreme. Teens are sensitive and lacking perspective in general, and the "It Gets Better" phenom has been a touching response for teens who feel lost and scared.
But what of the bullying itself? Yes, it must stop; everyone echoes that as if by rote. Of course it should stop. But why is it happening in the larger picture here? Cyber-bullying is out of control, bullying at school is rampant, and both lead me to wonder what is going on in our world.
Bullying has always been a fact of life. We've all heard things like, "Kids can be cruel." And they can. Veritably every adult has at least one memory of being teased or bullied cruelly as a child. It's "Lord of the Flies" out there. It's part of growing up. Or is it?
When I was a kid, my best friend was secretly gay, and he was teased mercilessly. It hurt him terribly and does to this day. We lived in a very small, rural town and grew up in the '70s; we only vaguely heard tell of homosexuals, but they all lived in New York City or London. Homosexuality was not something that was discussed, much less accepted. My friend was unable to come out, even to himself, until the "it gets better" time: after high school and into college.
But aren't kids today much more aware, by dint of the media alone, that homosexuality exists and is, in and of itself, not that remarkable? Yes, I live in Los Angeles, a very progressive city in a very progressive state. Perhaps I lack the perspective that someone in a less urban, diverse area might have. But how is it, in these days of "Will and Grace," that this is still happening? On the cusp of finally recognizing the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community as fully fledged members of our world, as deserving of human rights as anybody else, have we taken a giant step backward?
The propensity to bully (cyber-bullying has become an epidemic as well, and it's not just kids doing it) and the abject fear and loathing that fuels bullying a gay, or even a suspected gay, teen is something we need to examine. Are we becoming a nation of blaming, fearing bullies? Who are the parents of these kids doing the bullying? Are they road-raging, get-outta-my-way cyber-bullies as well?
The teenage years are hard; that's an established truism. Raging hormones and all of that. Kids becoming sexual beings and wrestling with all that that means. Are the teen boys who bully teen gays simply freaked out about their own nascent sexual feelings? Is it nature? Or nurture?
Here in the U.S., less than 50 years ago, it used to be perfectly normal (not okay, but normal) to bully, harass and even assault an African-American or a Jewish person. One hundred years ago Irish kids were routinely brutalized and teased. And Italians. Name an ethnic or religious group and you'll find hatred and fear directed toward this "other." But we have moved past such primitive, outdated thinking. There's simply no excuse now. None. Oh, except there are some of us who don't want a mosque anywhere near Ground Zero. And so it continues.
Each child who has taken his or her life is a child that could have grown up to produce a cure, a vaccine, an opera, a new medical technology. Each life that has been lost is a terrible loss for us all on a level we cannot even comprehend. Because each life lost is an erosion of our civility -- and our very humanity. There is no technological gain that can make up for a loss of that magnitude. Without our humanity, nothing else matters. A brave new world, indeed.
If we are a progressive country, a nation among nations on the cutting edge of social, technological and economic change, we have to collectively take responsibility for this bullying and look inward. Bullies (adult and child alike) are internalizing the subverted prejudices, frustrations and feelings of less-than that so many of us struggle with, and in doing so they are creating a generation of little monsters. And a new generation of parents.
These monsters are our children and neighbors, not some "other" that we'd rather not claim for ourselves. We don't have the luxury. It's tempting to think that we are above such things and that the parents of these bullies are in some way ignorant, lazy or selfish. But these bullies, these children, belong to all of us. We cannot turn away from that fact and shirk our responsibility.
So what are we going to do about it? When is enough enough?
Rather than try to affect a dramatic changing of human nature, how about if we start small by accepting collective blame for this bullying and taking a step in the right direction to end it? What if teachers were required to take sensitivity courses to help them understand kids that are different for whatever reason? Kids with autism, kids with ADHD, kids who are gay, kids who are shy? What if holding one's temper in check and being just a little kinder were things that parents modeled in our lives on and offline? This anger isn't coming from nowhere; children learn by example.
National attention should be brought to bullying in all its forms -- cyber, classroom and otherwise. How many lives need be lost before we take a long, hard look at ourselves, our parenting, and our priorities? I believe that America is a nation among nations. We set the standard and we have failed. But we can take this moment to introspect and to raise the bar. We can do better. And we have to start by not disowning the bullies or blaming slipshod parenting but by taking tangible steps to teach all teenagers -- and all adults -- to know that they are valued for their differences and loved for who they are. We have to ask ourselves where we fit in, whether we value and love ourselves enough to value and love others, despite our differences. This social disease, this bullying, is at once intimidatingly immense and quite simple; there is not a bully alive who loves and values him- or herself.
No, I am not advocating taking the bullies responsible for this spate of suicides into our arms and singing kumbaya; they should be punished. But I am advocating getting to the root of the anger and fear that fuels bullies of every stripe. We can train teachers to be more sensitive, we can identify kids who are being bullied, and we can act much more civilly and kindly in our own day-to-day lives, on and offline. There is no situation, medium or world in which bullying, intimidation or excoriation is acceptable. We can, in other words, reclaim our humanity by making a priority of civility once more.