I am haunted by a story I saw on the Today show this week about a 14-year old boy named Jamey Rodemyer from Buffalo, New York that committed suicide after being harassed by his classmates for being gay. Just a week after they buried their son, his parents appeared on the Today show to decry bullying and to honor their son’s life.
As if it weren’t shocking enough to discover him dead, their daughter went to the school’s Homecoming dance where the offending students chanted that he was better off dead.
Today I saw a story on AOL about an 11-year old Canadian boy named Mitchell Wilson who suffered from muscular dystrophy who killed himself after being teased, taunted, and mugged by his classmates.
About a week ago, my daughter told me about some tweets flooding Twitter about a friend of hers from her former high school. The girl’s classmates tweeted messages saying the girl was “ugly and stupid, and that everybody hated her.” Someone tried to stop the trend by standing up for the girl, and telling the mean tweeting girls they were bullying.
They didn’t care that they were sending out cruel messages, destroying the girl’s reputation, and coming across as bullies. In fact, they said they were exercising their freedom of speech, and they seemed to gather steam from each other. As one defended her actions, others responded, tweeting that the girl deserved to be called out “for being weird.”
None of them were remorseful. None of them could see the damage they were causing, and none of them know the challenges this girl must overcome at home every day of her life. I don’t know whether the victim of these tweets ever saw or heard about them but I cannot get these examples of abhorrent behavior out of my head.
All the usual questions rush into my brain like what makes people think that abusing people this way is okay? Is it impossible for young people to imagine how it might feel to be bullied? Maybe it’s that very fear that puts them on the offense. Maybe they are so insecure about their own lives, appearances, weaknesses, and frailties that they leap out ahead of the pack to prey on those they think won’t fight back. Then they find strength in numbers. They band together and feed off a kind of mob mentality that they seem to believe gives them license to terrorize.
I went online to read the comments about the Today show story on Jamey Rodemyer and felt even more discouraged. The discussion started civilly but quickly deteriorated into blaming every sector of society. Some blamed Christians, the Bible, and morally bankrupt religions for being intellectually dishonest. Some blamed the parents for modeling bad behavior. And some blamed the schools. Then it turned into an angry, hate filled debate about government rights and narrow-minded Christians.
Even our public discourse on bullying is full of viciousness and rancor.
If Christians are bullying they are not doing it in the name of Christ. The government is not responsible. Religions don’t preach hatred. Society itself isn’t evil. And parents, while not perfect, generally don’t teach their children to mistreat others.
I’m not saying society is perfect. We are far from it. We have evolved (maybe devolved) into a society that cannot believe in absolute truth, meaning there are no absolute wrongs or rights. I heard recently that twenty years ago a study of American adults found that 80 percent of those surveyed believed in clear guidelines about what’s good and evil. A recent poll of college seniors showed that three-fourths of them believe everything is relative.
This kind of anything-goes thinking leads to comments like the high school girls made about their freedom of speech, convincing them that they can say any cruel thing that enters their adolescent brains because it can all be rationalized – “she deserves it; she’s weird, and I can say whatever I want.”
Maybe we’ve gone too far on the personal liberty front making people think that what they think, feel, and believe is all that matters. We’ve become so centered on our individual rights and freedom to choose we’ve lost the ability to respect the choices of people around us simply because we disagree with them. People slip into abusive behavior without even realizing it because they’ve told themselves everything is relative.
This also raises the question of tolerance. It seems like we only understand one side of the tolerance coin, the side that says everybody should be tolerant about what we think and feel, but not that we should return the favor. We’ve made a mess of this whole tolerance virtue over the years by making it one-sided. You must tolerate my choices and freedoms but I don’t have to tolerate yours.
Remember, this cuts both ways. So before you start thinking, “Yeah, society should tolerate me and my choices.” Consider that you also must tolerant them and their choices, even, and maybe especially, when they are diametrically opposed.
But bullying, intimidating, name-calling, and hate mongering are never the answers.
Maybe returning to some basics like the Golden Rule might help – Do unto others as you would have them do to you. And maybe we could focus more on how we should behave and not on how we shouldn’t.
In the story involving the girl in our local high school, my daughter called her former principal and alerted him to the Tweets. The principal quickly became involved and the girls quickly deleted their mean comments and replaced with apologies. While this is good news, if the girl found out about the tweets, the damage was already done, right? Some things can’t be taken back, rewound, and started over.
Maybe that’s the lesson we need to teach.