Tuesday, February 25, 2014


I have a long, long list of documentaries I need to watch and this past weekend I finally managed to see one of them. It was the film Bully, which, as the title implies, focuses on bullying in the American school system.

This was a fairly personal documentary for me to watching, having been somewhat bullied in my younger years and having seen a great many people bullied myself. While watching the documentary, I tried to think of any of my friends from high school who hadn't been bullied and I failed. I couldn't think of a single friend of mine who hadn't been bullied.

In my spare time, I often critique and ponder the American school system. I once wanted to be a teacher and have long been concerned about how much time is spent not learning but merely trying to overcome the opposition one faces just from one's peers in the classroom. With several GLBT identified friends who have a great deal of hatred for how our hometown treated GLBT people, I know how bullying affects people based on social orientation, race, class, gender, and whatever mere differences can be pulled out from their nuances and exemplified as something horrendous. Most of the bullying I personally experienced and saw others experience actually occurred in my days in schools run by the Catholic Church, despite the fact that Christian values are heavily against bullying. And so I continue to wonder how bullying arises, what makes one person a target and not another, why power struggles are so engrained into childhoods and education systems. I know the US is not the only country with bullying issues but the fact that it is so prominent and so much a part of our society - it certainly isn't new in our school systems, but it's changing and becoming more prominent - is deeply worrying.

Something that worries me even further is the disregard cast upon the issue. The documentary begins focusing on the assistant principle of a school in Iowa who proclaims, "What am I supposed to do?" This is an interesting question and one that's difficult to deal with. Schools struggle with being treated as if they are surrogate parents for their students while also being oblivious to the issues and problems their students have and not providing the basic things they should have. There's tension in the US school system based upon how it's designed in the first place, but bullying bring out an entirely different side of it. What's interesting is that the documentary doesn't continue with this perspective, but instead shows how inept the assistant principle is at dealing with her students and doesn't understand how bullying works in the first place. While this is an issue in itself, I wish there had been more of a perspective at how it shouldn't only be up to schools to fix bullying - this is an issue in parenting and a societal issue based on the norms and prejudices we express to each other.

This documentary, like many documentaries, does not give an idea of how to fix the issue of bullying. Rather, it is designed to draw awareness and attention, produce outrage, and spur action. However, it's difficult to know what sort of action to take. I once wrote a letter to Minnesota Representative Michelle Bachman, as her electoral district has the highest rate of GLBT bullying and suicide rates in the state of Minnesota. There had been an article about it in Rolling Stone, giving the problem national attention - especially as Bachmann was running for president at the time. I was at least hoping for a form letter response, such as I received when I wrote about racism in my school district to the school board. But I didn't even receive this. I heard nothing and still have heard nothing. And so, I ask, how are our voices supposed to be heard when our own representatives refuse to listen? I rationalized her lack of response due to the fact that I wasn't from her Congressional district, but then decided that this wasn't good enough of an answer. I am a Minnesotan, she represents Minnesotans, and just because she happens to not show a lot of empathy for GLBT issues does not mean she can just ignore a serious problem that is happening to young people right in front of her.

In case you can't tell, I'm still angry about this issue and I sent this letter two years ago.

Discussing all of this takes me back to Ellen Page's recent speech at the HRC conference. She nails everything in her talk, but this most of all:


Why is it so hard to be kind to each other? At what point did we decide to treat other so badly? And why do we continue to do so?

Part of it comes from bullying itself - being bullied makes you defensive and angry and hateful yourself, to the point that you run the risk of becoming a bully to, and some do. But it's hard to react differently. I myself am still angry with people who treated me badly in my past, though I have significantly let go of that hate more so than I had previously. But when it comes to situations such as the one with Representative Bachmann, it's very much impossible for me not to react with some anger and hate for her disregard to such issues, along with the other manner of opinions that she expresses which make my blood boil with fury. Working in retail I see how quickly those who are treated with less respect than they deserve instantly turn to anger and hate, be they employees who are treated badly or customers who are treated badly by employees or, more often, other customers. I don't like that this is where we turn to. So, much like the creators of Bully, I'd prefer to move towards a more constructive use of such emotional outrage.

Last summer I had shared a link to a PBS article and video about a school in Colorado using The Tempest to talk about issues of bullying and I would like to mention it again, finding the whole idea so brilliant. Being a Shakespeare fan and theater lover, I can't help but marvel at what could be done if this approach was used more, if we used arts as a way to discuss these issues and express why the ways in which we think and treat others can be hurtful. If we were more aware of the ways in which our society sets us up for prejudices, they way in which parents and the school systems can express these beliefs, I believe we'd already be several steps closer to lessening the affects of bullying.

And yet I know how hard it can be to speak up against such problems. Often those who are bullied are told to get thicker skin, to deal with it, to believe that it'll be okay and to just ride it out without taking action. They are told it is is nothing or that everyone goes through it or that it's just the way kids are. Bullying is an expression of the prejudices in our society through our own youth and if it doesn't terrifying you to hear ten-year-olds using racist slurs or seeing young girls calling each other sluts, then I don't know what to do. I am tired of hearing about the US being a land of equality and seeing that some restriction most definitely apply. To ignore bullying is to ignore the fact that racism still exists, that social classes exist, that misogyny, homophobia, and a myriad of other discrimination occur not just in schools but in society in general. I was bullied for the most shallow of reasons - because I didn't dress as well as the other girls and because I was overweight. This hurt plenty. I cannot imagine the pain one goes through for being taunted based on something even more central to their identity than superficial appearance.

But that's the problem with most bullying - it is superficial. It is based on a lack of understanding and a lack of compassion towards people, a judgement taken only from the briefest of glimpse of who they are. We live in a fast-paced society where we are meant to make decision quickly and focus on what we want. Perhaps if we slowed down once in a while, thought of others, and thought about our own actions, we'd be less likely to act this way.

This opens up an entirely different issue of social communication, which I could really delve into due to my job, but I'm going to hold off on that for now. I was there was a clear way to end bullying but, like most societal issues, there isn't. But I'm grateful to documentaries like Bully which raise awareness and programs like the one using The Tempest which use creative approaches to deal with the issues. It doesn't end the issue, but it brings attention to the issue and can help us arrive at a deeper understanding and analysis. And that's what matters.

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