Tuesday, July 3, 2012

People are dumb. Or, how I'm about to make myself very unpopular.

This bullied school-bus monitor situation is completely out of control. What happened to Karen Klein, the woman whose taunting by middle school boys has been widely viewed, is horrible. It's upsetting for many different reasons: we don't like to see the elderly be bullied, we can't imagine that children would go so far to hurt such a vulnerable target, that the boys could conjure up such cruel images, that Klein's breakdown only whipped them into more of a frenzy. The video captures something that nobody is comfortable with but our discomfort often causes us to act illogically, ignoring the bigger picture and missing out on an important catalyst for some kind of change. 

Klein has suddenly become the poster-woman for the bullied, appearing on talk shows and being interviewed by Anderson Cooper about her experience. She didn't want the boys severely punished, just taught a lesson. She says she'd like the boys to explain why they did what they did, "an apology and an explanation"She tells interviewers that people should stop threatening the boys who bullied her because they're "just boys."

This is where I take my first exception to the situation: these are children. They are boys. Public shaming, while a favorite past time in our society, is not a good way to educate children. Children don't have the tools to navigate mass scrutiny. Do we really think that these boys popped out of their mother's wombs mean bullies? I don't really think children are naturally cruel. I think children are highly observant and they react to what they see and hear. Children learn behaviour and boys in particular learn that being aggressive is an excellent way to get what you want and deflect attention away from your own vulnerabilities.

Pick any popular movie and it probably has a bully/bullied dynamic at its core. Watch any movie that a young boy is watching and the love interest is 100% of the time a beautiful, slim woman(so of course being called fat would be an excellent insult). Boys learn from their parents and teachers that society is hierarchical and that they are at the top of the hierarchy. They also learn that boys aren't as complex or emotional as girls are. Boys are tough, boys don't cry, boys don't hug their friends, and on and on. Boys hurt other boys to assert their status. Boys put geeks heads in toilets and flush.

These boys in the video abusing Karen Klein have become nameless, faceless monsters. We don't know anything about them or their lives, the school they attend. By completely removing the situation from any kind of societal context we are doing a huge, huge disservice not only to these boys but also to the Karen Kleins of the world. This public shaming now brands the boys as one thing: bullies. Stripping anyone of their humanity is never productive and I can't even imagine how those kids must be feeling. What pushed these boys to this action? When we basically just say they're mean bullies we ignore all of the real reasons kids resort to intimidation and aggression. A kid who bullies probably isn't the happiest kid in the world and instead of being accountable for the education of these children, the school is literally throwing them under the bus.

Making this video public has forced the school to make an example of these boys, despite the fact that there are probably a lot of bullies in their school and in their district. Nothing good ever comes of making an example out of something. Last week news outlets reported that the boys had received their punishment: a one year suspension and 50 hours of community service with senior citizens. The boys will be transferred to a special alternative education program because they legally have to be provided with an education. This punishment is completely outlandish. Because removing the boys from school and putting them into an alternative program, which are notorious for being shitty, is going to teach them a lesson? 50 hours of community service seems like a decent way to discipline the kids because it will actually educate them, but being suspended never helps kids especially when it is for a year. What about punishing the other kids who were on the bus, who sat there and did nothing? What about punishing the bus driver, who tolerated that kind of behaviour on their bus? This school produced these bullies and ostracizing them, essentially exiling them, isn't going to address the systemic reasons that bullies do what they do.It also doesn't make transparent how much teachers encourage bullying or turn their backs on it. We can see that "punishing" the boys is really just for show and won't do anything to educate or be a factor in transforming the school atmosphere.

What about understanding and talking about the fact that senior citizens are being forced into low paying jobs like bus-monitoring because they live in a society that doesn't support them financially, mentally, or physically? What about the fact that senior citizen abuse is such a huge, huge problem (in Canada and in the States) that there are public service announcements about it?  This woman is clearly not equipped to do the job she's being paid for: keeping rowdy school children in line. She is the bus monitor, she's supposed to monitor the bus for this kind of behaviour and, as harsh as it sounds, not being able to do her job puts other children at risk and creates an atmosphere of 'anything goes'.

The idea to set up an Indiegogo site with a goal of raising $5000.00 for Klein to go on vacation was cute and well intentioned.  As of  last week, the site had raised more than $667,304.00. Klein will receive all of the money accumulated by the fundraising deadline. This is the perfect example of how individualizing something is detrimental. This lady got bullied once, she says in interviews that she enjoys her job and the kids aren't all bad, that even these boys didn't regularly bother her. The $5000.00 should go to her, but the rest of the money should not.  Obviously noone is going to say no to that amount of money, but I just can't understand the logic behind this fundraising thing. It is absolutely ridiculous: "hey, lady who got bullied, here's more than half a million dollars!" Like, what the hell? What does that solve? It solves nothing! We all get bullied, we all have shitty jobs, we all get harassed and hurt, and I just can't understand how donating money to this woman is productive in any way, shape, or form. Maybe that makes me insensitive, but I like to stay rooted in the real world where we actually have a chance at making change, not in La-La Land where we all want to pretend that setting up one person for life is a solution. What do we think is going to happen? She's going to take that huge amount of money and buy the Magic School Bus and travel school to school eradicating bullying? Come on, people.

Klein said in an interview with the Today show that she wants "kids to stop bullying." She says"maybe they can start up a new class in school to teach these kids not to do stuff like that" OH, really? What a wonderful idea! Except for the fact that schools need money to implement new programming. They need teachers or volunteers to teach the students, they need parents and school boards to agree, they need to choose a program that would be suitable for their school. Schools are falling behind on basic skills like reading, writing, and math because of funding issues, there just isn't money for sensitivity training in middle schools. The fundraising for the individual should have been capped at $5000.00. The rest of the money should be donated to the planning and implementation of a program in the school. Bullying is a social issue, it's systemic, and punishing the boys while rewarded the "victim" doesn't do anything to address the issue it just sweeps it under the rug so we can all feel comfortable again.

We live in a highly stratified world where some people have everything and some people have nothing. We live in a world where we get what we want because humans are exploited to produce it. We live in a world where more children go to school hungry than go to school fed, where children can't read or write in countries with more than enough money to spend in schools. Of course kids bully eachother, because adults bully eachother.

Teaching children to respect one another is what we should be focused on. In the documentary Children Full of Life a fourth-grade teacher in a primary school in Japan teaches his students  lessons about compassion and empathy. He instructs each to write their true inner feelings in a letter, and read it aloud in front of the class. By sharing their lives, the children begin to realize the importance of caring for their classmates and it results in the decline of certain students being targeted by the group. Simply put, humanizing the children makes it less likely for them to hurt eachother. In Part Two of this video, the teacher gets the children to have a group discussion about why they would pick on eachother but also to take responsibility for picking on other children. The teacher's approach is very rare in the Japanese educational system, which has been criticized widely for encouraging hierarchical formation through bullying in schools. But is this kind of teaching encouraged in Canada? In the U.S? I imagine we'd like to think that bullying isn't as institutionalized here, but that's just not true and in order to change that we have to stop making these incidents seem isolated.

I think that this bus incident and the subsequent media firestorm around it can teach us a valuable lesson: we are suckers. We all feel bad when we see someone hurt but we are loathe to go out of our way to do something about it. We don't mind sitting at home clicking on the donate button to allay our guilty consciences about every lady we called fat, every teacher we harassed, to get revenge against every boy who ever bullied us. What are we encouraging here? On the Today show they said "tonight we'll celebrate a woman of courage, one who internalized mistreatment and didn't complain." What?! It's heroic and courageous to "internalize mistreatment" and "not complain"? That is not courageous, it is a horrible thing to applaud and it highlights what we expect of women who are bullied: silence. Good job internalizing your mistreatment, here's half a million dollars? You kept quiet about abuse until it was forced into the light of day, hurray for you! That is insane and we are completely falling for it. As a society we should encourage people to speak out but also encourage other people to stand up for those who can't stand up for themselves--that is courageous. Throwing money at this woman will,of course, help her but we have to stop and really look closely at the rhetoric swirling around this issue. We have to stop being suckers who act irrationally when faced with something upsetting. We missed such a good opportunity here, to really look closely at the problem and understand it. As Mr. Kanamori so eloquently put it in Children Full of Life: "Are you all trying to hide behind those pretty words?"

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