Monday, April 16, 2012

What’s So Bad About Cyber-Bullying, Anyway?


Why there’s only one thing we can blame on the rise of high school harassment and student suicides…and it ISN’T cultural homophobia


There’s this new movie out called “Bully,” and while I haven’t seen it, I think its message is loud and clear; “oh my god, kids today are sociopath homophobes and we need to instigate legislative corrections so that we don’t have a proverbial ‘Battle Royale’ on our hands nationwide.”

There’s a lot of talk about bullying going on these days. Pretty much every time you flip on the TV, you’re bound to hear a new story about how some harassed kid offed him or herself, and the topic has become celebrity cause du jour, with wannabe-transsexual-alien media creation Lady Gaga declaring that bullying should be made “illegal” in a recent-ish Twitter message.

The way the media reports on it, it sounds like bullying has become this unstoppable, hate-filled epidemic, a radical social blight affecting the nation’s youth like some sort of mental STI. This is a very peculiar assumption, for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, the media seems to be acting as if bullying never happened before “Glee” came on the air. The mental connection they want us to make, I suppose, is that extreme bullying only happens to gay kids, thus bullying is indeed a form of homophobia, which constitutes a hate crime. The rub here is that, well, bullying has been going on pretty much forever, to people that were, in all senses of the term, kind of straight.

There was a terrific line on an episode of “The Simpsons” in which neighborhood ruffian Nelson Muntz tells Lisa that bullying is a social construct that “predates agriculture.” In my ninth grade literature class, we had to read “Great Expectations,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and what did all three of those stories have in common? All three yarns - from three separate centuries mind you - included bullying as major subplots to the works in question. Despite the presence of a Truman Capote facsimile in that last one, I really, really doubt that homosexuality was at the root of the bullying dynamics in those three works - although the notion of bullying based on socioeconomic standing most certainly is.

From what I recollect from my high school days, bullying was a social construct based entirely on class standing. Seniors were expected to josh the juniors, and juniors were expected to josh the sophomores, and the sophomores were expected to josh the freshmen. Like some sort of administrative pecking order, we all knew which direction to piss in, and as it turns out, it was always straight down the ladder. Of course, there was also intra-class stratification, based on what pretty much everything else stratified is based upon: money.

The rich kids pretty much had free rein to mock, ridicule and harass whoever they wanted, and most of the time, they got away with it. None of the underclassmen did anything, because it was a violation of the social code. To combat the sway of the high school bourgeoisie, clumping based on numerous variables was a necessity, and oddly, those “cliques” were formed almost entirely upon the socioeconomic conditions of the people hanging out. Sure, we may have thought we were hanging out in accordance to ethnicity or interest, but really, we were just hanging out with people that were equally as poor as us.

Looking back on my middle school years, it’s painfully obvious. All of the upper middle class kids (the preps) hung out at one table, while the middle class suburban dwellers (the nerds and the churchy people, respectively) hung out at another. The upper lower class kids (that was my milieu) hung out at one table, and the lower lower class kids hung out behind us. The idea of clustering based on race or ethnicity was just a myth; meanwhile, the idea of segregation based on economic factors was very much an unstated reality.

In my heyday, this was what bullying was about. It was really nothing more than a way of demonstrating power distance, first by infrastructural ranking (more on that later) and then by family wealth. Granted, there weren’t that many out-in-the-open homosexuals roaming around my school circa 2003, but we had our suspicions about a number of kids, and you know what we did as a result?

Absolutely nothing. We didn’t care, we didn’t give a crap, and we decided early, early on that social stature (I.E: how much money your dad makes) automatically overrides whatever perceived traits (positive or negative) that you may have exhibited. Wealth was our utmost qualifier, and you’d be kidding yourself if you said that isn’t the case today, as well. Racism, ethnocentrisms, misogyny and homophobia all get cancelled out when you realize the person different than you could buy your ass several times over. Whatever racial or ethnic slurs you could muster were pretty much squelched by the ultimate high school putdown: “My dad pays your dad to work for him.” With this in mind, we patterned our behavior accordingly. 


Bullying, circa 1998.

Now, I’m guessing the average high school experience today is a little bit different than it was in 2004, for a litany of reasons. Obviously, the economic downturn has intensified the socioeconomic fracturing of the student body (good luck hearing CNN report that as a primary cause of bullying, though) but more importantly, schools have made more of an effort to address bullying based on sexual preference.

There’s this term called “agenda setting.” Basically, the idea is that if an administrative source keeps telling you something is important, odds are, everybody will begin believing that thing is important, too. Over the last decade, public schools have dumped an insane amount of money into programs intended to educate youth on bullying and not being homophobic, thus vaunting both subjects as extremely important topics. The thing is, those messages often conflict with what the students personally believe, so when you have conflicting message B shoved down their throats on a daily basis, is it any surprise that conflicted message A tends to flare up in more physical manifestations as a result?

Perhaps saying that perceived increases in homophobic bullying is an example of reverse psychology in effect is probably an overbroad summarization, but it’s definitely a scientifically valid one. There has never been a point in time in which homophobia has been chastised and condemned as socially unacceptable as it is right now, so who is to say that the spike in reports of homophobic bullying isn’t anything more than an instance of “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction?”

And let’s not pretend that media isn’t sending us a mixed message here. A recent issue of Rolling Stone criticized a Midwestern high school for its lackadaisical efforts in combating local homophobia, but in that very same magazine, the extremely homophobic music of rappers like Tyler the Creator was celebrated. Conveniently, it seems as if hip-hop culture - really, the most virulently homophobic entertainment milieu this side of skinhead metal - has been exonerated for its role in promoting and advocating modern homophobia.

And then, there’s the infrastructural basis for bullying that is supported by schools themselves. To me, it seems like high school courses are built almost entirely upon a bedrock of intimidation and fear, with the slightest deviation in expectations punishable by suspension, failure or banishment to remedial courses. Every grade level, you’re reminded that if you don’t pass this semester, you won’t get to the next one, and if you don’t get there, you won’t graduate, you won’t go to college and you’ll have to work at K-Mart for the rest of your life while all of your buddies go work for Google. If teachers and administrators are always displaying their power distance over you by threat of bureaucratic and systematic penalty, is there really any surprise as to why the student body is always trying to display its power distance over each other via ridicule and physical threats?

Hell, it’s not like bullying just stops happening when you get out of high school, either. In college, people voluntarily place themselves in subcultures in which advancement is based upon perpetual harassment and degradation of the individual, and in the modern office environment, you’re pretty much subjected to ridicule from other employees and threats a plenty from your overseer on a daily basis. If you’re an extreme behaviorist, you might even make the claim that maybe, just maybe, bullying experiences are somewhat necessary to become a functional member of a technocratic society - that is, a culture wholly dedicated to maintaining a clear pecking order, propped up by a steady diet of nonstop fear and intimidation.

As far as this bullying epidemic goes, there are more questions than answers apparent - beginning with the query that there’s even an epidemic going on at all. That said, if we were to pinpoint a single locus for whatever perceived increases in harassment on the high school level are going on, I think it’s a pretty obvious solution staring us in the face.

When I graduated from high school almost ten years ago, we had bullying. We had gay students. We had people generally being pricks, as high school students are inevitably to behave. The thing is, all of that stopped as soon as 3:30 hit - the social order that existed in the halls no longer existed outside the confines of the classroom, because from then on, we were free to live our own lives. 




Bullying, circa 2008.

Kids today, I am afraid, aren’t allowed to do so, because they don’t have personal lives anymore. They can’t escape from the classroom pecking order, because of a single advent: the Internet.

In my day, we didn’t have Facebook, or smartphones, or YouTube, or any of these other social networks and channels that don’t allow us to leave the grand collective and be true individuals. All of these mobile technologies gives kids the venue and ability to port the high school social system over to “real life,” and that means further imposition of the social code through out-of-class bullying.

Kids are never really able to disconnect from the collective mentality of the classroom, and as a result, they behave as if the classroom code is in effect all the time. Thanks to technology, the politics of academia have seeped over into the apolitical domain of what we once called “real life,” and the end dividend? None of us are ever going to get the chance to leave high school. Ever.

And when you feel as if you are in an oppressive milieu that you cannot escape from, that will do nothing but belittle you, what other options do you have than grab a noose or a bottle of sleeping pills? The kids that kill themselves due to bullying today are doing so because they’re under the assumption that the incessant criticism and fear mongering of the classroom will haunt them for the rest of their lives - and with the World Wide Web serving as a repository for all of our failings, misgivings and socially-unacceptable longings, they’re pretty much right.

As a culture, today’s youth know that they will forever be tied to an electronic social-network that, try as they may, they will never completely evade. The individual has been completely lost to the collective, and there’s no real means of overcoming the ever-expanding reach of technology-assisted stratification.

And in that, perhaps it’s the “cyber” part of “cyber-bullying” that completely explains this modern phenomenon as a whole.

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