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Empathy and Civility? Those Are Just Words, Right?

I attended a panel discussion that was set up to respond to the suicide of a local high school student. As a result, I don’t want to say I’ve lost all hope in society’s ability to deal with this problem, but my hope has taken a painful, debilitating blow.

The principal spent a lot of time and energy insisting that bullying will never end. It happens everywhere, not just her school, and fighting bullying requires everyone’s involvement, not just hers. Every so often, she emphasized that she didn’t mean to sound defensive, although it was hard to read her mostly well-intentioned comments as much more than an attempt to gain control of the story that the local media and rumor mill (hard to separate those forces) have painted.

Fine. We’ve all got to be committed to solving the problem. I agree. Any halfway responsible person can agree with that. So what does she recommend we do, based on her experience? The principal told a story about going to a parade at her son’s school. As her son passed on his float, another parent who didn’t know this administrator said her son should have been killed at birth. What did this administrator, this trained professional, do? She froze. After demanding that we audience members avoid standing by and letting bullies get away with their offenses, she gave us an example of her doing that very thing.

To be fair, it was a shocking comment, and when she told that part of the story, audience members let out a collective gasp. But I really expected to hear that she collected herself and did something, either immediately or shortly after the incident. I hoped she might have told us the story to illustrate the difficulty of anti-bullying work and to encourage us to prepare for such situations, to anticipate how we might feel and plan what we might say, to do role-playing to rehearse those moments so we’re not caught off guard as she was. I would have given her a standing ovation if she’d had a rhetorical purpose other than playing the I’m-a-parent-too card. If educational professionals are also parents, they are, apparently, supposed to be forgiven for inaction because they, too, have feelings. But if the feelings for one’s own child doesn’t inspire action, Maybe we weren’t supposed to notice that she did offer no clear solutions from either perspective.

There was also a police officer on the panel. He preached the gospel of structured behavioral training. He didn’t use those words, but that’s what he meant. He spoke about the effectiveness of dress codes, saying that it gives children one less thing to have to worry about. When educating children, we should set high standards of behavior, the most effective height to be determined by him, apparently. He gave examples of ideal educational environments, such as private schools and a summer camp he’s involved with where parents drop of their kids so he and other law enforcement professionals can “hammer them all week.” The rigid structure he recommended doesn’t give kids room to misbehave. While I agree that not giving kids choices is an extremely effective way to modify their behavior for a time, such an approach doesn’t do much for helping young people learn to make responsible choices when rules aren’t clear. Furthermore, the imbalance of power and the repeated, aggressive approach he recommended are key features of bullying.

For all the railing I’ve heard about how “kids today!” have become desensitized to violence, I’ve heard very few adults consider that kids become desensitized by watching the adults in their lives use bullying as pedagogy and/or avoid dealing with what actually affects kids. Despite so much recent news about suicides by kids who were either gay, perceived as gay, or accused of being gay, that factor gets buried, lost, or just plain eliminated from discussions of bullying and suicide. There was very little discussion of sexual orientation at the panel. It was mentioned in the handout, although it was emphasized that bullying is not a “gay problem.” (Oh really?). Otherwise, except for one of the panelists offering “faggot” as an example of a slur used against kids, there was no discussion of what that means that bullies so commonly use sexual orientation to demean their victims.

As with public education for children, this panel for adults was rigidly structured to get a safe outcome. Panels discourage discussion, so it’s hard to get beyond the agendas of the participants, none of whom seemed prepared to offer solutions. Bullies are bad. They learn to be bullies from TV, video games, and their parents, but not at school. Victims and witnesses need to overcome their fears and speak up. Parents need to be patient. Same ole story. Participants can honestly say they have talked in public about bullying. They’ve taken questions and offered responses. Their participation can be used as evidence against any claims that they haven’t done anything.

Getting the outcomes you want doesn’t mean anybody has learned a thing, especially if you avoid or minimize engagement participants. Involving people in learning processes works better, although it’s much more difficult to do, requiring patience, trust, and other things that are difficult to see or quantify. And involving them means we are involved with them. We can’t remain at arm’s length. “Do as I say” becomes “do as I do,” which makes it hard to hide our fears and weaknesses from them. If we’re not careful, they might learn how to respect others’ humanity based on the models we provide. Not only might we be held accountable, we might also have to meet our own high standards. From there, we’d all slide down the slippery slope of touchy-feely crap into a namby-pamby sand pile of empathy and civility. I mean, sure, that’s what we want, but gosh, if we did what we need to do to encourage children and adults to feel empathy and behave civilly, no one would have a sense of humor anymore. The art of comedy as we know it would die. And what about our First Amendment to push meanness to a point just short of harassment? Do we really want to lose that?

There’s no need to fear. If we’re depending on our educational system to spur these changes, nothing will change soon. We won’t dare allow educators, students, or parents to feel much of anything beyond anxiety and fear. We’ll all remain so tied up in red tape, preparing our children for standardized tests that prove they’re either good students or not but avoiding the kinds of interactions that make them educated, responsible people. We’re safe in our hostile world. Soon, no atrocity will shock us. We’ll feel not a speck of guilt, so we won’t even need to hold a panel discussion to pretend we’ve done something.

3 Responses

  1. At the risk of sounding like a total shit, Jim, did you call them out on this during the panel? Or were you too stunned by it? I don’t know if I would have had the presence of mind to confront them, but I hope you make your views known.

    Because I think you’re right. And it sounds like they need to hear it.

  2. That’s a fair question, not shitty. I followed the rules they established. We could submit questions on index cards, but there was no open-mic Q&A. Although I hoped for more discussion, I wasn’t surprised it went the way it did. I attended mainly to gather information. I’m working with a local agency to plan a summit sometime next year where we’ll develop a five-year plan to address bullying, domestic violence, and other issues in our community. Representatives from that school and others and many other stakeholders in the community will be invited (and, given the aftermath, feel obligated to participate). The purpose won’t be to justify where we’ve been but to figure out how to get where we need to go. The rules won’t be theirs to make.

  3. I may just be bitter, but it is difficult for schools to help targeted students. When I was younger I was bullied off of school grounds by neighboorhood kids since I didn’t have the needed social graces, and any attempts by the school to stop the bullies had negative repurcusisons for me. Granted, the level of bullying I faced was far less than students who’ve lost their lives over it, but it is a force that can evade regulation so easily. Maybe if students rather than parents lead the discussions, or penalties for bullies included counselling, or if parents stoped behaving like bullies themselves this would be less of an issue.

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