Saturday, October 09, 2010

Against Bullying, or why we need a new social movement

Like everyone else, I've been completely overwhelmed and utterly heartbroken by the stories of young boys and men compelled to take their own lives because of bullying. Yesterday evening, the front story of the NY Times was about the kidnap, rape, and torture of a gay man by nine other men, and then this morning, I came across an op-ed about mean-girl behavior starting as early as kindergarten. Evidence for the cruelty and violence that humans are capable of, yes. But not necessarily for the inevitability of such evil behavior. 

This is the where I think Richard Kim's essay, "Against 'Bullying' or On Loving Queer Kids," really hits the mark. Kim alerts us to what, with a few exceptions, has been missing in the national discussion about bullying: the homophobic nature of our current political discourse, and its effect on young people. For example, a new Time Magazine article on bullying focuses primarily on ways in which new media make it easier for aggressors to pursue their victims without having to actually come face to face with them, something that, in the past, may have mitigated such cruel behavior. Furthermore, as a recent NPR report argues, the pace of education about interpersonal skills in a hyper-connected world has not kept up with the rush of technology and its earlier and earlier adoption. 

Kim argues that while all this is true, we must not ignore the larger role discourses of homophobia and hate have on shaping cultural notions of belonging and difference. Cell phones and the internet are vehicles for bullying, but the impetus comes from heteronormative attitudes cultivated in entertainment, as well as in the legal and rhetorical strategies of politicians who continue to use the penalization of queers to further their agendas. Examples abound: the debate over same-sex marriage, the Republican push back against overturning DADT, and most recently, Tom De Mint's statement, in a speech given at a church rally in South Carolina on Saturday, that local school boards should be able to ban gays and unwed mothers from teaching. Yes, you did read that correctly.

And this is not just a question of sexuality (I mean, it never really is, is it?). The invocation of a politics of difference as a social and political platform in and of itself (as in, I represent that which is not different, which belongs, and thus I have de facto moral value) is always a raced, gendered, and classed project as well. The identification of gays and Muslims (and - the horror! - queer Muslims) as America's expendable others in large-scale national debates most certainly shapes the ways in which children are learning to make sense of their own, and their peers', place in the world. As Pamela Paul argues in her NY Times essay, it really is "monkey see, monkey do" when it comes to children's attitudes about what makes oneself and others valuable.

So... what can we do?  I think this is where a rejection of inevitability (the "kids are just cruel" rationale) comes in. We can - as parents, educators, participants in a public discourse - insist on educating ourselves and others about where hate and the moral adjudication of belonging come from. They do not stem from ahistorical religious tenets, or from hallowed tradition, or from any type of radical and universal difference in being, but rather from the history of modern power and the continued actions of those who seek to maintain (or in some cases to obtain) economic/social/cultural privilege. I think this is the issue of our day!  Anita, a few days ago you shared an op-ed about the urgent need for a third party in American politics - maybe this is the crisis that will energize those who seek a government that is based on the principle of social justice.