Un-Mixing the Message
In the wake of the recent spate of young children taking their own lives in an effort to escape the daily torment of bullying, a number of celebrities have spoken out about their own experiences with bullying. Their hope is to convey to young people who might be considering suicide that it is a permanent solution to the temporary problem; You will not always be going to school with these people, you will not always be made to suffer, you will not always be the person whose personal power they try to steal.
They want kids to know it gets better.
Now, while I understand the intent of the message and even commend the many people rallying behind the cause, the message itself is a backlash, a reaction to a string of senseless tragedies. The problem with many such reactions is they address the symptom while remaining ignorant of the cause. And while “it gets better” is a noble effort to make kids aware that that things will get better down the line, runs counter to a much larger point and undermines the impact of what the message is intended to convey.
Think of it this way: not only is saying that life gets better a passive dismissal (and, by extension, tacit approval) of the practice of bullying as a part of life to be endured, but it is also a misrepresentation of the reality of the world as it is today. And the reality is that it doesn’t always get better.
For those who would argue the above as mere pessimism, I need only point out the fact that the majority of the suicides that have been reported on in the last few months have been those of young people who have fallen under the umbrella of LGBTQ. I need only remind you of the story of those like Matthew Shepherd who was beaten to death for being gay, the shameful failure of congress to overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or the countless number of politicians who sail to victory after victory on the platform of “Morality and Family Values” by portraying same-sex marriages as the antithesis of both.
We would be deluding ourselves if we fail to admit that not only do bullies not go away, they often band together in numbers.
All that being so, how can we in good conscience TELL these despondent children that it does get better while at the same time SHOW them in so many ways that it won’t? These young men and women are far smarter than we often think and far more deserving of something more than any piecrust-promise future that “it gets better” may create. These children exist in the Here and Now, and, tragically and for so many of them, the here and now is a nightmarish place.
This is by no means advocating suicide as a reasonable response to bullying, because it most certainly isn’t. However, in careful examination of the mixed messages bombarding those who are struggling through what are arguably the most difficult years of their lives, the reasons behind making the choice to commit suicide become almost crystal clear. As far as we as a species have evolved, we are still at times slaves to our most basic instincts: Fight or Flight, Remove the Threat or Remove Yourself from it. When the enemy that we face is bigger and more powerful than we, we are driven by these instincts to run; if your enemy is the world, then it is perfectly understandable to seek a means to leave it.
I submit that rather than promising our children a future where “it gets better”, a future for which there is no guarantee, we should take a cue from them and focus not on the world as it may potentially be, but as it is NOW. Rather than bullying being something that they must get through, it is something that we as responsible adults and, like it or not, role models, need to put a stop to. Bullies are not born; they are made by the microcosmic and macrocosmic societies that surround them. The onus should not be on the bullied to endure, but on the society that created the bullies to stop creating them. It falls to this society to take greater strides towards not only tolerance of all regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, race or religion, but genuine acceptance. After all, “It gets better” is easy enough to say, but clarity comes when the deeds match the words. Without that, the message of a better world is at best mixed and at worst, empty.
While I am pleased by the increased conversation on the devastating effects of bullying on children, there is still more to be done before the message “tormenting others because they live or love differently than you is unacceptable” gets through loud and clear. To Everyone.