Standing up to bullies

The word “bully” has many meanings, but the noun used to define “a person who hurts, persecutes, or intimidates weaker people” first came into regular usage in the late-17th century. The notion of someone stronger preying on the weak, after all, is not exactly a new one.

Currently, the issue of bullying has taken on a new urgency because of the susceptibility of one of the weakest subsets among our children, those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered. Given the vituperative rhetoric that has been resonating in our country during the past decade or so, it is no wonder the children of those who vilify homosexuality would themselves embrace such an exclusionary attitude.

Today, LGBT children are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. Because of the particularly brutal nature of bullying of LGBT children, serious injury is not infrequent. Even death occurs on occasion, both as murder and, tragically, when the afflicted youth commits suicide in a desperate attempt to escape the torment.

But bullying is not a LGBT issue. Other children are bullied. Other children are injured or killed as a result of it. And other children take their own lives out of desperation. Bullying, rather, is an issue of social conscience … the struggle between what Abraham Lincoln described as “the better angels of our nature” and succumbing to the atavistic ethos of social Darwinism.

Two developments affirm the cogency of this societal conflict:

The first is the release of the documentary film, “Bully.” C0-written and directed by Lee Hirsch, who also directed “Amandla,” the award-winning documentary of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, “Bully” unflinchingly chronicles how bullying impacts the estimated 13 million child victims in the U.S. alone. The documentary also has exceptional educational value for use in our school systems, to shine a light on both the victims and the perpetrators. However, the Motion Picture Association of America – the closest thing we have to an unaccountable ideological censor in our ostensibly free society – rated the movie R, so it could not be shown in schools or by youth organizations that adhere to general school guidelines for film subject matter.

A high school student named Katy Butler felt this was inherently unfair, given the stakes for the victims of bullying in our schools, so she started an online petition drive through to urge the MPAA to reconsider. With the enthusiastic support of the film’s distributor, members of Congress, entertainment personalities, professional athletes and more than a half million signatories, she succeeded: The MPAA relented and changed the rating to PG-13.

Sadly, the other development is the predictable push-back from the Radical Right, since its adherents realize any progress in ameliorating bullying will benefit LGBT students, too. One local commentator, in a particularly scurrilous opinion piece, claimed that bullying “… is peer pressure and is healthy.”

He framed his argument as government oppression of “… little blond haired, blue eyed, white boys,” which he clearly identified as the usual suspects in the anti-bullying campaign and, by extension, victims of government overreach and political correctness run amok.

What is fascinating about his imagery is that his ideological avatar, Adolf Hitler, felt much the same way eight decades ago. The Hitler Youth, which incorporated young males ages 10 and up, was to be the progenitor of Hitler’s Aryan super race – ideally composed of “blond haired, blue eyed, white boys.” These young people were trained to despise anyone who was different and view such persons as inferior. Until the Final Solution got under way in earnest, systematic bullying was the weapon of choice. Vandalism, looting, beatings, maimings, murder … all were embraced as appropriate devices for winnowing out the undesirable elements of German society.

In much the same way, the Radical Right embraces the tactics of our own pugnacious youth, as those bullies intimidate, persecute and injure the objects of right-wing disdain, especially persons of color, immigrants and LGBT children. While this reign of terror is innocuously described as “peer pressure” and “healthy,” the desired result is not the abject conformity of the oppressed, but their outright elimination from American society. Sound familiar?

George Santayana, in the early years of the 20th century, wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfill it.” Certainly, the ensuing decades proved both the veracity and the sagacity of those words. Now, 100 years later, there are those — such as the producers of “Bully” — who seek to break the cycle, to end the pointless reliving of human misery.

To join them, we must stop being complicit witnesses. We must stand up to the bullies in our society — those who defend preying on the weak, who vilify women seeking equitable health care, who disenfranchise minorities, who demonize non-natives, who traffic in ignorance and despair. We must say, “Enough!”