Monday, April 9, 2012

Bullies and the Beaten Down

I just want to say this much.  I HATE it when people bully others who are different from them.  Whether it's due to race, economic background, sexual orientation, personal interests, or a child's inability to relate easily with others, tormenting people needlessly is a despicable act.  Young children and even adults can become overwhelmed with the negativity thrust upon them, and some of these people resort to suicide.  It's a serious problem.

On the one hand, I think legislation aimed at this problem may be a good thing, but when it comes to 1st Amendment rights, things get a little bit tricky.  The last thing in the world I want is for us as a nation to lose our ability to express ourselves freely.  That is part of what defines us as a people.  If we overly restrict our speech in the realm of electronic media, as many say AZ House Bill 2549 would, we all ultimately lose.  The bill would make it unlawful to  use language intended to "terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend."  Now, to be fair, the law does attempt to make it clear that the person issuing such speech must have intent to harass the target, and the target should have a reasonable fear for the safety of themselves or those close to them.  If you want to determine for yourself whether this is the case, here is one article that briefly addresses the concerns that have been raised.

Even so, is that enough?  Who judges?  We all know judgments can be flawed.  We're all human, and there are always those who will twist any situation to their benefit.  The democratic process is made possible by our freedom of speech.. We lose that, and we could lose everything else.

Legislation aimed at disarming bullies treads a thin line, and any line crossed to benefit one group can ultimately be turned against them as well.  If the 1st Amendment is violated, that impacts us all.  Such bills need to be very specific in their language and should undergo rigorous review before they are passed.  The public should have every opportunity to see such bills through their various stages of revision.  We are, after all, the ones who ultimately hold our legislators accountable for the work they do.

I believe schools have the right to regulate bullying through policies that address the unique situations of their district.  Students have a right to free speech, but the school should also remain free of tormenting behavior that adversely impacts the learning environment.  These policies are left to the school board and parents to decide.  We need to make it clear that harassment is not acceptable.  If people actively and consistently stand up for the bullied, we wouldn't need policy to begin with.  In our schools and in our towns, we can see the difference between off-handed comments or one time statements of opinion and bullying.  With laws, we leave the decision to someone who may not have seen all the facts.  In our lives, we will see the facts if we choose to look out for them.  When local policies cross a line or are clearly not doing enough to address a serious issue, then the government may step in, but in a limited capacity.

I know I've said this before, but what bullies need to understand is that hurtful words have a power they may not fully understand.  I have to believe that those who bullied people to the point of suicide didn't intend for things to go that far.  And for those bullies that genuinely hope to inflict real pain on others and enjoy it for their own sick benefit, the fruits of your actions will catch up to you.  And this is not a threat.  It is a statement of fact.  People will only tolerate the brutally hurtful for so long.  You have the right to say mean things to someone, of course, and that should remain the case.  However, that doesn't make what you're saying right.  You should know when you're crossing the line, you should understand there are consequences for that, and you should know what they are.  Before you say something, you should be willing to accept those consequences.  Words have staying power, especially in a world with the internet.  Don't claim ignorance when something you said is used against you.  This is a risk you take when you utilize your 1st Amendment rights.

Now, to briefly address another concern I've heard.  Some have said that bullying aimed at homosexual students in particular should not be regulated because it would infringe upon the religious liberties of those who believe homosexuality is wrong.  I must say this: there is a difference between expressing a deeply held belief in a civilized manner and being openly hateful to someone.  When you're harassing someone for something like sexual orientation, even when it does correspond with a deeply held belief, you can't convince me it isn't hateful to do so.  We need to learn to love people and be kind to one another, even when someone lives in a way that violates your own conscience.  Bullying them won't save them.  If anything, it will only make them feel more isolated and alone.  And in those instances, they may not even be able to turn to their own family.  Love and kindness should be the default position anyone takes.

So what do you do if you're bullied and feel like there's no way out?  First of all, you need to find someone you can talk to.  Even when there is no policy in place that can protect you, the best protection you can offer yourself is the support of others.  This can be family, friends, anyone who will listen.  And for those of you who can't find anyone you know to listen to you, you can turn to the online community.  Yes, cyber bullying is an epidemic problem with social media, but that same social media can be your ally is you know how to use it.  The story of a girl who used Reddit to stop cyber bullying shows how people can band together to stop this kind of behavior before someone gets hurt.  We can take our own power back. 

While I doubt anyone would want to talk to me, I want to make it clear that I am also willing to listen.  I've been bullied, so I understand the pain all too well.  It can wreak havoc on your self-esteem, but you don't need to be alone.  I'm putting this out there because I want to reach people with my point of view, and if I weren't willing to accept the consequences of that, I'd be a hypocrite.  Plus, I really do care.

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