Opinion

The trouble with the anti-bullying crusade

Emily Esfahani Smith Managing Editor, Defining Ideas

In the pop culture today, anti-bullying has become synonymous with Lady Gaga — and it’s no surprise. The freakish-looking pop star who, when interviewed, acts like a complete wallflower, was the victim of bullying in her childhood. Now that she’s a millionaire with an incredible base of devotees — she has nearly 20 million Twitter followers and 50 million Facebook fans — she and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, have launched the Born This Way Foundation, which will, in conjunction with the MacArthur Foundation, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the California Endowment to Empower Youth, educate kids in the ways of anti-bullying. The purpose of the foundation, formally unveiled Wednesday at Harvard University, is to build “a braver, kinder world that celebrates individuality and empowers young people,” according to its website.

Gaga’s foundation is not alone. The federal government’s Stop Bullying initiative, Ellen DeGeneres’ United Against Bullying website and the ACLU’s Anti-Bully campaign are all enlistees in this battle against the hurt-feelings of the misunderstood and teased.

The Born This Way Foundation and its peer groups, in my view, represent much that is wrong with our pop culture and its insistence on defining the moral agenda of our lives. By coddling young people by fetishizing “acceptance” and “individuality,” Gaga’s foundation will sideline the tough-minded sandbox wisdom that young people only learn by facing up to their cruel peers on the playground during recess. But more than that — and more importantly — its agenda will deliver yet another blow to the idea that people should take personal responsibility for the things that they do.

Most adolescents want nothing more than to simply be normal and blend in with the crowd. That’s why they all shop at the same stores, wear the same backpack brands, speak in the same colloquialisms, play the same few socially acceptable sports and do their hair the same way. Those who break from this social code — those who stand out in one way or another — get bullied and ridiculed. This is not an ideal situation, but it is a fact of life, and it used to be a fact of life that the bullied had to learn to deal with. If they were different, they either stood up for themselves or learned to conform to the prevailing pressure to be normal — an incredibly valuable lesson for later in life. That’s what I mean by tough-minded sandbox wisdom.

Now, the bullied have a breathtaking array of institutional support telling them that they don’t need to deal with their social problems head-on. They simply have to be who they are, be themselves, and that’s good enough. When being themselves pushes them to the brink, as it did with the gay Rutgers student who committed suicide in 2010 after being videotaped kissing another man by his roommate, then the onus of responsibility falls not on the “victim” (here, the gay student), but on the villain (here, the roommate who “bullied” him, now facing up to 10 years in prison).

Consider that to Gaga’s mother, who will serve as the president of the Born This Way Foundation, the Ohio teen who shot five people at his high school this week is another person who should have been empowered to be himself, whose individuality should have been celebrated:

Germanotta is quick to note that the focus of her new foundation is on “kindness, not meanness,” saying that “bullying is almost overused in the media.” The group plans to partner with three other groups — Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the MacArthur Foundation, and the California Endowment to Empower Youth — to help educate kids, Germanotta says, by connecting Gaga’s fan base with the programs the groups have started.

Tragedies like the school shooting in Ohio this week deeply sadden her, Germanotta says, adding, “It just feels senseless to me.” She says, “I hope that ultimately, we can help people develop much stronger respect for their fellow man. That’s what troubles me the most. It will take time.”

Is Germanotta implying that the Ohio teen’s rampage was caused by bullying? Given the context, I think she is — and it may well have been. But that doesn’t excuse the teen’s criminal — evil — murders. And yet, the Born This Way Foundation believes that by stamping out bullying, these tragedies will also be eliminated. After all, the victims of bullying are driven to sociopathic anger and murderous rage by their mean, insensitive and cruel peers.

This is the insanity of the anti-bullying crusade. It casts the villain as the victim and has nothing to say about the real victims — like those dead children and their families in Ohio. Rather than realizing that bullying is a natural part of adolescence — I hardly know anyone who has not been bullied at one point or another — the anti-bullying crusaders want to erase the scourge of bullying from the world of the playground, of recess and of lunch hour. They wants to take the ostracized kids — the freaks and nerds and wallflowers — and “empower” them with “kindness.”

Not that we need a private foundation to accomplish this task. The anti-bullying agenda has hit private and public schools with a vengeance, as a program of workshops, worksheets, class movies, class discussions and school-wide assemblies have come together to indoctrinate children in sensitivity training and the evils of bullying. New York requires all schools to have a policy about bullying. And New Jersey just passed an anti-bullying law, too.

In Thursday’s New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof reported on the launch of Lady Gaga’s new group by highlighting an experience she had being bullied:

When she was in high school, Lady Gaga says, she was thrown into a trash can.

The culprits were boys down the block, she told me in an interview on Wednesday in which she spoke — a bit reluctantly — about the repeated cruelty of peers during her teenage years.

“I was called really horrible, profane names very loudly in front of huge crowds of people, and my schoolwork suffered at one point,” she said. “I didn’t want to go to class. And I was a straight-A student, so there was a certain point in my high school years where I just couldn’t even focus on class because I was so embarrassed all the time. I was so ashamed of who I was.”

Gaga’s mother has another story along these lines:

As for whether Gaga herself was ever bullied, her mother recalls one anxiety-ridden weekend that became a defining moment. Her daughter, whose given name is Stefani Germanotta, was “purposefully not invited” to a party one weekend by some of her classmates, her mother says. “On Monday, they asked her what she did over the weekend, knowing full well that she knew about the party. It comes down to meanness and cruelty,” she says. “Exclusion is a form of that.”

These don’t sound like life-altering traumas to me. These sound to me like the petty antics of immature high school students, which are a routine part of the rigmarole of being a young person. If Lady Gaga and her entourage of fans — which now includes Harvard University, the MacArthur Foundation and a New York Times columnist among its ranks — think that they can glaze over the hard realities of adolescent life, then their utopianism knows no bounds.

Yet, anti-bullying has become the cause of the day in our pop culture. How? Very simply, it is consequence of pop’s belief that feeling good is a human right. But don’t take it from me. Kristof, in his ode to Gaga in yesterday’s New York Times, observes that we are “born to not get bullied.” He means that the right to not get bullied is something inherent in us, something that we are born with — what used to be known as a divine, God-given right. In today’s pop culture, not being bullied is the closest thing to a natural right that we can all gather around: “Bullying and teenage cruelty are human rights abuses that need to be higher on our agenda,” he writes. And anything that violates that right — that makes us feel bad about ourselves — must be done away with.

Emily Esfahani Smith is the managing editor of the Hoover journal Defining Ideas and associate editor of The New Criterion. She writes about pop culture at acculturated.com.