op-ed

The right to be normal

Emily Esfahani Smith Managing Editor, Defining Ideas
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I was sitting on the subway in New York last week, reading my book, pretty much in my own world, and trying to ignore the bodies that were pressed up on me from all sides, when I noticed a pale little red-headed boy, probably around eight or nine years old, sitting across from me, looking scared, and crouched up close to his mother, who had her arm around him. Neither of them were talking. Near him were two other kids, maybe age 11 or 12, who were being noisy. I didn’t really give the scene much thought.

When my stop came, the boy and his mother also got off. They were walking ahead of me on the platform, and the boy looked back with a terrified expression on his face, so I looked back too. That’s when I realized that the boy was being bullied, in front of his mother, during that 15-minute train ride, by those noisy kids. As we were getting off the train, those kids were still on the subway, but they were hanging out of the train doors, taunting the boy, yelling things like, “what you gonna do little white boy,” “you’re so ugly and skinny, I could kick your a$$,” “your mamma can’t protect you,” etc. Then the doors slammed shut. The boy and his mom were out of sight. And it was all over.

That boy was on my mind when I went this weekend to go see the critically acclaimed documentary Bully, which was released in a limited number of theaters last week. The movie, like the subway scene, was tough to watch. Weaving the stories of five bullied children into one another, the film is relentless in depicting senseless child-on-child cruelty, the suicides that can result from it, and the heartbroken parents who are helpless to do anything about it. Bully is a damning indictment of the adults — particularly school officials — in these children’s lives, who are absolutely clueless and inept in handling bullying and, in the case of a girl named Kelby, even complicit in it.

Kelby, a 16-year-old lesbian living in Tuttle, Oklahoma, is one of the five youth depicted in the film. In one scene, she explains that she was sitting in class when her teacher called roll by sex. The teacher first called the girls’ names. Then she called the boys’ names. Then she called Kelby’s name, which elicited the laughter of the students in the class. A few minutes earlier, when Kelby came into the classroom and sat at a desk, the students sitting directly next to her ostentatiously got up and moved seats.

As bad as Kelby’s story was, it wasn’t worse than Ty and Tyler’s, who were 11 and 17 when they committed suicide after being tormented, day after day, by their peers. In its first few moments, the film plays the song “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus, which was a hit when I was a teenager and evokes that adolescent state of mind of feeling lost and worthless, a feeling that runs throughout the film, and climaxes in the stories of Ty and Tyler’s suicides.

As tragic as the bullying-related suicides are, it should be noted that they are incredibly rare. The number of adolescents (aged 15 to 24) who committed suicide (of various causes) in 2004 was 4,000. Bully estimates that 13 million children will get bullied this year. Assuming that the youth suicide rate has not drastically changed, then even if all youth suicides were caused by bullying, the number of victims of bullying who committed suicide would still amount to less than one percent of the total number of victims of bullying (0.03 percent, to be exact).

That doesn’t make those suicides any less tragic, but it does show that the fervor surrounding the anti-bullying cause — the latest addition to it being this film — is a phenomenon whose moral and political reach transcends the actual harm caused by bullying. Since the mid-2000s, it has become a moral crusade so universally lauded, as I’ve already written about, that nearly all of our leading figures on the public stage, from President Obama to Lady Gaga, from Ellen DeGeneres to the ACLU, from critics at NPR to the Wall Street Journal, are either devoting their resources to it or speaking out against bullying.

The point of Lady Gaga’s bullying-combating Born This Way Foundation is to build “a braver, kinder world that celebrates individuality and empowers young people.” President Obama has said, “Everyone has to take action against bullying. Everyone has an obligation to make our schools and our communities safer for all our kids.” NPR and the Wall Street Journal can agree that Bully is an “essential” and “enlightening” portrait of an “epidemic.”

The safer and better world the movement’s leaders want to create for the young is one in which children are hailed, not bullied, for their differences. People who are bullied, after all, stand out in some way. “People think I’m different, I’m not normal,” says 11-year-old Alex, another child featured in Bully, who gets slammed into the lockers and called “fish face” on a daily basis because he doesn’t look like the other kids.

One kid in the documentary was Ty’s best friend when Ty committed suicide as an 11 year old. This kid was a former bully in third and fourth grade, but when he realized he was “really hurting” his peers, “I decided to be cool with all of them.” Reflecting on that and on Ty’s experience, he says, “If it were me, if I were king of the United States, I’d make it so that there was no popularity, so that everyone was equal, because that’s how it’s supposed to be.”

His statement really highlights what is at the heart of the anti-bullying movement: equality.

The film, like the countless other projects devoted to stopping bullying in this country, argues that we all have the right to be treated equally — and not have our feelings hurt — for being who we are. Not everybody is the same, but everybody should be treated the same — with respect. You have the right, as affirmed by state legislation in places like New Jersey and New York and by our own president, to be yourself. You have the right to be normal, like everybody else.

But there are contradictions here. First, if everyone is normal, then everyone is the same, so there will be no differences to celebrate or to bully others over. Second, Ty’s friend was a bully, but he had the moral courage to realize that being who he was back then was not good enough. He needed to be a better person, so he changed. He and Ty became best friends and he stood up for Ty whenever he was being bullied.

Which brings us to the question of what to do about the many children who are getting bullied. No doubt about it, the bullies need to change their behavior and school administrators need to protect their students from violence. But what about the victims of the bullies? Is there anything they can do?

The anti-bullying crusaders, all adults, tell young kids that people shouldn’t be singled out, in the form of bullying, for being different; they should be singled out and empowered for being individuals, instead. But this message, which coddles the victims, will not go far in the adolescent wilderness of recess, the cafeteria, or the gym locker room, as the bullied know. Dealing with bullies — with cruel people who have problems of their own — is a fact of life that no amount of legislation or campaigning will ever eliminate.

Learning how to handle the problem of senseless cruelty is a growing and maturing experience. At least it was for me when I was bullied in elementary school, and for nearly everyone I know who, at some point or another, has been bullied (and if you ask around, you’ll find that most people have in fact, at some point or another, been bullied). It’s a sad fact of life, but thankfully, for the overwhelming majority of us, it’s not the end of the world. It’s just one more aspect of life to deal with.

The film briefly showed one child who had been successful in getting the bullies to stop. Without resorting to violence, this little kid stood up for himself to the bullies and then, from that point on, they left him alone. In that brief story, the film, perhaps inadvertently, waved away today’s chic and PC messages of “don’t-hurt-my-feelings” sensitivity, individual “empowerment,” and equality in favor of a simpler time-proven one: sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me.

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.