Monday, June 08, 2009

Hypocrites on board.

Tooling around town the other day, I noticed a large sign positioned prominently in front of a local high school. The sign enumerates any number of prohibited activities, including but not limited to the following: "No bullying, violence, harassment, intimidation, belligerence, threatening behavior...etc." When I reached the corner of the block on which the school was located, I found another such sign. For the hell of it, I circled the perimeter of the school; turns out there was a sign on each of the four edges of the several-block campus, in addition to the one I'd first noticed, which was directly in front of the entrance. (Talk about hammering the point home, eh?) I've seen similar signs that emphasize a given institution's (or, more likely, school district's) "zero tolerance" policy on such offenses and related ones.

Now, it's not that I'm for bullying, intimidation, harassment, and violence. I do, however, have some reservations here. One, I am troubled by the growing number of encroachments on individuality and free expression in a nation that claims to celebrate and uphold the sanctity of the individual.
Many of these things are eye-of-the-beholder offenses, as you can tell by the school's zero-loopholes laundry list of basically synonymous words. What that sign really says is: We intend to police every manifestation of every behavior that can possibly be construed as contentious. In other words, BE NICE AT ALL TIMES.

Further, I believe that people
yes, even the high-school kindhave a right to stand up for themselves, certainly in some circumstances. And I don't think that standing up for yourself should necessarily have to involve an intermediary or a person in an official capacity. I understand very well the intent of these scholastic policies, but I think they send, again, a bad message, a message of total helplessness and abdication of personal responsibilityespecially when you throw in the "zero tolerance" part. After all, there isn't always going to be a guidance counselor, assistant principal or "yard duty" around when you need someone to look out for you. Sometimes the person who must look out for you. (To be clear: I'm not talking about picking up a brick and bashing someone's skull in. I'm talking about looking out for one's interests in a forthright, unflinching way.) In a scholastic environment that claims to prize the value of self-esteem above almost all else, what are the implications of teaching impressionable kids to expect to have all situations "handled" for take all discretion out of their hands? I don't see that as empowerment. And as is often true when society tries to deal with an isolated problem via blanket remedies, I don't think the benefit of maybe preventing a Columbine is worth the cost inflicted daily on millions of students.

The other day we talked about the Bullshitification of American life. This, to me, represents the Pussification of American life. More pointedly, as I wrote in SHAM*, it is an extension of the attempt to leach male students of their inherent gender nature
which is to say, it's an attempt to suppress if not eliminate any traces of typical male behavior. This is the embodiment of that mindset, oh-so-popular among guidance types and behaviorial psychologists of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which asks, rhetorically: "Wouldn't it be great if all boys could just be girls?"

Further, I don't understand how we can plausibly ban, at the street or personal level, the very same behaviors and activities that we so routinely embrace at the national level. Is "If you do that again, I'll kick your ass"
heard often on the schoolyards of my youthreally that different from "If you continue to pursue these policies, there will be grave consequences"—heard often at the UN and elsewhere? Why do we act as if we seem to believe that interposing layers of more polite, sanitizing language somehow changes the nature of the basic thought expressed?

Who do we think we're kidding?

* Notably sections of Chapter 10, as well as pp. 239-40.


roger o'keefe said...

Steve, I don't think there's anything wrong with having high standards for behavior in school. Too many of these kids have been raised as spoiled brats and they need to be taken down a peg anyway. Or they're used to behaving like animals, and if their parents can't or won't keep them in line, somebody has to.

You do make some good points there at the end. It's something to think about.

Francois Tremblay said...

You lost me at "gender nature." There are intelligent people who still believe in gender? I find that hard to believe.

Steve Salerno said...

Roger: I have a feeling that if we "sort of agree" here, it's for very different reasons.

Francois: I dunno. It seems to exist in the wild. And anthropologists tell us that many aspects of what we call "gender behavior" in homo sapiens appear to be hard-wired. Understand, I'm not talking in the sense of defined roles, i.e. that women belong in the kitchen baking while men should be out drinking beer and killing something. I'm talking about tendencies like aggression, which in most cases and settings (but hardly all) are indigenous to the male of the species.

Besides, I find that most people who want to deny gender are those who think it would be just fine if we all exuded the qualities that have historically been identified with females. I'm not saying that applies here, and to you. I'm just saying...

Anonymous said...

My third-grade son's school has a policy which is even dumber: "No Retaliation". This policy means that any child who responds to a push, punch or slap will be punished just as harshly as the aggressor. Lumping bullies and their victims together just teaches the victims to stay very quiet. This policy has allowed crafty bullies to intimidate kids as long as their first punch escapes detection (usually the case.)

One little thug-in-training has pretty much had his way with the class. So I gave my son the green light to retaliate if the other kid starts something under one condition: he can't stop or let up - not for blood; not for pain and not for missing teeth. It's the difference between "involvement" and "commitment"; and my son better be committed.

My son told the little thug that the "No Retaliation" policy had an exception. And the little thug then left my son alone for the rest of the year.

I, however, was hauled into the Assistant Principal's office to explain myself. I told the guy that as a dad, I'm not very good at raising victims

Elizabeth said...

Steve, this may interest you:

a HS insider said...

Steve, I'm a long time school administrator now retired (thank God!) and it may surprise you but I agree with you for the most part. Another thing that happens here is that it just moves the venue for the bullying and fighting off school grounds. If there are going to be fights, there are going to be fights. But the school doesn't want to be responsible, so it passes the buck. In some cases I think we actually make it worse by forcing kids to let these feelings fester and boil over later rather than dealing with them when they occur.

By the way you see the same thing with the handful of colleges that have offically banned drinking on campus (although in practice most colleges look the other way. If a college develops a rep as "too tough on drinkers," they'll lose enrollment). They know they're not going to get kids to clean up their act and stop drinking, they're just going to force the kids to do their drinking off campus at local pubs. It's extremely intellectually dishonest. The irony is that instead of having kids get drunk in the relatively safe environment of a fraternity house you're now forcing them to drive around in an intoxicated state or at least be out in the wider public arena, where the dangers are far greater.

Steve Salerno said...

HS, I can't claim any scholarly insights here, but I think you make a very good point that once again has to do with that old bugaboo, the law of unintended consequences: Does forcing kids to sit there with their hands clasped in front of them like good little boys and girls really eliminate the animosity or other stressors that students may feel? Or does it just create a pressure-cooker environment that, in the long run, is likely to cause more serious eruptions later, off school grounds? (This, by the way, is the very argument that many people have made about Catholic schools: The strict, Islam-esque standards of conduct enforced for years on Catholic-school students only causes them to "go wild" with pent-up desires once they're "released" into the broader environment of a public high school or college.)

Maybe a more accurate/honest sign would say:


Jenny said...

How is compulsory education itself not bullying? It is all pretty ironic.

Steve Salerno said...

Hmmm. That's interesting, Jenny. I hadn't thought about it that way. I suppose educators would say there are certain chunks of shared knowledge that are simply necessary to serve as cultural common denominators or to lay the groundwork for ongoing success--and thus are "compulsory." I take it you don't think so?

Jenny said...

It's a tough call. Education happens, so to speak, everywhere. I do think the "unschooling" movement has merit. In fact, we homeschooled our daughter from age 5 to 15 and she went on to academic success in an institutional high school (state-run math and science academy) and now in a state-run university.

On the other hand, the thought of youth running wild in the streets without formal schools to house them in would definitely be a problem.

But still, I find the whole idea of bullies punishing other bullies rather ironic. Not that school authorities are necessarily bullies, but the fact remains that school is compulsory.

The article that Elizabeth posted brings up some good points about how conflict can help bring children together. It doesn't have to tear them apart.

Steve Salerno said...

Re Jenny and Eliz, I want to (belatedly) get back to the point Jenny makes toward the end about the article Eliz posted: That's an excellent and astute observation that I should've made in the blog itself. How do people learn conflict-resolution skills if policies mandated from on-high simply "outlaw" all conflict? Here again we have one of those subtle flies-in-the-ointment that tend to creep in when policy makers overlook the law of unintended consequences. Banning conflict on the school grounds doesn't really make all such issues "go away," of course. It merely moves the immediate crises off-campus or, as Jenny and Eliz suggest, defers the whole problem till later in life, when kids who are ill-equipped to cope with conflict on their own are thrust into an environment where such skills are necessary and expected.

Anonymous said...

OK Steve - let me guess where you learned conflict resolution: on a playground or in a sandlot - probably playing an unsupervised sport or game. There would be lots of yelling; some pushing; and some unfairness. And the kid with the bat or ball might get fed up and take his stuff home, ending the game. And some of the unresolved conflict from school - where the teachers were able to slap miscreants - carried over to the sandlot.

But when was the last time you saw a bunch (12 0r more) of kids playing an unsupervised, pick-up game of baseball or kickball? The kind of game where the little kids get picked last and getting a skinned knee only gets you a two-minute time-out?

Kids aren't playing pick-up games in the suburban streets anymore. They are not learning conflict resolution be getting pushed around by bigger kids; and they are not develop thick skins by being teased and having their feelings hurt. Video games just don't teach the same lessons that after school games did.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 10:52, alas, I never learned conflict resolution, and have few/no skills in that area. That's why I don't work in an office, and spend most of my time in the basement.

Anonymous said...

Speaking about conflict resolution - I think its time to take all the guns away from the big kids - as its daily postal day.

Am upset about the recent Tiller and security guard shootings!


Jenny said...

Hey Steve, would that basement by any chance be a mancave as well? I spend most of my time in an ivory tower, by the way.

Elizabeth said...

Oh, we should then start The Basement Dwellers Club. I have several prospective members already lined up (myself included). :)

But if it gets too populated, then conflicts will arise, no doubt, and we'll have no means of dealing with them... Oy.

I despise bullying in any shape and form. It drives me crazy to witness or even think about someone weak and vulnerable being picked on by a (often psychopathic) character with a mind of a troglodyte (because that's usually a prerequisite to this activity).

As a kid, I was typically the one who helped others nurse their post-bullying wounds. I was bullied a couple of times myself. Those instances left a clear enough distaste in my mind, but I cannot say that they have scarred me for life. They have taught me, however, some lessons about the human pecking order, the brittleness of loyalty and value of friendship, and about my own feelings and character, including my resilience (as well as ways to spot and avoid bullies in the future -- not that I've mastered that last lesson...)

I wonder how many of those who want to erase bullying for good (zero tolerance, etc.) were themselves its victims who now, as adults, try not to relieve the shame and/or trauma from the past. But that's sort of an aside to my thinking.

I don't think we can eradicate bullying. As to whether we should try, I'm somewhat conflicted about it. And even more so about possible means of doing it. Plastering signs around prohibiting it does not seem to be the way, to be sure. Paying attention to kids' interactions and feelings makes more sense, and so does providing help (and/or other forms of intervention when needed).

It is a serious issue because bullying today isn't what it used to be. Today, in the US at least, where getting a gun is easier for many kids than finding a book, youngsters' squabbles too often have lethal solutions. So it is indeed adults' responsibility to be alert and help when possible. The problem is that we don't know when and how to do it ourselves.

Let's face it, we, adults, are not much better at dealing with bullying, and, more widely, emotional self-regulation, now than we were as kids. (Some of us even tend to shun social contacts and prefer basement lives so as not to expose ourselves, too much, to the messy and often painful world of human interactions. I'm speaking of myself, of course. ;)

Anonymous said...

Now the tameness gene has been found in animals, we need to find the same gene in people and use that. Just get everyone's blood samples, go through them and see who has it and who hasn't. Employ selective breeding/employment. It could be extremely useful for business.