Bullies, as they are wont to do, have forced their way into everybody's head.
In Cherry Hill, New Jersey, a distraught dad wired his autistic son, catching educators calling him a "bastard" and laughing at him. The father made headlines this week by demanding the district fire the teacher as they did the aide. He wants the school to release their names. "There are people asking me, 'How do I wire my kid?'"
The most talked about but least watched film of the year is Bully, which has grossed $1.3 million in two weeks. The Motion Picture Association of America initially bestowed an "R" rating, but Change.org, CNN's Anderson Cooper, and celebrities Justin Bieber, Ellen DeGeneres, and Meryl Streep hectored the ratings board to loosen standards. "The original ruling prompted the aggressive campaign by the Weinstein Co., which is releasing 'Bully,' to lower the R rating to PG-13," ABCNews.com reports. The new rating means it is safe for overbearing teachers to compel captive classrooms to watch the documentary.
MTV airs "Bully Beatdown," as if on a loop. The program provides vicarious vengeance for victims when cage fighters beat up their tormentors in front of a Roman gladiator-style crowd lusting for bully blood.
Forty-nine states have submitted to pressure groups in codifying anti-bullying legislation. The Department of Education features a stopbullying.gov site, singling out Montana as the sole holdout. The president has gone beyond the bully pulpit to support federal anti-bullying legislation, which empowers Uncle Sam to pick on local schools.
"We can't continue to legislate everything," Tennessee state representative Jeremy Faison reasonably said in reference to a new proposed anti-bullying law. He wondered if parents not instilling self-esteem in children at home rather than bullies stripping them of it at school were more culpable in youth suicides. The state's Democratic Party called him a "disgrace," claiming that "of course a tall and burly Faison doesn't see any problems with bullying." Predictably, the browbeaten state representative apologized.
For a culture so big on irony it's ironic that we don't see the irony in ourselves. Alas, bullies never recognize themselves as bullies. They frequently imagine their victims as the bullies, which justifies the agony they inflict. Hell hath no fury like an adult rectifying the injustices inflicted in childhood.
Whether the bullying is real (the New Jersey teachers) or imagined (a politician opposing legislation), those crusading against it often descend into bullying, too. The worst bullies rationalize their bullying as anti-bullying. People's behavior goes terribly wrong when they insist they are in the right.
Particularly distasteful is the use of deceased young people to silence dissent. Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi and Hadley, Massachusetts high school student Phoebe Prince may have been people once but are now iconic symbols wielded by demagogues. The post-Christian world makes saints of suicide cases. The Old Church granted neither funerals nor burials to those who ended their lives by ending their lives. Surely there is a happy (unhappy?) medium between venerating one who has done something so horrible and further victimizing one who is also, ultimately, a victim.
All witch hunts are exercises in group bullying. They not only make it cool to terrorize the individual bucking the group, they make it obligatory. When Hollywood, the president, and cable news anchors gang up on bullies, it's hard not to root for the underdog.
It's easy to take on bullies in the abstract. They pose no threat to hit back. They make an easy mark.
What's difficult is taking them on when they stare you in the face. The promoted method, snitching -- whether to a teacher or a policeman -- has traditionally been a surefire way to court, not repel, intimidation. A culture that is litigious, force-phobic, averse to family-sized families, and monitors children the way the Stasi spied on writers makes taboo the most effective methods of dealing with a ruffian: a hard punch in the face or an older brother. Thus does our passive-aggressive culture make bullying harder for adults to detect and for kids to combat.
"Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster," Friedrich Nietzsche warned. "And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you."
Or, guard against becoming a bully when you crusade against them.