There’s been a vast amount of talk in the media lately about bullying. In reality the talk about it has been growing for years, but currently there’s a confluence of events, what with the trial of that New Jersey college student for webcamming his gay roommate having sex (which some have said drove that roommate to suicide), and the school shooting in Ohio by an apparently bullied “outcast,” and then a new documentary aimed at teenagers about bullying called “Bully.”
Idly reading a story on how 150,000 people have signed a petition trying to get that film’s “R” rating lowered, so that younger kids can watch it, I saw this quote from the director: “Suicide is the ultimate consequence of bullying, so yes, we did know early on that we wanted to tell the stories of parents whose children had committed suicide due to bullying.”
Is suicide truly a consequence of bullying? It seems to be the overwhelming conventional wisdom in all of the coverage of these stories. Bullying, it’s assumed, either causes people to commit suicide, or to steal a gun and shoot up the school. This is also what impressionable kids are effectively being told in all of these stories. But I would suggest that bullying does not in fact cause people to kill themselves or others. It is rather an extreme and extremely unhealthy response to being bullied that causes someone to take his or her own life or to commit a mass shooting.
What causes suicide, or indeed the extreme acts of Columbine-type killers which amount to an even darker form of the same thing? In some cases it is out and out mental illness, perhaps with little relation to specific events. In other cases—surely especially relevant to highly emotional adolescents—it might be caused by an extreme descent into self-destructive levels of self-pity. Unable to see a positive way out of pressing problems and what he or she sees as the contempt of his or her peers, the individual decides the best solution is to “show them” and to make everyone regret every bad thing they ever said and every cruelty they ever inflicted. It’s the ultimate morbid triumph of desperate self-pity. Probably most of us (the non-bullies among us anyway) can remember a moment in our adolescence when we may have indulged in such self-pity, but for the ones who take lethal action it is obviously much more than just a moment. They manage to nurture and grow that flame till it consumes anything that might inhibit the worst possible acts.
Am I blaming the victims? I don’t think so, because the victims here are also the ultimate perpetrators. Bullying in school is a nasty thing, and it is a thing that causes vast quantities of misery to be sure. But it is transient misery. It can be extremely difficult, when you’re 15, 16, 17, and going through hard times, to see a light at the end of your tunnel of suffering. But a few years later the concerns of school-life and that peer group which you could not at that time escape can appear little more than absurd. These are kids, after all, acting like stupid kids act. Bullies try to demean and assert power over others because they lack anything better to do. The healthiest response is to have much better things to do, yourself, than to pay attention to them. Standing up to the bully or bullies, in any practical fashion, is also a healthy response; not so much, however, as to be sucked into making the bullies the center of one’s existence. Circumstances vary, of-course, but these ways of coping with bullying, although not easy for a young and emotional person to practice, are the things that need to be emphasized to them.
What I fear is that by elevating bullying to this ultimate evil, with the help of all of these sympathetic stories in the media, the end result is going to be only an increase in the level of unhealthy self-pity in which the victims of bullying might indulge. After all, if you see someone else getting a vast amount of sympathetic (although posthumous) attention for having committed suicide in response to bullying, doesn’t it figure that it will incline you even more towards the same way of dealing with the problem?
The response of parents and counselors to these suicides, and other extreme acts, should not be to say that such acts are an understandable reaction to bullying. Bullying is a facet of human nature, and especially so for kids and adolescents. It cannot ever be completely eliminated, and in this age of ubiquitous social media there are only ever-expanding ways for kids to torture other kids. The vital thing is to teach healthy ways in which to respond to bullying. Suicide is not a healthy response. The perpetrators of such acts of self-destruction should not be lionized (nor, as should be obvious, should Columbine-type killers be lionized). They failed to deal properly with the rough stuff that life handed to them. They made a terrible mistake. Pity is not going to help them now. Kids in similar situations should not be led to believe that they too will be pitied and lionized should they take the same course.
Am I stating the obvious? I hope so. But I state it anyway.