Eating lunch at a campus deli on the 20th of April 1999, I looked up from my sandwich to see the crisis unfolding on the overhead television screen. Two high school seniors, apparently quite mentally disturbed, were in the process of carrying out a bloody massacre that would change public education forever. Among the early explanations for this violent rampage was the later discredited report that these killers were bullied in school. While this suggested bullying is no longer believed to have taken place, the topic of bullying nonetheless was and remains in the spotlight like never before.
Bullying is a behavior as old as time itself. It is found throughout history and across species in the natural world. From the Greek gods of Mount Olympus to Steinbeck’s Curley in Of Mice and Men, literature reflects a human experience which has always included the primal inclination for the strong to pick on the weak. But in a society growing ever more concerned with an epidemic of mental health issues including depression, post traumatic stress disorder, and suicide, it is unacceptable to excuse, justify, or look the other way when witnessing behavior that humiliates, demeans, or otherwise causes another person to lose face.
Canadian poet Shane Koyczan illustrates the occurrences and subsequent emotional consequences of bullying in schools with his viral spoken word poem, “To This Day.” An overweight child who was teased and tormented in school, Koyczan recites his poem as a rallying cry to victims of bullying to believe “[the bullies] were wrong,” imploring them to not let those negative experiences dictate their self-image. The effect bullying has on students who experience it is often severe and far-reaching, creating emotional scars that continue to cause pain and affect decisions long into adulthood. Yet while the war against bullying rages on and its effects are better understood, the causes of bullying remain elusive. The easy argument is that bullying is an instinctual or a natural behavior, but how is it perpetuated, and who or what is allowing this behavior to transcend generations? Is it possible that adults are teaching this behavior to children?
The culpability of older generations in propagating emotionally abusive behavior is evidenced in a variety of ways. Entertainers have counted on the cheap laugh at another’s expense since before Geoffrey Chaucer was regaling the court of King Richard II with his Canterbury Tales. From modern cartoons whose characters delight in pummeling each other with sarcasm and witty one-liners to trendy t-shirts which advertise insults directed at total strangers, there should be little surprise that upcoming generations lack respect for authority and for their peers. Comedian monologues and satirical skits mock physical and intellectual characteristics of celebrities and politicians for laughs, and thus belittling people for the amusement of others is learned by example and practiced by adults and children alike.
Just as previous generations have been criticized for teaching physical abuse to children in the form of excessive corporal punishment, today’s adults must take some responsibility for the emotional abuse children inflict upon their peers. With the deluge of information overwhelming adolescents in this digital age, discussing and demonstrating appropriate behavior to children and adolescents is more important than ever. Whether or not bullying is a learned behavior or an instinctual one, respect is taught, and adults must be the teachers.