Friday, February 5, 2010

Bullying and Suicide

Recently, a high school girl Phoebe Prince killed herself because of relentless bullying by her high school peers. At first when I hear about it, I thought, well, that's sad, but you can't prevent everyone from killing themselves. I didn't really think the mom who posed as a boy on MySpace was responsible for Megan Meier's death. What if the bullies never meant that much harm? When I read more about it, though, it seemed like her bullies were especially vicious and were not at all remorseful when she died. Then it really seems like they need to be punished, but it's unclear how.

The thing is that while the stereotypical male bullying of stealing lunch money is more easily identifiable, verbal bullying especially by girls is not well-understood and not as easy to spot. Besides, kids are bound to have arguments, and adults don't always need to intervene. Some people say that kids need to learn how to stand up for themselves, and that's certainly true. On the other hand, kids need to know how to behave civilly. Plus, there are limits to what someone can do to stand up for themselves.

Being surrounded by hostile people all day is not easy. It's not as benign as someone calling you a name sometimes. When you're a kid, you don't know very many people, and you are just beginning to build your identity and relation to society. When you are an adult, you already have an identity and you have met many different groups of people so of course when people criticize you, it's not as disturbing. People say that if kids can't even handle being bullied, they'll never make it in the 'real world.' Well, in the 'real world' people at work have to behave professionally, and people you interact with outside of work are either your friends (maybe from college) or people you are buying things from.

At the same time, I know that I have been on the giving as well as the receiving end of bullying. East Campus also had a certain way of keeping people in line. In extreme cases it could be considered bullying, but every social group has a mechanism for moderating behavior. In fact, I have a theory that bullying tactics are really meant to be used for curbing people's social behavior and help with their social development. When people don't use it to help bring people in to the fold, though, they are effectively telling their victims that they are worthless without providing any directions for how to reform. In that context, it's no surprise people feel the urge to commit suicide because they feel there is nothing they can do to escape persecution as a social failure.

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