“It gets better” only goes so far

Celebrity public service announcements only do so much to stop bullying. The real problem may be public apathy towards bullying behaviour.

By Michael O’Morrow

Teenage bullying happens everyday, in every school, in every town.  Kids tease and abuse each other for the slightest difference – being overweight or underweight, too smart and nerdy, or not smart enough and a jock, or for having too many pimples or big breasts.  Sometimes they attack more sensitive subjects, like race or sexuality.

In recent weeks, bullying has become a popular issue again.  Celebrities have taken to the Internet and launched videos condemning teenage bullying and attempting to bring hope to teens who feel different and alone.  Their message is simple – “it gets better.”.  These celebrities have been moved by the recently reported gay teen suicides in the United States.  These tragedies have been attributed to teenage bullying, and the assumption is that after having experienced in many cases years of torment, abuse, ridicule, and shame, these kids found their way out.

And while it does get better, teenage bullying is a problem that needs to be addressed.  For the actions of others to drive youth to a point of feeling so damaged and so alone they seek solace in death, action is needed.  But who do we blame?  Do we blame the parents? The schools?

In these cases, blame should be shared.  Parents need to be better aware of the actions of their kids, and schools need to protect the children.  The bullies themselves are to blame, but their portion is least; they too are victims.  Somewhere along the line they learned that being different is not okay, and that those who dare to break the mold deserve punishment.  In cases of hate crimes and suicide, often two or more lives are ruined.

We are left to wonder where and when did our youth learn to disregard equality and disrespect the differences of others.

A child isn’t born a bully.  They are taught and learn to be a bully.  They learn it from their parents and friends, and from the surrounding environment that teaches them there are some people who are lesser than others.  Kids are shown, through our institutionalized norms, that it’s okay to attack others who are different.  Our governments, those who are elected to represent the people, marginalize minorities in the name of the greater good, and as a consequence, respect for another’s being and basic rights are lost.

While there are many groups who face injustices daily, gays and lesbians endure a long list of institutionalized inequalities – a list that no doubt helps guide the actions of their bullies.

On the same day the United States elected an African American President for the first time, California passed Proposition 8 outlawing same-sex marriage in that state.  Since 1993 under Bill Clinton, gays and lesbians haven’t served openly in the United States military.  Thousands of individuals from all branches of the military have been discharged for violating the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.  And while the policy has been deemed unconstitutional by federal judges, a congressional battle over the rule looms.   Adoption is a state issue in the United States, and many states have banned LGBT adoption; stable gay and lesbian couples are forbidden from adopting children in need.

Canadians believe all their citizens are treated fairly and equally, and that homosexuals are afforded the same rights and liberties as everyone.  Certainly there is support for that assumption; gays and lesbians have been free to wed in Canada since 2005.  But the constitutional guarantee protecting gays’ right to marry has failed to protect them on the street.  The Globe and Mail reported in July there were 159 hate crimes attributed to sexual orientation in Canada in 2008, 34 in Vancouver alone.  Many more go unreported, and many struggle to be defined as a hate crime.

The 2010 study guide for immigrants applying for Canadian citizenship had all references to gay and lesbian rights and same-sex marriage erased from its pages by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.  He was quoted in a CBC News report as having explained his decision by saying “We can’t mention every legal decision, every policy of the government of Canada”.  How about simply mentioning policies that affect a population that by the year 2011 is estimated to have bought $835 billion US of goods and services in this country?

We often forget as a people that our institutions are here to work for and serve us.  Too often those in charge dictate policies that fail to represent the population and merely serve their own position.  Kenney fought same-sex legalization in 2005 and 2006.  He lost, and yet is allowed to censor that right to potential immigrants.  Where were the immigrants already landed here to speak out publicly against Kenney and remind Canadians they came here for recognized equality? They’re probably watching those celebrity videos.

How can we expect our institutions to change when we don’t force it?  And how can we expect teenagers, who are among the most impressionable – and, by consequence, cruel – members of society to accept differences and stop bullying when the adults around them perpetuate an environment of inequality?  Our attitudes and inaction are the cause of teenage bullying, and that is the issue we face.

Technology has become the method for people to express their anger and resentment towards any perceived injustice.  But as quickly as methods of Internet protest can be circulated, it can be equally as quickly ignored.  Where are the street protests against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as soldiers are returned to combat missions for a second, third, and fourth time?  Why aren’t people marching the streets demanding better police protection and recognition of hate crimes?

It’s great that celebrities speak out on issues.  Their well-produced videos are circulated on Facebook and Youtube, and, for a while, people talk.  But after so long, the videos, and their issues, are forgotten, and everything stays the same.  It’s our fault those gay teens felt suicide was their only way out because we failed to protect them from the bullies who pushed them to it.  And it’s our fault for not having saved the bullies from thinking their actions were okay.  We sit and point the finger at people to blame for these tragedies, and yet personally do nothing.  These inequalities have become ingrained in our society and our youth are learning to accept them as normal. Teenage bullying is a problem, but it won’t be solved until real action is taken to preserve justice and freedoms for all.  Posting links on your wall isn’t good enough.

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