Sunday, November 13, 2011

Bully For You

I have been hearing about Michigan's Anti-Bullying bill from many people, and now that multiple Oregonian friends have contacted me regarding it, I felt like it might be good for me to clarify my position regarding the bill. This was not a simply thing, because while the legal issues are simple enough, the surrounding cultural issues, which are really the issues here, are quite complex. First, here is the text of the bill as passed by the senate and here is the article that I think best explains the situation.

I am not sure why the exemption section was written in, because it doesn't do anything. I am not sure why people are reacting in shock or horror, because it doesn't do anything. I am not sure why Senator Whitmer felt the need to go Senator McCarthy on us. As far as I can tell, even if the exemption did something, it would not permit the type of bullying experienced by the student for whom the law is named. Because, although the student happened to be gay, it appears that the bullying occurred as part of a hazing, with no relation to his sexual orientation or the tormentors religious beliefs or moral convictions. I'm not sure why we think we can legislate civility, and I think it exposes a fundamental flaw in our society that we should try.

If I had to guess what reasoning led to the exemption I would guess the following. I doubt that they wanted to protect "religious" students who proceed to beat the stuffing out of a gay student, or an atheist, or a Christian of another denomination. In fact, despite rhetoric from opponents indicating that the law does this, section 8 specifies that it protects, "a STATEMENT of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction," (emphasis mine). Note that this does not apply to calling people of any group by a derogatory label, using the word "gay" as a derogatory euphemism, or holding an atheist's head in a toilet (unless one interprets "statement" in an incredibly lose sense). Rather, I would guess that some people are feeling defensive after losses experienced in areas such as voluntary school prayer and freedom to perform religious works in school and are seeking to prevent this legislation from being used to suppress statements such as, "due to your lifestyle you are going to Hell." While I do not feel that such statements are civil, or even Biblicaly sound, I do not believe that the should, in and of themselves, be prohibited. Should teachers be permitted to say them to students in a specifically educational setting, probably not, but I don't think that students need to be kept from saying that.

Understanding the shock and horror of the response is much easier. Many people have been exposed to the rhetoric that this will protect gay bashers, in the euphemistic or even literal usage, as long as they utter a perfunctory, "God's will be done," before they lay into their victim. If I thought that this bill did that I would be shocked and horrified too. So, let us focus on why people who probably ought to know better, such as our legislators, are appalled by this bill. Part of it might be that our political system doesn't necessarily tend to produce politicians with more ability to understand law or motivation to try than the average journalist. But another factor is that it does kind of, sort of, look like a religious group is trying to codify their persecution of another group as legally protected. But that perception stems from a persistent failure of churches to deal with the public perception that they are bastions of violence against homosexuals, which is not entirely relevant when writing legislation.

Underlying all of this has been my belief that our lives and the realm of legalities are two very separate things. Supporting this belief is my having lived my entire life without directly interacting with the courts nor being able to recall a single instance where fear of legal repercussions caused me to do something I didn't want to. While the law fashions an overarching penumbra on our society, I do not think the two directly interact too often. As such, I would encourage the consideration of cultural solutions to problems of incivility. Teachers have a job, and that is to educate their students. While they should model appropriate behavior to their students, I do not think the current education system is structured in such a way that they ought to be responsible for instilling such behavior in their students. Specifically, the low teacher to student ratio and the lack of institutional support for teachers attempting to discipline their students lead me to believe that teachers cannot adequately identify or respond to all the social problems that their students may exhibit.

The decline of a stay at home parent also seems problematic since this reduces the opportunities that a child has to interact with an adults in a smaller child to adults ratio where undesirable behaviors can be better identified and addressed at greater length. While there are regrettable economic realities behind this decline, I also think there are social improvements that have contributed to it. As such, I do not feel that simply rolling back the legal gains that divorce has made is at all a satisfactory solution. Rather, let us examine other societal changes we might effect. Reaffirming our nation's commitment to marriage might be one of them, and I don't mean trying to keep same sex couples from having it, or forcing battered women to endure it, but examining why so many frivolous marriages occur. Improving our access to contraception might be another, having a child unintentionally does not bode well for one's preparedness for parenthood. Examining the nature of our communal bonds might also be worthwhile, as it may not necessarily be a child's own parents who need to provide their adult supervision, as the saying "it takes a village to raise a child," indicates.

Finally, we need adults who are more exposed to the variety of lifestyles that exist in our nation. "Advances" in transportation and telecommunication have actually precipitated declines in human interaction. Because we CAN communicate with more people we tend to actually communicate with with people who are more like us, as we have a wider pool from which to find them. To offset this I advocate for the dual responses of more integrated communities and more local, on the neighborhood level, government and social groups. Of course, these solutions are entirely inappropriate to enforce through legal methods, but that doesn't mean that they are not the solutions we need for the problems that we are facing.

Note, this does not express a dislike for the bill in either of its forms, as all the bill does is require schools put policies into place to deal with bullying insofar as it is detrimental to the educational environment.


Kelsey said...

I can see why there is outrage to the proposed legislation. All it does is make schools write anti-bullying policies, right? But really, can it do much more than that? I do agree that this is best left up to individual schools/districts, as their demographics and individual needs will vary. It'd be very challenging to write a policy that is designed to be implemented by every school. Elementary schools will need something different than high schools, urban vs. rural, and on and on. I think that this legislation is actually a good first step.

Kenny said...

Sometimes I don't respond to comments because I'm not really sure what to say, but I was glad to hear to you, so that wasn't very kind of me! Yes, all the legislation does is make districts enact their own bullying policy. Is this what you think the outrage is to?

I agree that the flexibility this permits is good. Also, most people probably don't want to see a bill making bullying illegal, because then it would become a criminal matter, and keeping our elementary students out of our courts (at least as defendants) is a desirable thing I think.