We liberals, or at least the majority of us, often get unfairly maligned as being some kind of “thought police” trying to tell people what they should or shouldn’t think. I think I can speak for the vast majority of liberals, and hopefully people as a whole, when I say that what goes on in your head is no one’s business but your own. If you want to hate anyone for any reason — the colour of their skin, their religion, how they express their gender identity, their politics, the sports teams they like, whether or not they put catsup on their hot dogs — then you go on hating them. Personally, I don’t think that’s a very good way to go about life, but that’s just my opinion and you’re free to ignore it. I certainly ignore that kind of “advice” from other people on a regular basis.
There is a vast gulf, however, between thought and action. You may not respect someone based on their skin colour or their beliefs, but you still have to treat that person with a modicum of respect. How far that treatment should go can be debated, but to say that people who argue for the expansion of protection against minorities are “thought police” is just patently untrue. Without at least some base level of “I might not like you, but I will afford you some level of respect,” we would quickly devolve into mass tribal warfare that would ruin the very foundations of human society. Say what you will about the Westboro Baptist Church — and now’s certainly a good time to do so — but even they, to the best of my research, have never actually tried to stone a gay person to death.
The right-wing media machine is infamous for using borderline-apocalyptic rhetoric (or flat-out apocalyptic in the case of loonies like Glenn Beck), to make their base believe that anyone not in agreement with them is out to destroy their very way of life. This kind of paranoia underlies the recent movement for these bills trying to legalize “religious liberty,” the notion that unless far-right Christians are allowed to treat liberals and gays and so on like second-class citizens — even to deny them access to basic services like police protection — that Christianity itself is under attack from the Obama Administration and secular progressives and so on. The fact that “Happy Holidays” has become one of the most controversial phrases in contemporary America goes to show just how pervasive, and ultimately successful, this rhetoric can be.
The recent spate of these bills, which (thankfully) seem to be dropping like flies once a light was shed on how they would essentially enable large swaths of Americans to turn homosexuals into de facto aub-humans, is not unprecedented, however. A couple of years ago, as Michigan Republicans were coming up with as many ways as possible to destroy their state as possible (Rick Snyder running for re-election as governor is a slap in the face to every Michigander with a scrap of intelligence, after all the crap he and his cronies in Lansing have pulled these past three years), one of the things they did was try to pass an anti-school bullying bill that carved out an exemption for religion-based bullying. That bill, like the recent “religious liberty” bills, was quietly shelved once it got covered in the press for what it was, but it provided a good snapshot of how so much of conservative America defines “liberty”: Them being able to treat everyone who doesn’t agree with them like garbage, while others don’t get the right to do the same to them because Christians are the most persecuted minority in the history of America.
(For my overseas readers who think that even the American conservative movement isn’t stupid enough to claim they’re the real victims of persecution in America: I’m not kidding.)
That segues into the story of nine-year-old Grayson Bruce, who was being bullied at his North Carolina elementary school because of his My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic backpack. (I won’t deny a special interest in this story because I’m a pegasister, but it would have landed on my radar anyway because of the principles involved.) Instead of confronting the bullies about their behaviour, however, the school barred Grayson from bringing the backpack to campus. Although this didn’t provoke the same kind of national response that recent “religious liberty” bills have gotten, there was still a huge campaign, mostly on social media (where bronies and pegasisters are solidly entrenched) that has, thankfully, caused the school to reverse its decision.
Still, the school’s initial actions are so repugnant that they demand closer scrutiny, especially because they are indicative of one of the problems of not just the conservative movement to squelch the rights of others, but of American society as a whole. In order to show just how shocking the school’s first response was, let me recast the basics of the conflict in a few different ways:
- A boy who grew up here in Toledo, but whose parents move across the border to Michigan, wears his Ohio State t-shirt to school and gets bullied for it by other students who are University of Michigan fans. Instead of confronting the bullies, the school tells the boy that he’s no longer allowed to wear Ohio State clothes on campus.
- Another boy, who identifies as gay, is bullied by students for wearing pink clothing and his lisp. Instead of confronting the bullies, the school orders the student to “stop looking and acting so gay.”
- A young Muslim girl is bullied by her classmates for wearing a hijab to classes. Instead of confronting the bullies, the school tells the girl that she is no longer allowed to wear a hijab while she’s on campus.
The administrators at Grayson’s school basically tried to accomplish, with their power, what the bullies were trying to accomplish by force: Making Grayson conform to a constructed “norm” on how people should behave. This is something so clearly evident that I cannot believe that these administrators were not aware of this fact as they tried to force Grayson to leave his Rainbow Dash backpack at home. Maybe the administrators didn’t employ the same verbal threats and/or physical violence that Grayson’s bullies did, but they were trying to accomplish the same thing.
Next month will mark twenty-five years since the bullying I was enduring at school got so intense that I attempted suicide on campus. It will also mark ten years since my best friend committed suicide because even though she’d escaped her abusive husband, the damage he’d inflicted on her was still so intense that she thought ending her life was the only way out. Needless to say, issues of bullying and abuse are very close to my heart, and I have tried to do all I can to raise awareness of just how horrifying and devastating both bullying and abuse are. Particularly in the Internet Age, where the ability to bully others anonymously has caused the rise of cyberbullying and yet another cause of teenage suicide, the consequences of these actions — not just for the families of the victims but also society as a whole as bullies’ actions go unchallenged — are not talked about nearly as much as they should be.
I certainly did enough stupid things in my early years that I’m not about to advocate for locking young bullies up and throwing away the key. Similarly, it becomes harder and harder to blame the parents of bullies for not monitoring their children when society demands these parents work longer and longer hours just to make ends meet. What we are dealing with here is a fundamental failure of American society to deal with the root causes behind bullying, and it’s hard to imagine that these issues will ever be confronted by the modern conservative movement when the primary lubricant of its gears, its most reliable way of raising piles upon piles of money, is to continue to drive this “us versus them” mentality, the paranoia that everyone who isn’t like them is out to destroy them, so you need to destroy them first. Confronting school bullying would be sacrilege to them, because it would eliminate one of their primary means of indoctrinating young people to the rationale behind so much of their philosophy. Their idea of “confronting” bullying is to overcriminalize youthful mistakes, the infamous “school-to-prison pipeline” that lets them make money thanks to the rise in prison privatization.
If conservatives have no incentive to tackle bullying and its tragic consequences, then it is a moral imperative for the rest of us to work even harder to stop bullying in all its forms, verbal and psychological and physical, no matter whether it’s over the colour of someone’s skin or what television shows they like. The first step we need to take is to assert that fundamental difference between respecting someone — a private decision that people should be free to make on their own — and treating someone with respect. If Grayson’s bullies had succeeded, through the school administrators’ actions, in getting Grayson to stop carrying his Rainbow Dash backpack, then why should they expect to be less successful if they saw me in my Vinyl Scratch t-shirt and beat me up? The schoolyard bullies of today will grow up to be the adult bullies of tomorrow unless we confront bullying at its source. For the sake of all those who have lost friends and family members, and those who were lucky enough to survive but were scarred by their mistreatment, we can’t allow bullying, or the twisted ideologies that attempt to create justifications for bullying, to continue any longer.