Amanda Todd suicide

Hardly a week goes by before we learn of another tragic case of a child committing suicide because he/she couldn’t tolerate being bullied. And the public’s response is always the same: we need to pass tougher anti-bullying laws.

Haven’t we noticed that children continue suffering despite thirteen years of anti-bullying warfare ignited by the Columbine shooting. Year after year children are bombarded with anti-bullying programs, lessons, posters, movies, books, songs and  bracelets. They have signed pledges stating they won’t engage in bullying and will stand up for victims. They have been informed of the punishments they will receive if they violate anti-bullying policies. They have heard their favorite celebrities rally against bullying.

Yet bullying continues. The Obama administration declared it to be a pandemic.

The great irony is that the solution is simple and has been known for thousands of years. The solution is not government but wisdom. It is about knowing how to be a victor rather than a victim. When kids acquire this simple wisdom, no one can bully them and any thoughts of committing violence against themselves or others evaporates.

Shouldn’t social scientists be considering the possibility that the endless barrage of anti-bullying messages may be making children even more vulnerable and desperate? How should bullied kids feel when they are constantly exposed to the lie of “Bully-Free Zone” posters in school corridors? How can they let insults slide off their backs when the adult authorities teach them that “the sticks and stones slogan is a lie” and “words can scar them forever”? How can they feel empowered when they are informed that they are powerless to handle bullying on their own and need the help of everyone around them? How should they feel when they follow the instructions to inform adults on bullies only to find the hostilities against them intensifying and their peers calling them “snitches”? How can they be optimistic when celebrities declare, “It gets better,” but meanwhile it’s only getting worse? Is it any wonder that children despair and take their own lives in growing numbers?

Why is the world’s crusade to eradicate bullying failing? It’s because it was spawned by panic, and panic diminishes rational thinking. As 9-11 reminded us, panic causes citizens to willingly relinquish personal freedom and money to the government in return for the hope of safety. And we are willing to excuse all the destruction caused in the process as the price for pursuing that safety.

Columbine was education’s 9-11. Just as 9-11-01 woke the public to the danger of terrorism on our own soil, the Columbine massacre of 4-20-99 made us aware of the danger of bullying in school, a problem previously beneath our radar, and spurred the determination to create a Utopian school environment in which children need not fear anyone.

Because it promised us the hope of a blueprint for peaceful schools, we eagerly latched onto a formerly obscure field of bullying psychology created a few decades earlier by Norwegian researcher Prof. Dan Olweus. Almost overnight, Columbine catapulted the Olweus bullying-will-not-be-tolerated paradigm into worldwide prominence, and as a result he has become the most influential psychologist in history. The next psychologist to win the Nobel Prize will certainly be Dan Olweus.

The anti-bullying philosophy Olweus has spawned can be summed up as follows:

"You are entitled to live in a world without mean people. If people repeatedly treat you badly, please don't think it has anything to do with you, your attitudes or your behavior; it is only because of them. You are not strong or smart enough to make them stop, nor is it your responsibility to do so. Just inform the authorities when people upset you, and the authorities will make them stop."

There is no serious school of psychology, philosophy or religion that teaches this self-defeating approach to life. Yet this is the new anti-bully philosophy eagerly embraced throughout the world.

It is becoming obvious that the Olweus approach to creating completely safe schools is failing. Had the Olweus paradigm been modeled after “Utopia” depicted by the British renaissance philosopher Sir Thomas More, it would be successful. The problem is, the Olweus bullying psychology was itself a reaction to panic–panic over bullying-related child suicides in Scandinavia. Thus, to assuage public fear of bullies, he created a zero-tolerance system that more closely resembles the system we were warned against by that other great British thinker, George Orwell, in “Nineteen-Eighty-Four.” 

Under pressure from anti-bullying activists, state governments have been mandating that schools adopt the Olweus paradigm of bullying. As a result, schools are becoming mini-police states in which everything students say and do is under the surveillance of the school staff, now required to do double-duty as correctional officers.

Anti-bullying laws are a Catch-22, for the harder schools try to comply with them, the worse the bullying becomes. They turn children against children, parents against parents, and parents and administrators against each other. And if the schools fail to satisfy both sets of parents, the disgruntled parents may sue the school district, wasting humongous sums of money while further escalating hostilities. Tension has reached an unprecedented level in schools courtesy of anti-bullying laws.

If we truly wish to create a Utopian school environment, we need to stop reacting with panic and childishly demanding that the government legislate bullying out of existence every time we hear of a suicide. Aristotle said, “One thing no government can do, no matter how good it is, is to make its citizens morally virtuous.” If laws could force people to be saints, every government would have created Utopia long ago.

People can be excused for never having studied Aristotle. But we all grew up learning the very same lesson from The Wizard of Oz –that government cannot guarantee us complete safety, that the slick politicians in our capitols are no different from circus fortune tellers, and that the character traits required for dealing with adversity are already within us.

No one wants schools to function as correctional facilities.  They are educational institutions created to prepare children for the challenges of life, not to provide them with a false hope of a life without challenges. Bullying goes on in all arenas of life. Just as children deserve to be taught the three “R”s, they deserve to be taught the simple wisdom for dealing with bullying. Not only is this wisdom freely available, it will increase academic achievement while preventing future tragedies.

Transparency Declaration: I declare that I do have a financial interest in a company that offers products and services that may be related to the content of my writings.

Author's Policies Regarding Comments: 1. I rarely respond to comments because I simply don't have the time. If I don't respond to your comment, please don't take it personally. 2. Psychology Today has a strict policy about nasty comments. I believe in free speech and rarely censor comments, no matter how nasty. Every nasty comment by adults––especially by ardent anti-bullying advocates––illustrates how irrational it is to expect kids to stop engaging in bullying.

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