This morning I read Kate Harding’s post on the death of Tyler Clementi and why we should never make excuses for bullies. Much of her post is bang on the money: there is no excuse for bullying behaviour and anyone who willingly engages in it doesn’t deserve to be defended as a ‘really nice kid’. If you’re a vicious bully, you’re not a nice kid. That’s pretty obvious.
Kate Harding’s searing anger comes through in her post and that resonates with me because I’m angry too. I’m still angry about the bullying I suffered in my childhood. More than angry.
There is a lot to support in her post and I sure was nodding along until I came to this line:
Maybe it’s true that some youthful bullies just haven’t yet outgrown the natural tendency of children to be basically sociopathic…
Basically sociopathic? Really, Kate? Children are natural sociopaths?
At two years old, Bean is still developing her capacity for empathy. She doesn’t yet have the cognitive ability to ‘put herself in someone else’s shoes’ or to reason through all of the consequences of her actions. Even so, she shows concern when others are distressed, she shows affection and practices impulse control when she can in order to share and take turns. She actively comforts adults and other children, offering cuddles and sympathy. Just like the other toddlers and preschoolers and school-aged children that I know do. They are not adults and don’t (can’t) think and behave exactly like adults. But that doesn’t make them sociopathic.
Of course, Harding didn’t really mean that all children have anti-social personality disorder. No doubt she was just using sociopath as short-hand for often self-centred, sometimes lacking in impulse control, and unable to forsee or take responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions (all things that could be said are natural traits of children – or rather, traits of people who are still developing the cognitive skills needed to be considerate, restrained and forward-thinking). I mean, applying the label “sociopath” – a word most commonly heard in reference to adult bullies and abusers and even serial killers – to all children, isn’t hurtful or negative or prejudicial at all, right?
I whole-heartedly agree that bullies, whatever their age, should be called to account. I am sympathetic to the commenters on Harding’s piece who call for parents to take a more active role in not only protecting their children from bullies but in ensuring that their children don’t engage in bullying behaviour. I see no benefit in pretending that all children and young adults are sweetly innocent all of the time – even our own children. There is only so much that can be achieved by providing support to victims; to end bullying we also need to go after the bullies and call their behaviour what it is. Even if they are ‘basically good kids’ the rest of the time. Even if we love them.
But the way to help children and young adults who are bullied (and the enabling bystanders and the perpetrators, who also need our help in the form of intervention and teaching) is to listen to them. Despite what one of Harding’s commenters calls the “deification of children” (where on earth that is actually happening I don’t even know) young people are too often silenced or dismissed in our culture. I know: when I was victimised as a child, it was enabled by adult bystanders who failed to step in. When I was bullied, it was the adults who wouldn’t take my pain seriously who not only allowed it to keep happening but who exponentially increased my feelings of powerlessness. What is the point of teaching children to ‘tell an adult’ when they need help if adults, for whatever reason, will not even listen to them?
And how, in a culture where it is okay – where it is a joke – to call children sociopaths, can we expect that children will feel listened to? How can we encourage bystander adults to alter their attitudes so that they no longer see bullying as a sign that ‘kids will be kids’ and but rather something which can be prevented, something against which we all should be fighting?
In her piece, Harding anticipates some of the push-back she might get for her anti-child language. (Makes sense – she’s been called on it before).
I’m sure I will hear (or, well, would hear, if I left the comments open for long) that it’s practically criminal to think of any child, even a hypothetical one, as a “total fucking asshole,” and the fact that I could use such abusive language with regard to a child makes it clear that I don’t have children — which we all know is downright unnatural for a lady of almost 36 — so probably no one should ever listen to me about anything. But you know what? Fuck that.
The thing is, this is not what is problematic here. I agree – the girls who bullied Kate Harding so viciously in school were arseholes. I agree that whether or not she has children of her own should be irrelevant to her ability to address this issue in her writing. And I agree that sometimes, when it comes to consciously committed cruelty, no matter how young the perpetrator, the only appropriate response to such completely awful behaviour is righteous anger.
But you can’t call for more vigilance, transparency and action against young bullies without also calling for more respect for young people. It is precisely because adults feel safe and justified in expressing anti-child sentiments like “[children are] basically sociopathic” – that is, precisely because children are marginalised in our culture – that bullying is allowed to flourish in institutions like schools. If you don’t feel that children deserve personhood, or the same respect as any other group of humans, (and I would argue that whacking a negative label on them, using sarcastic jibes about their behaviour and showing hostility towards those that would defend them is, um, disrespectful) then how can you argue that their pain matters and that their voices should be heard? The very same people who call being bullied ‘character building’ are the people who wish to maintain the status quo, a situation where children are not well protected. Much bullying is physical assault. Some bullying is sexual assault. Some bullying is stalking, stealing, or some other form of crime and yet, these crimes go unpunished because they were committed not only by, but against, young people. When teachers, parents, school administrators and other adults don’t wish to acknowledge the seriousness of bullying they are not only minimising the crimes committed — they are not only failing to say, as Harding does, that bullies are “fucking assholes” — they are also minimising the value and agency of the victim. They are also saying that because the victim is a child or young person, hir pain is less real than an adult’s and hir right to justice is subsequently curtailed. And they wouldn’t say that if they didn’t believe that young people were lesser.
They wouldn’t minimise bullying in the first place if they weren’t the kind of people who can read a little joke about children being sociopathic, and laugh.