by Greg Cunningham, JFYNetWorks Blended Learning Specialist
In 2010, Massachusetts passed an anti-bullying law that covered student actions and also mandated schools to have a plan in place to address such actions. The law includes cyber bullying, even if it takes place outside the school day. It has been an effective tool used by both parents and schools to reduce the amount of bullying that was often dismissed as “typical junior high or high school behavior.”
But as I scroll down my timeline on Twitter, I am still disheartened by some of the messages I see. Saying something mean out loud is one thing, but putting it in writing makes it much more hurtful. If I had said some of these things when I was a kid, my parents would have grounded me for a month. Some of them would have gotten me grounded for life.
The biggest problem with these posts isn’t even what they say, but rather who it is that’s posting. Many do not come from high school students cyberbullying other students, or from college students who haven’t learned boundaries, or even from comedians trying to push the envelope. They come from politicians who have decided that insulting people, organizations or companies is a way to gain publicity and score points with a political base.
If I had come home from school whining “Crooked Hillary got a better grade on the spelling test than I did. She probably cheated. Why doesn’t the teacher lock her up?” my mother would have made me apologize to my classmate Hillary just for saying it, even though I didn’t say it to her. Then she would have grounded me for a month. I’ve seen tweets from politicians calling people “stupid,” referring to successful businesses as “failing,” and calling opponents “losers.”
How can we teach children civility in this uncivilized climate?
There was a time when parents shielded children from the evening news to protect them from “if it bleeds it leads” journalism that used the shock value of accident victims lying next to their car, or gunshot victims outlined in chalk splayed on the sidewalk to attract viewers and boost ratings. The networks figured that if we can’t help gawking at an accident when driving by, we’ll be drawn to the images of that accident on the television screen when we get home. That was then. Now, the scene of the accident has moved to Twitter and parents need to worry about what senators, cabinet members and especially the president might tweet.
How does one answer when a 12-year-old boy asks, “Grab them by the what?” How do teachers prevent students from slandering each other as “crooked, “stupid” or “a loser?” When the president is saying the same things and worse, what’s the argument for civility?
Audiences in 1939 were shocked by the line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Today, no one blinks at the obscene dialogue on cable, or even network television. We’ve gotten less prudish and more liberal. Society progresses; standards change.
But civil discourse is suffering. The polarization of opinion in this country may be as extreme as during the Civil War. A prime example of uncivil discourse happened during President Obama’s 2009 address to Congress, when Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) yelled out in the middle of the speech, “You lie!” It was a moment of utter disregard for congressional decorum, never mind basic manners. Representative Wilson was not sanctioned in any way for his outburst.
The incident reminded me of the British parliament in which during debate Members will groan loudly or laugh obnoxiously when they disagree with a speaker and loudly vocalize agreement, usually along party lines. (Robin Williams once described the British parliament as “Congress with a two drink minimum.”) However, when referring to each other in formal discourse they use the term, “my right honorable friend.” It is a term used with sincerity, as no matter how contentious the debate, no matter how raucous the jeering, respect for the other Member is still paramount. Here in the United States, the ability to debate without insult seems to be dying in our politics.
How do you teach children that just because the president said it, that doesn’t make it okay to repeat at the dinner table? How do you teach the difference between meaning and marketing? Politicians market themselves and their brand no differently than McDonald’s, narrowing down an entire political philosophy (if they have one) to a short phrase. If we teach children to recognize marketing that’s intended to create controversy or buzz, they’ll have a better chance of differentiating between actual political debate and name calling for the sake of personal branding.
Important decisions are being made based on the sound bite. We need to teach our children and our students to demand more. We need to teach that there is more to the story than the new 280-character limit on Twitter. Anti-bullying legislation has had a positive effect in Massachusetts. We should apply its civilizing influence more broadly, from the schoolyard to the dinner table to the Twitter feed to Congress and all the way to the Oval Office. If we banished bullying, we might begin to put the civil back in discourse.