Sunday, April 18, 2010

An obligation to stand up and be counted

Mark Twain’s novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, told the mid-nineteenth century fictional story of a boy’s childhood along the Mississippi River in the small town of St Petersburg, Missouri. It depicted the life and adventures of a mischievous yet good-natured boy who had a strong inclination for troublemaking.

In the mid-twentieth century, I grew up in Pembroke, Massachusetts. Like Tom, the town’s boys were mischievous yet good-natured, rambunctious at times, and had a strong inclination for troublemaking. Like Tom and his cohorts, we were kids just being kids. We teased and played practical jokes on each other, as well as others. We had real and imaginative adventures. We played hooky from school, and dirtied our clothes in a fight or two.

Our childhood was not much different from that of Tom Sawyer. Of course, there was no Injun Joe, but, most of us had a Becky Thatcher in our lives, and a Huckleberry Finn, Muff Potter, Joe Harper, and an Aunt Polly were represented.

However, at times the devilishness of my childhood did include intimidation, harassment, and persecution of others, albeit benign, adults called it bullying.

In our nascent twenty-first century, these childhoods have changed. Those shenanigans of Tom’s and my childhood have evolved into violent, malicious, and criminal acts employed to achieve superiority and to manipulate others, therefore bullying has taken an extended and much more ominous meaning.

South Hadley, a small town located along the Connecticut River in western Massachusetts, in many respects is quite likely not very different from Pembroke. And, like South Hadley, what happened there can happen here.

At South Hadley High School, insults and threats were leveled at fifteen-year-old Phoebe Prince. On one particularly hellish day in January, the ostracizing and terrorism reached an unbearable apex: when Phoebe got home from school, she committed suicide.

As a result of the unrelenting bullying involved in Phoebe’s suicide, two boys are charged with statutory rape and seven girls are charged with stalking, criminal harassment, and human rights violations.

Boasting over her death, someone wrote, “accomplished” on Phoebe’s Facebook wall. Following Phoebe’s death, shockingly the school egregiously held its annual cotillion dance.

Phoebe Prince’s suicide is not an isolated incident. There have been twenty-one recent suicides due to bullying, two occurring in Massachusetts.

So, what has happened that we have evolved from that playful innocuousness, as described by Mark Twain, and of my childhood, and, perhaps, that of South Hadley, to a culture of violence, and an educational environment that makes our schools so perilous for our children?

First, we have shrugged off bullying as kids just being kids, a sort of rite of passage.

Second, we have been insidiously inculcated and imbued with the notion that certain forms of violence are acceptable in life. We are entertained by the reality shows’ putdown of others. We have an unquenchable thirst for schadenfreude, voyeurism, exploitation, and for glorified violence as depicted in comedy and entertainment genres, and in our news. We acquiesce to incivility, and accept torture as necessary. We have become intolerant of people who differ with us, and of those who are different from us. We have determined that the video game graphical representations of virtual death played out by children are harmless. We have accepted violence in sports to be just part of the game. And, fear has been demonstrated to be a useful coercer.

So, what should be done?

For starters, it’s incumbent upon every American and community, and more so on our children, to stand up and be counted as a people who have a passionate, unyielding, zero tolerance for violence, and as a people who perceive an empathic culture as superior to that of belligerence and violence.