To End Bullying, Grownups Must Act Like Grownups, Starting in Politics

The best antibullying program in the world is a good example from an adult.

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"Our hope is that our family's personal tragedy will serve as a call for compassion, empathy and human dignity," Joe and Jane Clementi said in a statement following the suicide of their son, Tyler, after his college roommate used a remote webcam to live stream his sexual encounter with another man. The public reaction has been swift: Celebrities are tweeting, supportive videos have been posted on YouTube, and cable talk shows have focused on bullying, especially among young people. There have been calls for more state antibullying laws, perhaps a federal initiative, and more spending for preventive measures.

But there already is a federal initiative, called "Stop Bullying Now!", at the Department of Health and Human Services. According to the department, bullying in the United States is widespread and its effects are long-lasting for both the bullies and their victims. Over 40 states have antibullying laws on the books—although many deal only with physical assaults that occur on school grounds and, sadly, most of those laws are rarely enforced. So the problem isn't that we need more laws, more spending, or more federal bureaucrats. Because really, how can we expect a federal bureaucrat to intervene in what can be a fleeting comment, or a sideways look, or a subtle gesture between two people? Bullying is a decision to be aggressive; it's a choice of drama over restraint and anger over manners. When was the last time you heard anyone say, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all"? No one says that anymore.

It's odd, because these days there is a culture of community service among young people. Elementary schools organize sandwich-making for the homeless; high schools send kids on spring break to rebuild New Orleans; college kids spend summers working in Darfur. Yet a recent study from the University of Michigan shows that college students today are far less empathetic than they were 30 years ago. They are a self-centered generation known for devaluing others. Part of the problem, the researchers suggest, comes from having "friends" online who can easily be tuned out and from violent video games that numb players to others' pain.

There's also a culture of anonymous confrontation these days, and resolving conflicts is getting more and more difficult. It's a lot easier to fire off an E-mail than it is to have a difficult and awkward conversation with someone. Yet the best thing a kid who is being bullied can do is to look the bully in the eye, tell him or her to knock it off, and walk away. In a culture of interactions that are not face to face—texts, E-mails, and Facebook posts—that's a really hard thing for a kid to do. So bullying escalates.

It's easy to see where young people are getting it. They see adults writing and producing popular shows like Gossip Girl and Jersey Shore, which build plots around fighting and meanness. They watch rude grownups in supermarket lines and on crowded airplanes and hear them honking and cursing at other drivers in traffic. If you're in the service industry, I'm sure you've got stories of screaming customers; in sports, we see all kinds of misbehavior by both players and fans; on TV, if people aren't yelling and interrupting, executives think the show is boring.

It's everywhere in politics. The recent debate about the mosque in New York City had an element of bullying to it, on both sides. The Tea Party-endorsed candidate for governor in New York accused his opponent of having affairs and then threatened to "take out" a reporter who asked for proof—hardly empathetic behavior. The New York Times recently reported on a national campaign by the Democratic Party that it called a "fierce offensive" of "biting ads" against Republicans, focusing not on their policies but on their past lives. You don't have to be a fan of Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell to cringe for her every time comedian Bill Maher unearths another video of her regrettable past statements. How can we tell kids that it's not acceptable for them to post embarrassing old photos of their "frenemies" on Facebook, when Maher is doing the same thing, only with video on cable TV, and everyone laughs?