I’ve been reading a bunch of papers and magazine articles about controlling cyber-bullying. It’s a very real problem.
New media makes bullying worse. It’s fast. It’s graphic. It transcends geography and it can reach across time. The internet is big. Surely we should control this sort of cruelty?
This is the test of whether we believe in rights. If rights are just a social construct — if they’re merely a contract we arrange for our convenience — then there’s no problem.
But do high-school kids have any right to freedom of speech and freedom of conscience?
It’s absurd to hold that Billy has every right to say that he support Rick Santorum, or that Obama’s a Muslim Fascist, but that he doesn’t have a right to say that a classmate is a bad person.
It’s absurd to hold that Amy has a right to choose to worship Christ but has no right to say that Billy is a lying, cheating slut.
Kids will have opinions about kids. It’s what they know best. Kids will attempt to enforce peer sexual norms. It’s what adolescents do. Kids will push limits and push buttons.
I do think kids have certain inalienable rights. That’s inconvenient. I don’t think we can regulate their language, and I suspect that language isn’t the problem anyway. I don’t think we can detect bullying without understanding context, and sometimes it takes the wisdom of Solomon to get the context right.
Here’s what we can do.
Anonymous posting is a bad idea. Sure, it’s got a theoretical place in the Democratic Nature Of The Web. And we could give up everything that’s good about the Web in defense of anonymity, in which case we’re going to have AOL and HBO and no Web. Lack of anonymity won’t stop bullying, but it will let observers get the context and help them find the kids in the ditch.
Discount childhood achievements and errors. Since a bully will punish missteps, we have to find a way to blunt the bully’s impact. Mistakes are embarrassing, but we can defuse their consequences. As a society, we’re going to have to agree to simply ignore the achievements and blunders of kids. Did you publish a book of poetry at 17? The day after you’re grown up, we don’t care anymore. Did you get naked and dance on the table of The Four Seasons at your coming out party? Old news. We won’t want to hear about your football triumphs or your high school grades any more than we want to see your refrigerator drawings. (This means the end of high school sports beyond recreation and exercise, which would also be a very good thing.)
A right of passage makes a lot of sense here. The fundies have that spooky silver ring thing, but we really need some dramatic way to say, “All the things you did before, that was growing up. Yesterday you were a kid. Tomorrow, you are no longer a kid: life is not a rehearsal, and it’s time to put childish things on the shelf. Tomorrow, it counts.”
I see no technical solution to bullying that, if applied to Chinese dissenters or American war resisters, doesn’t lead to political consequences incompatible with the rights of man. Ending anonymity will help, and forgiving childish mistakes