Friday, November 2, 2012

Homophobic Bullying and Suicide

There is an excellent letter on the subject of homosexuality and suicide in this week's Irish Catholic, written by a Margaret Hickey from Cork.

She writes: "If social or religious stigma was a significant factor in young gay people taking their lives then one would expect higher suicide rates in Muslim countries where homosexuality is less tolerated, to put it mildly, than in any Christian denomination. Equally one would expect low rates in Scandinavian countries where there is a very liberal approach to all matters of sexuality. In fact the opposite is true in both cases".

The spectre of suicide is increasingly used as a kind of emotional blackmail against the teaching of Christian ethics on both sexuality and abortion. And it is a very powerful argument, because nobody wants to put any vulnerable person into a suicidal frame of mind.

But the same objection could be made against pretty much any teaching whatsoever. The Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, as a young man oppressed by the scientistic orthodoxy of his day, made a pact with his wife that they would commit suicide together within a year if they could find no deeper meaning to life. Surely it is no small danger that sensitive and thoughful young people might be driven to a dangerous depression if they are taught that life has no purpose and that their existence is an accident. And yet powerful voices in our culture do indeed demand that religious instruction of children be outlawed.

One of my former teachers recently spoke out, through the media, against homophobic bullying. This teacher was herself a bully who saw nothing wrong in ridiculing students in front of their classmates, or even (in their absence) in front of other students. She boasted of hearing kids celebrate when they found out she wouldn't be teaching them that day. I can remember how she once told a story to our class, in a comic tone, of coming across one of her students-- one of her current students-- either seriously drunk or high on drugs (I forget which it was) on Grafton Street. And I should say here that this teacher never picked on me especially, so I am not writing out of spite.

I think school bullying, and teenage bullying, is an enormous problem and one which society has to take much more seriously. There have been two horrific recent cases in Ireland where teenagers have been hounded to their deaths through online persecution by their peers. I have first-hand experience of being bullied in school myself and I know how it grinds a person's self-esteem and confidence to powder. There is nothing character-building about it.

(Incidentally, some conservatives ridicule the whole concept of instilling "self-esteem", presuming that it simply means not challenging the child and teaching him or her to be complacent. If this is the form that teaching self-esteem takes, it is indeed wrong. But self-esteem is not self-complacency. A child with a serious self-esteem problem is in no danger of feeling arrogant or self-satisfied. He or she feels barely entitled to breathe the same air or to stand on the same ground as others. He feels that he will fail at everything he attemps. She thinks that everybody has an automatically low opinion of her. Instilling self-esteem is not a matter of teaching that "all must have prizes". It's a matter of convincing some children that it is worth making the effort in the first place.)

There is nothing unique about homophobic bullying. Bullies are not animated by Judaeo-Christian ethics, or even the afterglow of Judaeo-Christian ethics. They are animated by sadism, and they will use whatever is convenient to persecute their victims-- whether that be homosexuality (or supposed homosexuality), ugliness, fatness, skinniness, red hair, unpopularity, poverty, or any other pretext whatsoever.

But what to do? I have been thinking about this for years and I still don't know the answer. Sometimes, given the apparent inevitability of bullying in schools, I have thought that homeschooling is the only course for responsible parents. But this is an enormous undertaking, and it simply might not be possible in many cases. And besides, the experience of school does bring a lot of good things with it-- maybe even things that simply can't be experienced elsewhere. This is probably why Isaac Asimov's famous short story "The Fun They Had" speaks to so many readers, and is so often reprinted. (The story is set in a future where computers have replaced school and teachers, and the the central character-- a little boy-- ends up thinking fondly of "the fun they had" in the old days). I have painful memories of school. I also have magical memories of school-- the smell of paint in art class, the glow of the overhead projector showing us slides of great masterpieces, the haunting beauty of adolescent voices raised in choir, the excitement of hearing poetry and literature taken seriously in English class, the sound of basketballs thumping on the floor in P.E. (or gym class for my American readers), and so many others.

I'm pretty sure, though, that heavy-handed state regulations and government anti-bullying schemes are unlikely to achieve anything besides paperwork and, possibly, more ideological brainwashing of hapless children. Saying that our society should take something more seriously is today almost inevitably interpreted as saying that we need a new law or a new government scheme. But I think the problem of bullying will require a response much closer to home.

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