Last week, the story of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman who killed himself after his roommate secretly filmed him in an intimate situation with another male via his laptop web cam and broadcast the episode to other students, became the latest incident in a series of highly publicized suicides occurring among children and teenagers who have been bullied by their classmates and peers. On September 23, a Houston eighth-grader shot himself after enduring taunts about his homosexuality. Four days before that, another gay middle-schooler in California hung himself, reportedly after teasing from his classmates became unbearable. In January of this year Phoebe Prince, a high school freshman in South Hadley, MA and recent émigré from Ireland, hung herself after the bullying from a group of juniors and seniors at her school who tortured her for months and reportedly called her, among other insults, an “Irish whore”, became too much for her to bear.
Bullying, as anyone who has attended grade school or indeed who remembers his or her childhood can attest, is not a new phenomenon. Almost everyone has, at some point in his or her life, had an experience with a bully, or perhaps even acted as a bully. The vast majority of bullying victims do not end up as suicides, and bullies often grow out of their callous behaviors. Most people leave behind their childhood bully-related memories on the playground or in the high school lunchroom, only to perhaps look back wincingly every now and then.
Cultural sensitivity training programs have their detractors (witness the PC movement backlash that has become a centerpiece in contemporary US political culture wars) but they do promote a change in the general sense of accepted morality, which in turn trickles down to affect individual behaviors. In recognizing that bullying is unjust and destructive, we are taking the first step toward breaking down the cultural attitudes that allow bullies to continue inflicting pain on other people’s lives.