Thanks to Emily Bazelon for her extensive review and analysis of the Phoebe Prince bullying case; five South Hadley teens have been widely blamed for Prince's suicide and are being criminally prosecuted for violating her civil rights. I wrote briefly about this case last March; focusing on the free speech issues raised by the Commonwealth's new anti-bullying legislation, (described here,) I gave short shrift to the justice issues raised by singling out Prince's classmates for criminal prosecution. I still believe that in particularly egregious bullying cases, criminal harrasment charges may be appropriate, but Bazelon's report suggests that the prosecution in this case may be a particularly egregious form of scapegoating.
The bullying described by Bazelon looks less like a crime than a pilot for a reality tv show -- "The Real Students of South Hadley High." Like their older but apparently no more mature reality tv counterparts, the students described in Bazelon's story stir up and star in their own banal little soap operas, following a familiar script of cat-fighting and name calling over sex and dating. In the view of many students, Bazelon notes, this was "normal girl drama." Or as one student said, "girls in my school get in 'bitch fights' all the time," just like contestants on "The Bachelor," she might have added.
I don't mean to suggest that the glamorization of "bitch fights" by reality tv, or the emergence of bitchiness as a ticket to stardom cause high school bullying, anymore than Facebook does, despite the nasty idiocies it disseminates. Viciousness is as natural to human beings, old and young, as compassion. I do mean to relate the reported escalation of teenage bullying to our cultural and political climate and the increasing legitimacy of selfish, situational ethics in a period of economic decline and apparently pervasive institutional corruption.
"Where's our bail-out," disaffected voters demand, understandably. When so few bad deeds go unrewarded, when mortgage fraud or negligence succeeds, when financial institutions that facilitated the crash are bailed out, some putative home owners are bound to feel entitled to walk away from their under water houses. If Tony Hayward leaves BP, he will leave with what NPR notes is a relatively modest golden parachute of about $18 million dollars, which will seem most immodest to laid off workers who can look forward to limited, minimal unemployment benefits as their compensation for not enabling a fatal environmental catastrophe.
I could go on, of course. The astronomical financial rewards of moral if not legal corruption are indisputable (and overshadow the lesser risks of being caught.) The political rewards of demagoguery are evident in Sarah Palin's rise (not to mention the Senate candidacy of Sharron Angle), although the political limits of demagoguery will be tested in November. The power of lying and irrelevance of facts are demonstrated regularly by Fox News; but ethics free advocacy infects both right and left, as my own experiences with lying, bullying, and conformity at the ACLU made depressingly clear. As I've said, I could go on.
Bullies are occasionally exposed: Shirley Sherrod scored a rare victory over over Andrew Breitbart. But while his effort to smear her failed, his career may continue to thrive, in a culture that celebrates self-promotion and values a commitment to winning over honesty or fairness. "Taxes are for little people," the late Leona Helmsley famously (and more or less accurately) remarked. So is accountability, when whistleblowers are prosecuted and torturers go free. Virtue is its only reward and vice is either ignored or richly compensated.
At least some teenagers, and their parents, are bound to absorb these lessons. The culture of grievances, the "victimism" that emerged some 20 years ago, nurtured by personal development and political movements (and widely critiqued,) seems to be undergoing a malignant reversal into a culture of bullying. 20 years ago we were encouraged to seek rights, entitlements, and virtue in victim-hood; and it remains for some a moral badge of honor. But with the economy claiming so many victims, the currency of victim-hood has suffered gross devaluation. We should not be surprised if people begin to tolerate or even celebrate victimizing, striving for success as predators, instead of offering themselves up as prey.
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