With all of the recent coverage, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the renewal of the recent Netflix hit Thirteen Reasons Why – a series that revolves around bullying and its consequences, particularly suicide – was controversial. But the topic is a pressing one; bullying is still an insufficiently addressed problem. We don’t often enough use our words to address situations where words hurt.
In Thirteen Reasons Why, the many shaming, belittling things her cruel, yet creative peers call the main character, Hannah – in notes, to her face, via graffiti, etc. – are motivating factors in her suicide. She’s not alone. Young people face variations on this kind of bullying every day. It’s time we address the language that leaves scars.
Starting with Prevention
According to Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, bullying hinges on three factors: aggressive behavior, power imbalances, and the possibility of repetition – but that’s not to say it doesn’t hurt the first time it happens. In fact, while it’s important that we, as adults, address bullying whenever we witness it, Teaching Tolerance notes that the best strategy for handling bullying is prevention.
One of the greatest challenges we see with verbal bullying is that young people often don’t realize how powerful language is. Yes, they hurl language because they know it’s offensive or hurtful, but most don’t realize how long it will stay with others. Helping them understand more about the words they use – by compiling a booklet or screening bullying prevention documentaries, for example – can help them better gauge the consequences of their actions.
Bullying is often passed down generationally. It may start at home or come from older students and it often plays on old stereotypes. For example, young men who are told that they “throw like a girl” or that they need to “man up” when they express their feelings are subtly being told that femininity is a thing to be shunned. This is often the first step towards anti-LGBT bullying or deeper expressions of sexism against female peers who are viewed as less capable.
Statements like these are easy to address, even with young children. It’s easy to point out to young children that most of these statements are meaningless. What does it mean to throw like a girl? There are outstanding female pitchers who throw faster than many men. When you break down an insult’s sting, it’s harder for bullies to employ it.
Look to the Media
Just as programs like Thirteen Reasons Why demonstrate the potential consequences of bullying, looking to the media is often a good way to demonstrate how adults bully and why this is shameful, unacceptable behavior. For example, in 2012, TV personality and commentator Ann Coulter referred to President Obama with a derogatory term; she turned to the “r-word” to express her disdain for his political policies.
When events like this happen, it’s worth discussing them with young people. We should address what was said, why it was wrong, and who is hurt when we speak in this way; most young people don’t understand that it’s not just the person the insult was aimed at who is hurt, but the people whom the word hurts at a distance. When we insult someone using another’s characteristics or identity, that action harms a whole group.
What we say creates the world we live in. Bullying prevention, then, is about creating a better world for everyone. Whether you’re a teacher, a mentor, or just a concerned adult, make yourself a safe person, someone young people can turn to when bullying occurs.
Prevention is the best strategy, but when words hurt, what we say afterwards can help mend the wound.