By Daniel M. Ryan
A certain crescendo of horridity was reached in Boston in mid-January. A fifteen-year-old student named Phoebe Prince, an immigrant from Ireland, was quite literally bullied to death. After being openly harassed at school once again on the last day of her life, she went home and hanged herself. The total length of the abuse was three months. Three entire months, she had to endure. She ended it by suicide.
I have to admit to being at a loss for words about the incident, as the appropriate words do fail me. There aren't many who could endure that length of persecution, and the ones who do end up with cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. There are two ways to try to endure it: hopefulness and fatalism. "Hopefulness" means not letting the bullying get your goat. If the bullies are ignored, if you act like nothing out of the ordinary is happening, then they eventually will stop and either pick on an easier target or give up. In this sense, "bullying" is misnamed because it suggests that the miscreants are like ordinary bullies; the ordinary kind are deterred by such actions. Unfortunately, the attempt to rise above it these days sometime doesn't ward off – it encourages. That kind of "bully" is far worse than the ordinary variety.
The second approach tends to become the predominant motivator when the first doesn't work. "Fatalism" means seeing the persecution as a test of inner strength. The hope that it will disappear fades, but the desire to not let the bullies win intensifies. Preventing them from getting a rise out of you is no longer counted on as a deterrent, but as proof of inner strength. It's at this stage when the post-traumatic stress disorder sets in, since none of us are iron men or women. What also sets in is a kind of pride mixed with callousness: the knowledge that you've endured something for months that most people couldn't endure for a day. A kind of Stockholm Syndrome sometimes sets in, as a kind of unconscious means to allay the bullying.
When both fail, there's a third option: violence, either to self (like Ms. Prince's suicide) or to others. Bullying does provoke vigilantism in certain cases when the bullied become convinced that a rise-above-it attitude might as well be acting helplessly. Once the victim is convinced that adhering to civilized norms is precisely what makes him or her a victim, the stage has been set for some kind of violence. The follow-through doesn't always happen, of course, but the root behind those that do is a twisted kind of Stockholm Syndrome: the avenger's variety (in the case of first-party vigilantism) or the self-hating variety (in the case of suicide.) The obvious question – "why doesn't the victim leave?" - doesn't occur to the victim because bullying of this sort is often preceded by trash talk, which credibly portrays the victim as the villain in the matter. With this dynamic in place, taking a hike becomes almost unthinkable because it concedes that the trash-talking was spot-on – that the victim deserved it. It seems a kind of unconditional surrender.
The worst that can happen for the bullies is the victim acquiring a sainted aura as a result of his or her sufferings. Regardless of the damage, it's worth it to see the former bullies consigned to the crank circuit. Sadly, this goal seems out of reach for too many – and it doesn't stop the problem. When bullies are encouraged instead of dampened by civil conduct, they've passed into the state of plain savagery regardless of their surface mannerisms. The amount of pain the victim has to endure to reach that happy state often results in permanent damage, of the PTSD variety.
[A sidebar: one way to stop bullying from getting out of hand is to treat any trash talk – including the variety honeyed by false sympathy or pity – as suspect. Respond non-committally – and either disregard it or check around as to what the trashee is really like, warts and all. Regarding those warts, "more sinned against than sinning" should be kept in mind. If a specific label is affixed, find a list of symptoms or characteristics and think like a skeptical second-opinion professional. Then, pass around what you've found. What encourages bullies of this sort is the conviction that they're safe. Making it unsafe will deflate them to the more ordinary variety.]
Why The Long Arm Of The Law Was Deployed
I'm sure there are already myths floating around as to why nine teens were charged, with the book thrown at some of them. From what I can tell, it's a matter of public safety. The case of Phoebe Prince is one tailor-made for vigilantism, of the third-party variety. Given the history of Boston, and its most famous family from Irish-immigrant stock, this case is precisely the kind that would encourage a lot of people to "get the Irish up." It would be worthwhile, as a crystallizer, to ask oneself what the old IRA or local Irish gangs would have made of it.
Moreover, vengeance crimes of that sort are the kinds that easily invite "I don't know nuthin' about nuthin'" from sympathetic onlookers. Those who don't can still be morally disarmed by the memory.
In the olden days, the entire student body – as well as the school – would have been put under a cloud of opprobrium. South Hadley would have been "South Hell-ey." Anyone who had attended there would have to endure the resultant stigma, along with certain questions if they had been attending at the time. In the absence of charges, all of those students would have had a fox in their bosom for the rest of their lives: they would have had to continually justify themselves. Public pressure might get the school shut down entirely. Given the likely social opprobrium that would result in the absence of charges, as well as the likelihood of third –party vigilantism, the prosecutor did every other student a real favor by charging those nine. The others can say that they weren't held culpable, so they weren't really involved.
A Note On The Homeschooling Option
One indirect consequence of the Phoebe Prince case will be it acting as a large promoter of homeschooling. Her suicide makes it easier for homeschoolers to describe the public-school system as a trap for the civilized (or innately moral.) It won't be that easy for public-school advocates to quarantine South Hadley as an example of a bad school.
The damage is done, but it can be rolled with. Perhaps unfortunately, doing so will involve deflating a myth that some find pleasing: the impression of the 1950s as idyllic.
The fact is, the youngsters in the 1950s had more than their share of ruffians. It was in that decade when the term "blackboard jungle" became common currency. In this sense, it wasn't unlike the '80s. The chief difference between the '50s and the '80s was that the school authorities had enough clout to step in and crack down except in certain isolated areas. The model students were not liked, but the strength of the school authorities meant that the hostility was kept at the level of backbiting and shunning outside of school.
The level of teen violence and delinquency at the time led to a theory that, though tragically wrong, was plausible enough to be accepted in the 1960s and '70s. It was claimed that the tough guys and juvies of the 1950s were made so by the toughness of the authorities. The rationale went like this: the tough kids were bullies because the school authorities bullied them. They were just dishing out the harsh treatment that they took when in school. Motivated by this theory, discipline was relaxed in the 1960s and '70s. The hippies were part of this movement, but they merely built on the foundation already laid by their forebears.
We now know, and have known since the '80s, that the above theory was wrong – even if it seemed to work for a time. [One of the hippie variants involved the use of LSD as a pacifier, I should add.] There are certain complications involved in restoring school discipline, including the socially-acceptable kind of racial profiling, but the growth of homeschooling can be used to advantage if their "Public-School Charnel House" justification is rolled with. All it takes is adding that the public schools will remain charnel houses as long as the authorities are obligated to teach with one hand tied behind their back.
Doing so will require seeing the homeschooled child as more than "the weird kid that no-one want to be friends with." Casting them as outside friends of improved standards would create a certain momentum that would build upon the horrific Phoebe Prince incident. Once the dust settles, the Prince case will also make it easier to argue that the school authorities did nothing because they were hobbled.
Daniel M. Ryan is currently watching The Gold Bubble.