The anti-bullying campaign was supposed to be one of those causes that everyone, regardless of ideology or political party, was able to get behind. As Emily Bazelon discovered in her seminal book on bullying in schools, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, even in schools where it seems fairly obvious that authorities were being negligent toward victims of bullying, the schools insisted that they were opposed to bullying. No one is for bullying, right?
Well, that’s what we’d like to believe. But it seems that, as with many things, bullying is becoming a partisan issue. Anti-bullying efforts seem liberal in tone and emphasis, which means that they will inevitably attract negative attention from the knee-jerk “anything to piss off the liberals” crowd. But let’s be honest: Part of the reason conservatives frequently support bullying—or at least resist efforts to end it—is because bullying works. Bullies are good at exerting exactly the kind of social control that the right, especially the Christian right, wants to exert. So here’s a list of incidences where conservatives just straight-up supported bullying in the face of efforts to curb it.
1) Louisiana teacher encourages students to bully Buddhist student. The ACLU is suing the Sabine Parish School Board because of one teacher’s inexplicable alleged campaign to harass and abuse one of her students for his Buddhist beliefs. It isn’t just that the teacher thought a public school classroom was an ideal place to promote her interpretation of Christianity, though that would be reason enough to sue. The teacher reportedly agreed with a classmate who called the Buddhist student “stupid” for not believing in God and encouraged the students to laugh at him. She also reportedly called Buddhism stupid, and gave students tests where the “right” answer was to affirm Christian dogma.
When Scott Lane, the student’s stepfather, went to the superintendent to complain, she defended the teacher by saying that this is the “Bible Belt." Apparently, to the administration being in the Bible Belt means not only is the First Amendment suspended, but singling kids out and taunting them because they’re different is acceptable behavior.
2) Routinely denouncing attempts to prevent anti-gay bullying in schools. If anyone hoped that Christian conservatives who disapprove of gay rights could find it in their hearts to, at bare minimum, allow LGBT-identified kids to get an education without being harangued under the guise of religion, sorry to dash your hopes. Christian right organization Focus on the Family is happy to help fight back against bullies, unless, of course, the target is gay. Then all of a sudden, Focus on the Family sees the bully as the victim, and attempts to stop him from gay-bashing are nothing but an attempt to “censor or marginalize students and parents with differing viewpoints.”
While it would be nice if blatant bigotry was marginalized more in this way, that’s not at all what’s going on. Kids are still allowed to believe all sorts of vile stuff about their classmates. What anti-bullying measures do is offer LGBT kids some protection from having homophobes harass them. Despite this, conservative media routinely denies that there’s any difference between a student expressing a general opinion and specifically targeting individual students for abuse.
3) Demanding that schools make a humiliating spectacle out of transgender kids. One simple way to reduce bullying of transgender kids in school is to let them live as the gender they identify with and not make a big fuss out of it that draws the attention of bullies. When California passed a law giving transgender students exactly this right, Christian conservatives went nuts.
Family Research Council spokesman Peter Sprigg and Fox News host Martha MacCallum were so opposed to this basic bit of anti-bullying legislation that they ended up spewing a shocking number of lies about being transgender, including falsely claiming that kids switch their genders willy-nilly and that transgender students are not targeted for bullying. In the real world, bullying of transgender students is a serious problem, and giving them the privacy and dignity that cisgender students get can go a long way toward preventing bullying from getting out of hand.
4) Fighting so that women can’t even go into abortion clinics without being bullied all the way into the door. The abortion buffer zone dispute that went in front of the Supreme Court is not, as proponents say, about free speech. No one is denying the right of anti-choicers to protest clinics or make themselves available to patients who want to speak to them. In fact, no one is saying they can’t inflict themselves on patients by yelling at them or waving signs at them. The only question is whether or not patients are entitled to 7 whole seconds of walking where they are free of being directly bullied by anti-choicers who want to get in their face to yell invective.
Right now, giving clinics a 35-foot buffer zone allows anti-choice protesters to speak freely while also giving patients a right to ignore them if they want, at least for 7 seconds. But for Christian conservatives, the right to free speech is not enough. They want the right to bully and shame women, and they don’t think women should be able to decline to be targets of their abuse.
5) Denying the link between bullying and suicide. Most victims of bullying don’t suffer severe mental health effects from it, but being bullied does correlate with a higher risk of suicide. Nonetheless, Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute wrote a piece broadly denying the link between suicide and bullying and pretending that anti-bullying advocates were trumping up the claim in order to terrorize innocent kids accused of bullying. She wasn’t wrong to say some journalists and prosecutors get overzealous in their attacks on perceived bullies, but her attempts to minimize the problem went way too far in the other direction. Unsurprisingly, right-wing media went nuts, with Rush Limbaugh using McBride’s piece to insinuate that anti-bullying campaigns are full of crap.
6) Arguing that bullying can’t be considered a real problem unless it’s on the rise. Anti-bullying activism did not arise because of a perception that bullying was on the rise. It was a combination of heightened attention to the struggles of LGBT youth and the fact that cyberbullying was leaving a trail of evidence that made the problem harder to ignore than in the past. Despite this, a common swipe conservatives take to discredit anti-bullying campaigns is to say that since bullying isn’t on the rise, it shouldn’t be considered a real problem.
From the Daily Caller to McBride’s piece to pundits on Fox News, conservatives dismiss anti-bullying efforts by saying bullying is not on the rise. But problems don’t need to be on the rise in order to count as problems. For instance, smoking rates were already declining when the anti-smoking campaigns went into high gear, but no one thought that meant smoking wasn’t a real problem.
7) Plain, unvarnished praise of bullying as a rite of passage. The escalating hostility toward anti-bullying campaigns reached a new peak when Fox News host Anna Kooiman sneered at anti-bullying campaigns generally. “But people are asking, is this going too far because it includes teasing, social exclusion, intimidation, and those are things that are almost a rite of passage sometimes for kids.”
Needless to say, there is zero evidence that being excluded and intimidated has positive psychological effects for kids. Bullied children suffer many possible negative effects, including higher rates of depression, declining grades in school and even health problems. (You’ll be hard-pressed to find that a bullied child grows into an adult who was grateful for the experience.) Even being a bully is correlated with long-term negative effects, such as alcohol abuse, fighting and other high-risk behavior.
It was inevitable that, as anti-bullying efforts rose, conservatives would start finding angles to complain and criticize and demagogue. After all, the automatic hostility to anything perceived as “liberal” has grown so out of control that even Michelle Obama’s non-offensive campaign to improve people’s eating habits has become a sore spot for conservatives. But this tendency to side with the bullies and against their victims may speak to something deeper in right-wing ideology, such as a desire for conformity and a willingness to use force and shame to impose it. Because of this, it’s likely that anti-anti-bullying messages will probably rise and continue to shade into outright support for bullies.