The Tricky Promotion of Tolerance and Responsibility

by Takeaway via Wikimedia Commons

by Takeaway via Wikimedia Commons

“Ah, to be back in high school.” That is something that you will never hear me say. Not that I don’t have a few good friends from those days, but those friendships had their roots in survival. The way you might find solace in a fellow political prisoner, or denizen of an island shipwreck. In our conversations, the serious ones at least, we were either numbering the months until our release or plotting some sort of grand escape.

Ours was a rural, small town high school, with fewer than two hundred students per grade. For the town itself, beyond the bowling alley and four or five bars (mostly dives), our basketball and football teams were the main attractions on weekend nights, and the members of those teams were local celebrities. If you were outside their cult of personality, either by chance or by choice, you ran the risk of being labeled as gay or communist, or more likely just a gay communist.

It would have been hard for me to say which of those characterizations, in the mid-1980s, was considered to be the worst. Or whether it would have surprised our critics to learn that some of us really were gay, or sympathetic to socialism, if not communism. But it didn’t really matter, because if you weren’t actively supporting the team by showing up to the games or wearing the school colors on spirit days, you were obviously both. And you heard about it. In the halls, in class, or at a country stop sign where a car might pull alongside, hurling insults through a passenger side window before peeling out in a cloud of dust.

But again, this was the last pre-Internet decade. Barring the occasional rude phone call or mailbox decapitation, you were at least fairly insulated in your own home.

Cyber-bullying is in the news frequently these days, the most recent high-profile example being Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling’s takedown of two adult males who tweeted sexually threatening comments about his 17-year-old daughter. But online harassment isn’t limited to those with high profiles. In an age in which at least four out of five teens use some sort of social media, it’s all too easy for today’s bullies to reach out and crush someone.

A new campaign by John St., Canada for the Canadian Safe School Network plays off the popular Jimmy Kimmel segment Mean Tweets, in which celebrities read snarky tweets about themselves aloud, usually in a kind of resigned deadpan. It’s amusing when it’s Lisa Kudrow, Mark Ruffalo, or even President Obama (though mostly NSFW), but quite another thing, you realize, when you see kids getting the same (and worse) treatment from their peers. Warning: This is hard to watch, which is pretty much the point.

But will it work? I’m not sure anyone knows. The history of PSAs aimed at kids is littered with misfires and marginal successes. It’s pretty widely agreed that the anti-drug scare ads of my own teen years were at least as counterproductive as they were effective. At their worst, they encouraged the very mockery and rebellion they were designed to combat.

But even when they’re more shrewdly targeted, they still raised the possibility of doing drugs in the first place, a possibility that’s like an itch waiting to be scratched. An author of a 2008 study on such ads explained, “It has been consistently recognized in psychological research that curiosity is one of the most potent motivational forces for human behavior.”

It’s also a key question currently challenging the blogging platform Tumblr, which has seen a recent string of posthumously scheduled posts from teens committing suicide, many of them transgendered youths who have been treated less than compassionately, or worse, by peers or family. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has been urging the removal of the messages and their attendant memes, fearing copycat behaviors, but this being the Internet, the memes tend to be reposted as quickly as they’re taken down.

And don’t forget ISIS. They’ve been pushing their brand of nonconformist jihad wherever they can find an opening into Western social media, predominantly on Ask.fm. The US is working with social media firms to develop counter-propaganda, and Saturday Night Live weighed in recently with what will probably turn out to be a much more effective bit of satire.

Still, it’s hard to shake the sense that no matter how hard we try, teens are going to act from that place of curiosity. We can hope that it will be curiosity about something constructive or at least not harmful to others. We can, and should, encourage this in as smart a way as we can imagine. But in the end we also have to trust that, if we’ve raised them well, they’ll remember, at least occasionally, that they’re responsible for their own actions.

I hate to climb onto my usual soapbox, but other than the lessons one draws just by living life, there’s nothing better than a really good novel (or play or movie) to build empathy and remind us of the consequences of our actions. Of all of these, the novel, drawing us fully as it does into the inner lives of others, may be empathy’s ultimate incubator. And that’s not coming just from English majors like me. Scientists say so, too.

From the books of my childhood, I recommend, well…there’s a lot. But off the top of my head: Harriet the Spy, Where the Red Fern Grows, The Chronicles of Prydain, Blubber, and Charlotte’s Web. My nine-year-old daughter has already enjoyed several of these, as well as contemporary works such as Wonder, Out of My Mind, Because of Mr. Terupt, and Liar & Spy. (Why are kids so universally interested in spying? It’s at least partly the promise of finding out what they’re not supposed to know.)

Hey, kids: Want to find out what you’re not supposed to know? And become the stand-up individual we always knew you could be in the process?

Just check your local library.