"If there is anything that we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves."
The suicide of the student at Rutgers is a tragedy that has everyone examining cyberbullying and homophobia. Those are good things to be examining, but it misses what I believe is the heart of the matter. He may have been gay and the Internet may have been the vehicle of his humiliation, but this horrible episode is indicative of something much bigger: the culture we have passively allowed to go down the path of hate. We're so proud of our anger! And, much worse, we feel entitled to it and we feel entitled to express it without regard for either its fairness or consequences.
It's cyberbullying when the harassment takes place via the Internet. People can post whatever they want and watch it "go viral," the proud creators of the new garbage they felt entitled to dump on the world around them. The Internet might be the preferred medium of trashing people, but it's just the next wave of what we've already allowed in other media. When Rush Limbaugh trashed serious and thoughtful people on the radio to an audience of millions by dismissing them as "feminazis" and "environmental wackos" (and worse), no one said much or launched investigations into "radio bullying." When Howard Stern's vulgar and demeaning treatment of everyone, but especially women, was rewarded with a contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars, no one said much. When a member of Congress called the President of the United States a liar during a speech, an unfathomable disrespect, people sent his campaign money. When Jerry Springer has another brawl for our entertainment performed by people saying and doing some of the worst things imaginable, his contract gets renewed and his wallet gets fatter.
The candidates who are the angriest get the most attention. All a candidate has to do is stand up and say, "I'm angry with Washington and I want to destroy those bums," and people hoot and cheer like a good Jerry Springer audience naturally would. Their hateful, low blow campaign ad attacks are televised literally thousands of times per month. Mean-spirited candidates get the support of other mean-spirited candidates, and the beat goes on. And people want to know where the anger festering in our culture is coming from and why our kids are so brutal with each other! The adults they learn from are bullies, much too proud of their anger and feeling entitled to it. Too few of these angry people have the insight that they generate their own anger; Go ahead, cast your vote for another angry candidate you don't know a thing about so you can eventually be angry and disappointed with him or her, too.
Anger spreads and feeds on itself until we are feeding on each other. The fact is, our moods and outlook aren't just ours, they're everyone's. (See my book, "Depression is Contagious.") Mood spreads, and outlook spreads through what we say and do in the presence of others. That's true in the privacy of a family and it's even more true in the public arena provided by the media.
If you want to know why our kids are harassing each other to the point of driving some to suicide or self-destructive behavior, it's because we're so proud of our anger. We've taught them through our own actions to go after whomever you don't happen to like or agree with. We've taught them, "don't just win the argument, brutalize the other person." We've taught our kids of all ages that you don't have to be a good person, you just have to be an angry person that knows how to beat other angry people in an unfair fight. (Did you see the mom arrested in Florida standing in a group of other parents egging on their daughters to fight?) We've taught our kids that they can target anyone they want to, gay or straight, black or white, rich or poor. If something about them bothers us, well, then they deserve humiliation, ridicule and whatever else you can do to make their lives miserable.
Author and activist James Baldwin said, "Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them."