February 28, 2013

Bully

I finally got around to watching the documentary film, Bully. No, it was not about "freethought bullies" or anything of the sort. It dealt with the important and often neglected subject of bullying in schools. It provided a voice to children who are bullied and showed us some of what they and their parents face on a daily basis.

It was not quite what I was expecting, but I'm glad I watched it. I remember the controversy around its release. I had incorrectly assumed that it would contain scenes that would be extremely difficult to watch. It turns out that the controversy was more about the film's rating than the contents. While it was far from pleasant to see children being tormented by bullies or hear about those who had killed themselves to escape, it lacked the visceral punch of Jesus Camp, at least for me. After watching it, I felt sad but at least somewhat encouraged that the issue was receiving much needed attention. After watching Jesus Camp, I felt like I was going to throw up and had nightmares. But I suppose films like these will affect everyone differently.

While watching Bully, I found myself thinking that this would be an ideal film for parents to watch with children about to enter or currently at middle school/junior high. It seemed like something that would generate some good discussion about an important subject. I also thought that it would be perfect for something like a school assembly, assuming it could be followed by some concrete strategies for what to do about bullying.

The film follows a few children who are being bullied in middle school/junior high. They are picked on for somewhat different reasons, but the common reason is quite obvious: they are different in some way. This is consistent with what I remember from junior high - the pressure to conform is extreme and those who are different are punished for it. It does not seem to matter how someone is different; differences cannot be tolerated, and bullies are the mechanism through which conformity is enforced.

I was a bit surprised that the film focused almost exclusively on the children being bullied rather than those doing the bullying. But I suppose that would have been a far more challenging film to make. Because the bullies were not really the central subject matter, most of my anger during the film landed on school personnel who seemed unwilling to even try to understand what the victims were going through. Sadly, the "boys will be boys" mentality still seems firmly entrenched.

If there was one central message, I think it would have to be the idea that we all have a stake in bullying. It cannot be left solely up to the schools or the parents. Its roots are, at least to some degree, embedded in our culture, and so we are all involved. The idea of it taking a village to raise a child makes a great deal of sense here.

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