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Posts for October, 2011

Thomas Sowell makes a point or two worth considering about bullying

A Commentary

Timothy Kincaid

October 25th, 2011

Economist and conservative commentator Thomas Sowell has a new complaint out about the efforts to end gay bullying. Oddly, I find that while our reasoning and perspectives are far apart, he says some things that we should consider.

The premise of his column is that media attention and activism follow trends and popularity rather than even handedly reporting facts with context and perspective enough to allow the customer to see the full picture. I hardly think that is worth debating; we all have felt frustration over what has and what has not received media attention.

Sowell compares the attention given to gay kids being bullied to that of Asian-American kids being beaten in Philadelphia. I don’t know much about that situation, but it appears to be localized, a year or so old, and does not appear to have resulted in suicides. And Sowell’s general snittiness and petty whininess discourages any sympathy that he might have otherwise elicited.

The school authorities can ignore the beating up of Asian kids, but homosexual organizations have enough political clout that they cannot be ignored. Moreover, there are enough avowed homosexuals among journalists that they have their own National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association — so continuing media publicity will ensure that the authorities will have to “do something.”

Had Sowell used google, he would have discovered the existence of the Asian American Journalists Association. Or he could have glanced at a news station to see some avowed Asian Americans with his own eyes.

And had he been even peripherally aware, he would know that the anti-bullying stories were home grown, finding life first on gay blogs and then through efforts to send messages of encouragement to our own and only after paid advertising by a socially responsible corporation did America really take note of the problem.

But, despite the inaccuracies and false comparisons, what Sowell said next is interesting and worth a careful look by our community.

But political pressures to “do something” have been behind many counterproductive and even dangerous policies.

A grand jury report about bullying in the schools of San Mateo County, California, brought all sorts of expressions of concern from school authorities — but no definition of “bullying” nor any specifics about just what they plan to do about it.

Sowell is right on several points.

The programs put in place by schools to “address it and move on” do not seem to be significantly reducing the abuse. Often they are just the process the administration goes through in order to deflect blame or criticism. And even those schools which care and in which administrators genuinely and sincerely are trying to stop the bullying, the programs have not proven to be as effective as we would like. The problem of bullying is a cultural problem and one which needs to be addressed on a grander scale.

And (though this may anger some readers) sometimes our goals fall victim to a emotion/reason divide in which we have an abundance of people who feel and care and love and support but not too many who are cranky but make tough decisions, plot out strategies, and know how to effect change in real and tangible ways.

We have a narrow window before the public gets bored and the latest and newest urgent issue fad sweeps bullying into the corner. We simply don’t have the time to let our feelings drive our response.

We need specific definitions; we need exact and evenly applied consequences; we need to let the greater community know what it is that we are trying to accomplish with clear and specific language and get their support; we need to set aside hostilities and partner with the churches in town including the most conservative – as tempting as it is to believe otherwise, they don’t want gay kids to be bullied into suicide and if we don’t make this about taking sides then they could be our most powerful allies.

I am appreciative of the support our kids have gotten from the President to the small town citizen who all offer encouragement. And I’m thankful for the efforts of those who have worked tirelessly on this issue long before it came in vogue and will continue to do so when attention is elsewhere. Let’s take this opportunity to corral our energies behind them and bring about real structures of change.

This is a rare moment – lets use it to change the culture and teach a new generation that choosing to bully will come with social consequence: visibly disappointed family (and that is a tough role for parents who want to rush to their child’s defense), religious condemnation, and social rejection. If all of society tells a child that bullying has no supporters or defenders, if his peers consider bullies to be jerks, then this can be beat.

And that message will not only save the lives of gay kids, it will make the beating of Asian American kids in Philadelphia less likely. So even if Thomas Sewell is the one to inspire it, let’s make it happen.

But finally, Sewell discussed in his concluding paragraphs an issue that I have been reluctant to address. I’ve started and stopped a dozen times in my mind and even drafted a few times. I know this is not going to be popular and may well be seen as traitorous, but I think I need to say it.

First Sewell:

Meanwhile, a law has been passed in California that mandates teaching about the achievements of gays in the public schools. Whether this will do anything to stop either verbal or physical abuse of gay kids is very doubtful.

But it will advance the agenda of homosexual organizations and can turn homosexuality into yet another of the subjects on which words on only one side are permitted. Our schools are already too lacking in the basics of education to squander even more time on propaganda for politically correct causes that are in vogue. We do not need to create special privileges in the name of equal rights.

Bullying is too important and the consequences are too real for this issue to be squandered on political grandstanding and organizational fundraising. And that is what California’s Senate Bill 48, the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful (FAIR) Education Act, seems to me to be.

California’s laws are about as inclusive as it is possible to be. Other than marriage – about which the legislature can do nothing – gay and lesbian (and to a great extent transgender) Californians have full civil equality. In much of the state social equality is a given and in some places religious equality is the norm.

And while that is great for gay Californians, it isn’t so great for the employees of gay organizations who don’t want to go out of business or for politicians who rely on the contributions and votes that come with being “your champion in Sacramento”. It isn’t even good news for anti-gay activists who need to have a good scare to stir up the masses.

And consequently, in the past few years we have seen the California legislature deal with the establishment of Harvey Milk Day and SB48. They were created expressly for the purposes of giving State Senator Mark Leno a pretense of defending the community, giving the Democratic super-majority an opportunity to demean the minority party, giving extremist Republicans a chance to pander to the base, and giving Equality California a reason to ask for money.

And so they did. Especially Equality California, who emailed me about the need to defend the legislation from “enemies of equality” who were employing “every dirty trick in their handbook” so please send money. Repeatedly.

Harvey Milk Day is unnecessary. It does nothing, it mandates nothing, it impacts nothing. But at least it is benign. There isn’t much harm in naming a day after someone, even if the motivations were an example of politics at its most cynical.

But the FAIR Act is not symbolic. It changes what will be taught in public schools and does so with arrogance and intentional disdain and in language so blatantly biased that when I first read the bill I thought they had to be kidding.

Sewell is not being hyperbolic when he said “it will advance the agenda of homosexual organizations and can turn homosexuality into yet another of the subjects on which words on only one side are permitted.” That is exactly what the bill says.

Specifically:

  • Instruction in social sciences shall include the early history of California and a study of the role and contributions of both men and women, Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, European Americans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, and members of other ethnic and cultural groups, to the economic, political, and social development of California and the United States of America, with particular emphasis on portraying the role of these groups in contemporary society.
  • A teacher shall not give instruction and a school district shall not sponsor any activity that reflects adversely upon persons on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, nationality, sexual orientation, or because of a characteristic listed in Section 220.
  • The state board or any governing board shall not adopt any textbook or other instructional materials for use in the public schools that contains any matter reflecting adversely upon persons because of their race, sex, color, creed, handicap, national origin, or ancestry on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, nationality, sexual orientation, or because of a characteristic listed in Section 220.

Actually racial minorities already had law requiring inclusion and banning discrimination. This bill makes two changes: it adds LGBT Californians and changes the prohibition from “discriminatory bias” to “reflects adversely”.

Ignoring the complete nonsense of lessons about the numerous and significant contributions of LBGT Americans to the early history of California, and setting aside the political cover provided by pretense that this only addresses matters which are “on the basis of” a characteristic, we can readily know what this bill does in real terms and practical application.

A teacher should introduce role models, successful politicians, admirable persons, and celebrities so as to or reference his minority ethnicity or that she is lesbian. However, should any person be discussed who is disreputable or a villain, any mention of their ethnicity or orientation should be discouraged.

And this is to be done so as to accomplish the goal of contrasting the positive contributions of ethnic and gay groups with their “role in contemporary society”.

I suppose it could be more blatant. After all , the bill does not seem to mandate that membership cards be distributed or a collection plate be passed to assist those organizations who represent such groups in their current “role in contemporary society”.

And though I share Sewell’s doubt that this law will reduce bullying or even improve self-esteem, it is certain to further increase division and to give a tangible example for those who scream that ‘homosexuals are trying to brainwash our children.’

But what is most frustrating to me is that by prioritizing their own personal goals, Leno and Equality California ignored a real problem and squandered an opportunity to draft a law that could significantly impact the way in which gay people are viewed by society. Rather than attempt to draft soldiers for the Great Culture War, they should have focused on what is perhaps our society’s greatest example of heterosexist presumption: the whitewashing of the sexuality of the people whom these kids already have in their textbooks.

Although it serves partisan politicians, there is little real value to extolling the virtues of Harvey Milk, to whom our community owes a debt of gratitude, but who ultimately was a politician with a checkered history and questionable ethics. And placing emphasis on the social role of groups shifts the focus from education to activism.

However, I think it would be of tremendous value for school kids to learn about Alan Turing, Isaac Newton, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Leonardo DaVinci, Oscar Wilde, Alexander the Great, the Sacred Band of Thebes, Sapho, Virginia Wolfe, William Shakespeare, Baron Friedrich von Steuben, Frida Khalo, Jane Addams, Bayard Rustin, Socrates, Hadrian, Daniel (of lion’s den fame), Francis Bacon, Richard the Lion-Hearted, E. M. Forster, Truman Capote, Nikolo Tesla, Savador Dali, and Luca Pacioli. These people, who did not live the heterosexual lifestyle, gave contributions that make Milk and the “early California contributors” seem inconsequential.

And this is an off-the-top-of-my-head listing. A comprehensive listing on “not heterosexuals” in history would truly shock most Americans. And it would add to the recognition that sexual minorities have always been a part of society and as individual contributors have disproportionately provided the sparks of genius that have propelled society forward.

But they threw this away. And for nothing.

As far as I can tell, no one was clamoring for SB 48. If any gay Californians had ever felt any need for a bill that mandated propaganda, they kept it a secret.

And even though Equality California tried to create an artificial emergency, it didn’t work. No one passionately defends a bill they don’t need, didn’t ask for, and which has no positive impact on their life. And I certainly can’t be the only gay Californian who finds the idea to be an affront to their concept of liberty.

And now Equality California is in complete disarray. Their new executive director has resigned and their time as the advocate for gay Californians is at an end. And as they fade, Sen. Mark Leno loses his biggest cheerleader.

But there’s a lessor for us here as well. Perhaps we can have higher expectations of our activists and leaders. Perhaps we can let them know that they exist to advance the needs of our community, not the other way around. And perhaps we can recognize that as we come into our place in society, we need to be cautious that we do not reverse roles and become callous careless oppressors.

But if we are not yet ready to recognize that risk, folks like Thomas Sowell will be there to remind us. Let’s determine not to make him right.