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Jane Ahlin, Published May 26 2012

Ahlin: College incidents symptoms of America’s bullying culture

Reading about the trial of Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi, who set up a webcam to watch his gay roommate, Tyler Clementi, with a boyfriend and then invited others to watch (Clementi committed suicide shortly thereafter) and the story of 13 Florida A&M marching band members being charged in the death of drum major Robert Campbell, who died shortly after brutal physical hazing, it occurred to me that bullying at colleges is nothing new. What is new, however, is the level of callousness and lack of remorse that accompanies present-day bullying – factors that make it more disturbing than ever before.

We didn’t call it bullying back in the olden days. Instead, bullying fit into the general category of offensive teen and preteen behaviors. Bullies seemed to burst onto the scene in junior high and then fade, with most bullies finding more socially acceptable ways of interacting before graduating from high school. (Actually, the worst bullying I remember happened in fifth grade.)

Bullying was a phase some problem kids and some good kids went through in growing up, a phase expected to end before college – certainly before adulthood. (Yes, the hazing rituals of college groups, such as fraternities and sororities, certainly were bullying in nature, but they supposedly had parameters and were meant to promote camaraderie, not terrorize individuals. Today we’d call that “wishful thinking.”) Adult bullies existed in those days, too, but they weren’t looked up to or celebrated.

Not so anymore. Bullying starts earlier and goes on and on. Conventional wisdom blames the Internet and cellphones and all the instant ways people communicate with one another, communication too often involving messages sent before thinking. Texting and sexting, secret picture-taking and videoing seem to be irresistible tools for bullies. Still, the abuse of instant communication by bullies is more symptomatic of society’s pathology than a societal ailment all by itself.

Put another way, we’ve become a bullying culture. If we wonder why children think it’s OK to threaten and frighten other children and why bullying has become a serious problem for schools, all we have to do is look at the behavior of adults to understand. In fact, the old saw, “Do as I say, not as I do,” comes to mind.

Students may be taught how to disagree civilly in the classroom, but they don’t see that modeled often in public discourse as presented on radio and television. No matter the issue, the nastier and more personal the diatribe, the better the ratings. In addition, rarely does the listening/viewing public react to over-the-top personal attacks that have nothing to do with issues being discussed.

One notable exception was the Rush Limbaugh dust-up with a Georgetown student over contraceptives. His calling her a “slut” and insisting she owed the public a sex “video” for insurance coverage of contraception was seen as the worst kind of bullying and offended most Americans – at least briefly.

Perhaps other questions should be posed about the stories out of Rutgers and Florida A&M. Most commentary has centered on whether Dharun Ravi’s sentence of a month in jail, 300 hours of community service and a $10,000 fine was stiff enough for his crime. (Did the judge do the right thing in separating what is criminal from what is simply contemptible?) However, a better question for the rest of us is, why Ravi’s only remorse seems to be over stupidly getting himself into a pickle rather than that his own cruelty was a factor in his roommate’s suicide.

In the Florida A&M story, the wink and nod by faculty and administration toward brutal hazing deserves the examination it is getting (another student already had her leg broken in band hazing this year). Still, other questions should be raised about violence. How does a ritual of acceptance become one of brutality?

We’re smack dab in the middle of high school graduations and celebrations this weekend – happy times. Every class believes it can change the world. When it comes to reversing the bullying trend, I’d like to think they can, too.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.

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