By Megan Fuller & Cathi Gerhard
Because we live on opposite sides of the US, we use the internet to keep in touch since our days as college roommates over 20 years ago. Most mornings we check in via Facebook or Skype over a cup of coffee to discuss life, love, like-minded politics and our work together on the Laurel Mountain Post. Oftentimes we share stories we find online, and in February we were so moved by one we decided to research and write an article on the subject.
On February 2, a Michigan mother created a secret Facebook page for her son. She introduced it to the world by posting:
“I am Colin’s mom, I created this page for my amazing, wonderful, challenging son who is about to turn 11 on March 9th. Because of Colin’s disabilities, social skills are not easy for him, and he often acts out in school, and the other kids don’t like him. So when I asked him if he wanted a party for his birthday, he said there wasn’t a point because he has no friends. He eats lunch alone in the office everyday because no one will let him sit with them, and rather than force someone to be unhappy with his presence, he sits alone in the office. So I thought, if I could create a page where people could send him positive thoughts and encouraging words, that would be better than any birthday party. Please join me in making my very original son feel special on his day.”
We are both mothers, and our sons are in high school. We have spent many empathy-filled mornings talking about their struggles in school and varied experiences with bullies. This story from Michigan really got to us, and we decided to devote a portion of this issue to various aspects of disrepect and bullying.
Bullies play a role in some oft-told tales in my family. To begin with, my father beat up the campus bully during his freshman year at Penn State –then hitchhiked home because he decided that college and the hostile, discouraging environment there was not for him. My father never returned to school, and never got the agricultural degree he wanted. He detested seeing others beaten down, and he championed underdogs his whole life.
Most likely inspired by my father’s legendary reputation, I also beat up the campus bully when I was in fourth grade. After months of watching him pick on my best friend, I finally decided to stop it for good by putting him down with flying fists on the playground. The adults in charge must have felt he deserved it because they all turned a blind eye. I’m not proud of my violent response, but at times it seems the only way to get through. The fight ended the abuse, but I doubt the bully really learned his lesson. Fear and pain stopped him, not compassion. Sadly, mankind usually goes to war too quickly, often before all other means of discourse and empathy have been explored.
The art of war has always used bullying as a tactic: divide and con-quer. It’s a method of distraction used in politics and corporate America as well: keep us fighting each other, and we will never join together to rise above. Just how much are we really fighting one another? Let’s take a closer, more scientific look . . .
A 13-year-old from Virginia, Viraj Puri, developed a blog and software application to track online bullying in the United States: bullyvention.com. Using keywords to track and analyze online conversations, social media posts, etc., the system scores and ranks regions to assign an index of colors on the US map. On any given day, one can go to this site and see a “heat map” (more info on page 8) showing the varying concentrations of bullying across the country. We tested this map by plugging in various dates. Every single time, the map showed a terrible red cloud of hate over our region: northeastern America, with Pennsylvania at its heart. We were shocked, having believed that larger, more urban areas would have the greater “disadvantage” of a hateful population due to the averages of demographics alone. Or how about the stereotypical south, which still hasn’t overcome its history of multi-racial prejudice? Just what is making us so angry, combative and unsympathetic?
Unfortunately, we have no answers, only more stories to tell. There are lots of things that target masses of hate these days: illness, money, politics, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. The tragic consequence of this hatred is often suicide. So it could be said that bullying is the initial stage of genocide (the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group).
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (afsp.org) reports that 38,364 suicides occurred in 2010 (12 deaths for every 100,000 people), making it the 10th leading cause of death in the US. In that year, it could be said that someone died every 13.7 minutes from despair.
What’s the solution? Perhaps actress Ellen Page, in her address at the Time to Thrive conference on February 14, offered the the best advice:
“. . . this world would be a whole lot better if we just made an effort to be less horrible to one another,” Page said. “If we took just five minutes to recognize each other’s beauty, instead of attacking each other for our differences. That’s not hard. It’s really an easier and better way to live. And ultimately, it saves lives.”
The inaugural conference was sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign (hrc.org), America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. However, they offer and support a universal message of hope and equality for all who are bullied, mistreated or rejected.
Another campaign launched last month was Operation Nice February, sponsored by actress Amy Poehler on her website, Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, Change the World by Being Yourself (amysmartgirls.com):
“Here at Smart Girls, we believe the internet can unite us rather than divide us. This February, help us spread the love by keeping the web factual and friendly. Before sending a hurtful or snarky remark into the world, think about how it would feel if someone wrote it about you. Fact check what you read before sharing. Make positive contributions rather than negative ones. Be part of the niceness.”
Kindness is the greatest wisdom, and that’s exactly what Poehler is trying to encourage every month through Smart Girls with a variety of initiatives, resources, videos, tweets and links: “When you learn about the lives of others, the world gets a little smaller and maybe even a little better.”
When we first learned about Colin and his mother’s Facebook page, it started a conversation. How many times had our own sons felt the same way? Too many, and we have always felt helpless – our maternal grief giving way to frustration and anger over things well beyond our control. That discussion led to the planning of this Laurel Mountain Post issue and its collection of related articles. We were and continue to be inspired by Colin’s mom, and her courage to do something about it.
“One month ago I had what I thought was a silly idea to create a Facebook page as a surprise for my son’s birthday,” she explained. “A month later, and far beyond the 50 friends I thought this page would get, we’re over 2 million, and this has become something larger than I ever expected. This crazy, silly, miraculous page has become a community.”
We invite our readers to become a part of this community, sharing a parent’s love and your own messages of hope around the world.
For more information on this subject, please visit the following:
Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls amysmartgirls.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
American Society for Suicide Prevention afsp.org, 1-888-333-AFSP (2377)
If you are in crisis, call: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
How to Stop Cyber Bullying bullyvention.com
The Human Rights Campaign hrc.org, (202) 628-4160
Time to Thrive Conference
visit the LaurelMountainPost.com for the full transcript of Ellen Page’s address.