Over the centuries, the Dominicans have devised and honed a venerable means of responding to provocative and often erroneous assertions: “Never deny, rarely affirm, always distinguish,” a fruitful guide, worth remembering in the midst of conflict and controversy.
Never denying people’s assertions outright encourages us to find at least a grain of truth in what they say; this fosters respect, diffuses conflict, and keeps an interlocutor in dialogue. Rarely affirming the same assertion likewise protects the process by avoiding rash and misguided conclusions. This allows the search for truth about the matter in question to deepen – and, therefore, requires us to make key distinctions.
This seems to be a good method for addressing the question of bullying, which has lately made its way into the news. Old fashioned bullying has not disappeared, of course, but several recent episodes of bullying have featured new technologies. Someone may now be picked on via texting or Facebook, or is the object of vicious ridicule via Youtube. That people, in great numbers and at any time of day, can pile on so easily from the safety of their mobile devices or keyboards – by which entire peer groups are connected – has in some respects compounded the cruelty of the regrettable, age-old practice.
Victims may well prefer to be bullied out of lunch money rather than undergo this all too real “virtual” manifestation of bullying. One mother set up a fake MySpace profile in order to help bully one of her teenager daughter’s peers, who felt so hounded that she took her life. In another tragic case, a freshman at Rutgers University committed suicide shortly after a roommate broadcast video on the Internet, which effectively “outed” him as a homosexual.
Cases involving homosexuality, more than the others, it seems, have generated the most reaction. Neither Hillary Clinton nor President Obama let the opportunity pass to remark upon the Rutgers case. The unmistakable subtext of most reporting, if it is not explicitly stated, is that incidents of bullying connected with suicide are the result of rising anti-gay sentiment and that religious belief itself is the main source of anti-gay bullying. Ergo, that which appears linked in any way to disapproval of homosexuality needs to be branded as impermissible, hateful, and dangerous.
Thomas Nast (1871): children sacrificed to Catholic “crocodiles.” Plus ça change.
There is no denying the tragedy of these cases, nor that bullying should be condemned and discouraged. Whether the cases involve kids with special needs, romantic rivalries, or homosexual persons, bullying remains deplorable; all persons are owed respect and protection from aggression and indignities under the law, and just as important, by social convention. But this point hardly seems to be contested; these stories have been met with universal horror.
But if belief is the culprit would outlawing such belief resolve the problem of bullying? The claim of rising anti-gay bias also rings hollow. If anything, support for gay-related causes has advanced in ways few would have predicted even a few decades ago. Massive popular animosity these days, by contrast, seems directed (to take one example) towards the Bernie Madoffs of the world. One of the many tragedies associated with that whole affair was the suicide of Madoff’s son last year. (I don’t know whether or to what extent this son was complicit). But no one would argue that Madoff-like tactics should be normalized – remain immune from reproach in the minds of everyone else – so as to curtail similar suicides in the future.
Some other important distinctions are in order. Any authentic effort to discourage bullying qua bullying would surely have to address the relentless anti-religious bullying conducted by gay activists. Catholic adoption agencies in the United States and the United Kingdom are threatened with the prospect of no longer being able to operate because of their religious convictions. Supporters of Proposition 8 in California are targeted and harassed for their views on traditional marriage. A university professor going about his business is fired for accurately presenting Catholic teaching on homosexuality because one of his students found it “hateful.” Playing the hate card works quite well as a bullying tactic.
Benedict XVI likely had these issues (among others) in mind when he recently warned about the “systematic denial” of religious freedom reemerging today. The attempt to get Christianity to change its view of homosexuality, Benedict XVI writes in Light of the World, is one example of how “an abstract, negative religion is being made into a tyrannical standard that everyone must follow.” Our obsession with “tolerance” above all else, understood as “not offending anyone,” has paradoxically led to the abolition of tolerance, such that “the Christian faith is no longer allowed to express itself visibly.”
In other words, the biggest bullying epidemic today occurs not among homophobic adolescents but “progressive” adults, some in highly influential or powerful posts, who lay siege to the ideas and institutions they dislike – and the persons who defend them. In this sense, bullying has become not so much a mental or public health crisis as an insidious cultural crisis. Of this crisis, Benedict XVI minces no words: “I believe we must very emphatically delineate this danger.” And since bullying needs to be uniformly discouraged, decrying one form of bullying – much as that is needed – should not be used as fodder, even cover, by those advancing another ongoing and more pervasive form of bullying.