White House “Bullying Summit” Plays to the Cheap Seats

White House “Bullying Summit” Plays to the Cheap Seats

March 11, 2011

<Google> President Obama and “child abuse.” You’ll find a 2008 campaign document in which “prevent child abuse and neglect” briefly appears near the end of its four pages, plus a couple of routine proclamations and reauthorizations of ongoing family violence prevention. That’s about it for his administration, whose own Child Maltreatment reports indicate some 300,000 children and adolescents are victims of substantiated violent, sexual, and/or psychological abuses, including 1,500 killed, every year (a “Columbine” every four days)—mainly by their own parents and caretakers.

Or, <google> Obama and “child poverty,” a preventable condition the Census and health agencies show is devastating the present and futures of 15 million Americans ages 1 to 17–especially the 7 million children and youth who live in utter destitution–with massively excessive levels of homicide, violence, early mortality, HIV/AIDS, school dropout, arrest, imprisonment, poor health, and scores of related ills. Here you find only silence from the White House, along with various organizations pleading with the president to at least mention child and youth poverty, so far conspicuously omitted from presidential statements.

Finally, <google> President Obama and “bullying.” Holy schmoly… pages of links to presidential proclamations, Facebook sites, videos, First Lady announcements, and press coverage emerge, all culminating in the March 10 “White House Summit on Bullying.”

Why did the president summitize the already media-hyped topic of “bullying” instead of, say, youth poverty, domestic violence against children, and other crucial, ignored epidemics severely affecting young people? Because they’re not popular. Nobody important, least of all the news media, wants to hear about millions of kids living in poverty or beaten and abused in their homes. This president, like previous ones, clearly doesn’t care enough about young people to take risks to raise real and uncomfortable issues on their behalf.

In contrast, the bullying summit offered a safe, media-vetted opportunity for an easy campaign splash. The President and Michelle Obama’s videoed panderings set the tone: Bullying must be discussed only in terms of “how our children treat each other,” grownups must be flattered as moral authorities and rescuers, and officials, panelists, media reporters, and commentators were set up to comfortably cluck tongues at “student bullying” while lavishly praising themselves.

Emotional claptrap prevailed. Begin with the president’s claim that bullying affects “every single young person in our country.” No it doesn’t. Even by current, phony-survey definitions of “bullying” as essentially encompassing any critical remark, glance, or eye-roll a child or teenager ever made toward anyone else or any treatment by a youth that someone doesn’t like, a large majority of students say they’re not bullied and don’t bully. Why, then, are the president and various experts determined to convince young people that bullying is a unique, universal affliction of “growing up”–one that miraculously disappears in adulthood?

Can you imagine the president saying, “Priests’ molestations affect every single Catholic,” “illegal drugs affect every single middle-ager,” or “child abuse inflicted by parents affects every single young person in this country”? Aren’t these important problems? Why, then, not connect entire adult demographics and institutions to negative behaviors? Because it’s degrading, prejudicial, and factually wrong, maybe?

When the summit’s panel presentations become available, it will be interesting to see if anyone stood up to challenge the prevailing White House, news media, and “experts’” conveniently narrow dogma on bullying… perhaps by saying something like: “Look, Mr. President, your administration’s own agencies document hundreds of thousands of physical, sexual, psychological, and fatal abuses victimizing kids every year—including 100,000 victimizing teens age 12-17—numbers that drastically understate the true levels, nearly all inflicted by grownups. If that’s not bullying, what’s your word for it? How can you soothe the nation by pretending that bullying is just a matter of how ‘our children treat each other’? Mr. President, even if all you want to talk about is “young persons,” didn’t any of your task forces and experts inform you that vicious bullies, chronic victims, and suicidal teens don’t just pop up from nowhere—they’re disproportionately likely to have been violently and psychological abused themselves?”

Of course, I don’t expect adults to challenge our peers the way we expect teens to challenge theirs. We haven’t progressed to the point where we can discuss bullying as a disease of both adults and youths. Even so, it’s disturbing that in 2011, the President and First Lady, like so many adults, persist in crudely stereotyping young people as an undifferentiated mass connected to negative behaviors, not as widely diverse individuals in widely varying circumstances deserving of respect.

In the 6 years I taught over 2,000 University of California sociology students, I surveyed many hundreds on their experiences with high school hierarchies and bullying. As shocking as this sounds (well, this was the Bay Area), a large majority reported their schools had no identifiable hierarchies and practically no student bullying. Most had never been in a physical fight in their lives. Perhaps we should study them. But most interesting was that those students who identified both a high school hierarchy and extensive bullying also reported that their school administration was aware of and supported the student elite and even joined in the bullying.

The White House bullying summit is another crowd-pleasing distraction in a long-standing American cycle of futile responses to social problems, in which the strategy involves not scholarly analysis and effective solutions but identification of a powerless, unpopular “demographic scapegoat” to blame. After excising everything uncomfortable from discussion and marketing satisfying remedies based on popularity and emotional satisfaction rather than sober evaluation, we then lament that the United States continues to suffer the worst social problems—by far, and at all ages—of any Western nation. The Barack Obama who authored the boldly incisive Dreams from My Father is critically perceptive enough to know just how cynical his grandstanding on bullying and studied ignoring of crucial but unpopular youth issues are.