Thu. March 1
Two Views: Lady Gaga’s Anti-Bullying Campaign
Acculturated editor Emily Esfahani Smith and author Mary Eberstadt weigh in on Lady Gaga’s newly announced Born this Way Foundation.
The Anti-Bullying Moral Vogue
by Emily Esfahani Smith
In the pop culture today, anti-bullying has become synonymous with Lady Gaga–and it’s no surprise. The freakish-looking pop star who, when interviewed, acts like a complete wallflower, was the victim of bullying in her childhood. Now that she’s a millionaire with an incredible base of devotees–nearly twenty million Twitter followers and fifty million Facebook fans–she and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, have launched the Born This Way Foundation which will, in conjunction with the MacArthur Foundation, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and the California Endowment to Empower Youth, educate kids in the ways of anti-bullying. The purpose of the foundation, formally unveiled yesterday at Harvard University, is “building a braver, kinder world that celebrates individuality and empowers young people,” according to its website.
Gaga’s foundation is not alone. The federal government’s Stop Bullying initiative, Ellen Degeneres’ United Against Bullying website, the ACLU’s Anti-Bully campaign are all enlistees in this battle against the hurt-feelings of the misunderstood and teased.
The Born This Way Foundation and its peer groups, in my view, represent much that is wrong with our pop culture and its insistence on defining the moral agenda of our lives. By coddling young people by fetishizing “acceptance” and “individuality,” Gaga’s foundation will sideline the kind tough-minded sandbox wisdom that young people only learn by facing up to their cruel peers on the playground during recess. But more than that–and more importantly–its agenda will deliver yet another blow to the idea that people should take personal responsibility for the things that they do.
Most adolescents want nothing more than to simply be normal and to blend in with the crowd. That’s why they all shop at the same stores, wear the same backpack brand, speak in the same colloquialisms, play the same few socially acceptable sports, and do their hair the same way. Those who break from this social code–those who stand out in one way or another–get bullied and ridiculed. This is not an ideal situation, but it is a fact of life, and it used to be a fact of life that the bullied had to learn to deal with. If they were different, they either stood up for themselves or learned to conform to the prevailing pressure to be normal–an incredibly valuable lesson for later in life. That’s what I mean by tough-minded sandbox wisdom.
Now, the bullied have a breathtaking array of institutional support telling them that they don’t need to deal with their social problems head-on. They simply have to be who they are, be themselves, and that’s good enough. When being themselves pushes them to the brink, as it did with the gay Rutgers student who committed suicide in 2010 after being videotaped kissing another man by his roommate, then the onus of responsibility falls not on the “victim” (here, the gay student), but on the villain (here, the roommate who “bullied” him, now facing up to ten years in prison).
Consider that to Gaga’s mother, who will serve as the president of the Born This Way Foundation, the Ohio teen who shot 5 people at his high school this week is another person who should have been empowered to be himself, whose individuality should have been celebrated:
Germanotta is quick to note that the focus of her new foundation is on “kindness, not meanness,” saying that “bullying is almost overused in the media.” The group plans to partner with three other groups—Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the MacArthur Foundation, and the California Endowment to Empower Youth—to help educate kids, Germanotta says, by connecting Gaga’s fan base with the programs the groups have started.
Tragedies like the school shooting in Ohio this week deeply sadden her, Germanotta says, adding, “It just feels senseless to me.” She says, “I hope that ultimately, we can help people develop much stronger respect for their fellow man. That’s what troubles me the most. It will take time.”
Is Germanotta implying that the Ohio teen’s rampage was caused by bullying? Given the context, I think she is–and it may well have been. But that doesn’t excuse the teen’s criminal–evil–murders. And yet, the Born This Way Foundation believes that by stamping out bullying, these tragedies will also be eliminated. After all, the victims of bullying are driven to sociopathic anger and murderous rage by their mean, insensitive, and cruel peers.
This is the insanity of the anti-bullying crusade. It casts the villain as the victim and has nothing to say about the real victims–like those dead children and their families in Ohio. Rather than realizing that bullying is a natural part of adolescence—I don’t know anyone who has not been bullied at one point or another—the anti-bullying crusaders want to erase the scourge of bullying from the world of the playground, of recess, and of lunch hour. They wants to take the ostracized kids—the freaks and nerds and wallflowers–and “empower” them with “kindness.” .
Not that we need a private foundation to accomplish this task. The anti-bullying agenda has hit private and public schools with a vengeance, as a program of workshops, worksheets, class movies, class discussions, and school-wide assemblies have come together to indoctrinate children in sensitivity training and the evils of bully. New York requires all schools to have a policy about bullying. And New Jersey just passed an anti-bullying law, too.
In the New York Times today, columnist Nicholas Kristof reports on the launch of Lady Gaga’s new group by highlighting an experience she had being bullied :
When she was in high school, Lady Gaga says, she was thrown into a trash can.
The culprits were boys down the block, she told me in an interview on Wednesday in which she spoke — a bit reluctantly — about the repeated cruelty of peers during her teenage years.
“I was called really horrible, profane names very loudly in front of huge crowds of people, and my schoolwork suffered at one point,” she said. “I didn’t want to go to class. And I was a straight-A student, so there was a certain point in my high school years where I just couldn’t even focus on class because I was so embarrassed all the time. I was so ashamed of who I was.”
As for whether Gaga herself was ever bullied, her mother recalls one anxiety-ridden weekend that became a defining moment. Her daughter, whose given name is Stefani Germanotta, was “purposefully not invited” to a party one weekend by some of her classmates, her mother says. “On Monday, they asked her what she did over the weekend, knowing full well that she knew about the party. It comes down to meanness and cruelty,” she says. “Exclusion is a form of that.”
These don’t sound like life-altering traumas to me. These sound to me like the petty antics of immature high school students, which are a routine part of the rigmarole of being a young person. If Lady Gaga and her entourage of fans–which now includes Harvard University, the MacArthur Foundation, and a New York Times columnist among its ranks–think that they can glaze over the hard realities of adolescent life, then their utopianism knows no bounds.
Yet, anti-bullying has become the cause of the day in our pop culture. How? Very simply, it is consequence of pop’s belief that feeling good is a human right. But don’t take it from me. Kristof, in his ode to Gaga in today’s New York Times, observes that we are ”born to not get bullied.” He means that the right to not get bullied is something inherent in us, something that we are born with–what used to be known as a divine, God-given right. In today’s pop culture, not being bullied is the closest thing to a natural right that we can all gather around: “Bullying and teenage cruelty are human rights abuses that need to be higher on our agenda,” he writes. Anything that violates that right–that makes us feel bad about ourselves–must be done away with.
Public High Schools: Borne That Way
by Mary Eberstadt
Rick Santorum took a lot of flak last week for implying that American higher education isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. But underneath the dirt dumped on him for saying so, there’s a fat grain of truth: many public schools really do stink.
Compared to that big and really problematic fact, Lady Gaga’s earnest but ultimately hopeless attempt to address the phenomenon of “bullying” without touching the institution of public high school itself is doomed to fail. It’s like trying to fly an airplane by banning peanuts on it.
So let’s look at the issue of teenage misery in a little more detail. For many bright kids in America today, their mediocre high school amounts to day prison–a place where little time is spent on anything interesting, and a great deal on lining up, taking seats, sleeping or slouching through class, and having messages blared over Orwellian sound systems. For many slow kids, those long hours feel exactly the same–and are made all the more excruciating by the knowledge that other people are “getting” what they aren’t. And for almost all students, from the most adept to the least, bad ideas about education have made institutional schooling worse than it used to be.
The ideologically driven insistence that “we are all learners in different ways,” for example, has forced a K-mart egalitarianism onto many campuses, thanks to which the quick, the slow, and the average now know the tedium of being treated exactly alike. And for almost all students who know public rather than private education, there is never enough outdoor time, enough run around time, or other answers to the simple human need to do something noninstitutional from time to time. This is another sometime pleasure that those in the adult world, for their part, can take for granted, whereas most teenagers during the school day cannot. Then there’s the fact that in some districts, parents and school officials talk enthusiastically about lengthening the school day and abolishing summer vacation. Throw in your metal detectors, and if this doesn’t feel like lockdown, what does?
Add to this the intrinsic stress of being surrounded by peers, and practically no one but peers, all day long, five days a week, and the wonder isn’t that bullying happens. It’s that even more, and worse, pathologies do not reign supreme. As childcare expert Penelope Leach once pointed out (controversially) about day care: of course infants and toddlers find it stressful to be surrounded by others in their age group all day long. So would adults; imagine, as she put it, enduring a nine-hour cocktail party with forty people exactly your age. Long institutionalized days in high school are no different, only (presumably) without the comfort of alcohol. Put any human beings in situations that are essentially inhumane, and more inhumanity results. Why should teenagers be any different?
How did we ever get to such a place–unthinkingly penning up our children during some of their most vibrant and important years for so many long hours of tedium and waste? This is the real educational rock that no one wants to pick up–most especially someone who makes a living like Lady Gaga.
The answer is that the “need” for high school as an institution–the underlying fact that drives everything about the place, including such negatives as bullying–amounts to one thing: family change since the sexual revolution.
After all, why should Lady Gaga–or anyone else who hates school–have had to endure the institution at all? Why was and is it so hard just to do something else instead?
The answer is that in most homes today, no one is available any more to take care of a teenager who doesn’t fit the system–no granny (she’s in a nursing home), no mom (in the workplace), no dad (who may or may not live there), no sibling (after-care). The safety net that used to exist for any individual with individual quirks–especially any minor who just couldn’t fit in somewhere else–in many places exists no more. Home, said the late Christopher Lasch in a book title by that name, is a “haven in a heartless world.” Maybe once. Today, it is more often than not an empty hearth–and teenagers who don’t fit in at school, and who can’t opt out of it because there is no one to help them do it, are just so many casualties of what is actually a much wider social problem than bullying: namely, the fractured family.
Nor do current trends of the kind Lady Gaga herself celebrates and exploits look to offer any solace to kids of the future. Just a few days ago, Gaga announced that she wanted a baby–by artificial insemination, and moreover by an Italian (preferably a Sicilian). In this demand she has plenty of social company; America just passed the dubious landmark whereby over half of all births to women in their twenties are to unwed mothers.
But how on earth does the finicky would-be creator of a designer donor-baby square her concern for young people with the grotesque consumerism of creating one more child purposely deprived of something that most kids need more than a new foundation–i.e., a loving dad?
So I am substantially in sympathy with Emily Smith’s complaint that creating one more entity to piously address one more intractable facet of human nature (i.e., bullying) amounts to one more evasion of personal responsibility. But it’s also dispiriting to see one more celebrity use the bully pulpit, as it were, for a feel-good cause that is intrinsically limited in its ability to help real live kids of the sort she wants to reach–when there are so many other causes that actually would throw a lifeline to them.
If Lady Gaga really wanted to help kids who don’t fit into a one-size world, she would do better to think outside the institutional box. She might think, for example, of starting a foundation that would strengthen home-schooling, or another to support parents who stay home to educate their kids. Or–to be truly outrageous about it–how about one that encourages married couples to stay together for the sake of the children? That would at least double the chance that someone would be able to see a struggling teenager through the high school years without actually and always having to send them off to the factory. Or she might do better to think as radically as philanthropist Peter Thiel, say, who has put his money where his criticism is about higher education by giving grants to promising people who drop out of school.
Granted, these aren’t the sorts of initiatives that will buy respectability in the most self-congratulating of precincts. And for sure they won’t sell songs purveying the in-your-face tradition-bashing themes that made Lady Gaga a star. But in the long run, finding these and other alternatives to the factory-farming of American education will do more good than will false if politically correct ideas. The bottom line is that today’s and tomorrow’s teens really do deserve a break here and there–starting with the leap in empathy required to understanding what their problems actually are.
Mary Eberstadt is author most recently of the satirical novel The Loser Letters and of Adam and Eve after the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution, just published by Ignatius Press.