October 13, 2010

The Cyberbullying of Gay Youth

By Julian Dunraven, J.D., M.P.A.

Honorable Friends:

By now, most of you have heard the sad story of Tyler Clementi. He was that unfortunate freshman at Rutgers University whose sexual encounter with another man was secretly filmed by his dorm roommate and live streamed over the internet. Mr. Clementi then committed suicide by jumping of the George Washington Bridge, having first posted his plans to his Facebook page. The incident captured the attention of the national press, which has since worked diligently to highlight much of the bullying gay youth endure daily.

The Denver Post is no exception. In yesterday’s front page story, “Young, Gay, Bullied,” the Post focused on the high rates of depression and suicide among young gay students who are bullied by or isolated from their peers. Of particular interest is the relatively recent phenomenon of cyberbullying through blogs, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and other online sources. The Post cited several methods of addressing this problem, ranging from additional tolerance education and awareness programs to school administrative punishments to new legislation criminalizing cyberbullying. Such legalistic outcomes, however, would render an already tragic situation truly ghastly.

Do not mistake me. I truly do understand the problem and I do not doubt the plight of these young gay people. During my own time in high school, I was careful not to reveal my bisexuality to more than a handful of trusted friends. I was well liked, and had no desire to sacrifice social status to an identity which would have rendered me an instant pariah. Still, there were always rumors, inevitable suspicions, and occasional confrontations. Some of that was decidedly unpleasant. I was lucky, though. Those friends who did know accepted it without question. Many others would not have cared even if I had told them. And to my family it was a non issue. Not everyone is so fortunate.

Unlike other minority groups, gay students have no natural support network; their parents and siblings are generally straight. Often, families not only have difficulty relating to the problems faced by gay youth, they also actively disapprove of homosexuality. Peers, faced with overwhelming pressure to fit in, will often disassociate from gay students for fear of being labeled with the f- word themselves. Gay people faced with any one of these situations can and do feel incredible isolation and depression. That much is undisputed. Debates among scholars and theologians regarding the causes, nature, and morality of human sexuality, however, can fill volumes. It is not something to be addressed here at the Peoples Press Collective, which limits its scope to issues dealing with individual liberty, the free market, and limited government. Unfortunately, whatever one may think of their intent, many of the proposals listed by the Post to address the cyberbullying faced by young gay people negatively impact all three of those topics.

Focus on the Family correctly points out the danger to the marketplace of ideas and free religious expression with mandatory school programs and penalties specifically tailored to promote tolerance for homosexuality. Many mainstream religious traditions regard homosexual acts as mortal sins. For any public school administration or law to step in to enforce toleration and acceptance of homosexuality would usurp the province of religion to define virtue and thus violate one of the most cherished aspects of the first amendment. According to the Post, Focus on the Family instead would like to see bullying policies that protect all students against all forms of bullying for any reason. Even this, however, goes too far.

Apparently, our society has gotten to the point where at least some believe it is no longer acceptable to make gay people feel excluded or unwanted. Well and good. After all, gay marriage and civil unions are increasingly recognized in the various states and nations of the world. What about stoners though? I recall those semi-dazed individuals who would languish behind the main building of my high school, quietly smoking their marijuana while the rest of us went to class. Many students shunned them and sneered at the foul reek that hung about them. Yet, smoking marijuana for medicinal reasons is now legal in Colorado. California may soon legalize it for any reason. Should we now prohibit any exclusion or derision of such drug use? And what of students who espouse a belief in the doctrines of Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany, or the KKK? Such beliefs are certainly legal. However, at my high school, anyone who publicly stated such beliefs quickly found themselves without a single friend and excluded from all social functions by their peers. Should such exclusion and public derision be prohibited? I think not.

The first amendment also protects the freedom of expressive association. We can choose with whom to associate. We are also free to state the beliefs and values that hold such associations together and exclude and disapprove of those who refuse to meet those values. Sports and athletics are perhaps the most obvious examples of this. While participation is voluntary, you must accept the rules in order to be included. Failure to play by those rules results in censure and exclusion. Though other human associations may not be so clear about their rules, the basic idea is the same. Politicians soon find themselves excluded from their own parties if they take positions in conflict with the party platform. Dinner guests, likewise, do not often receive a second invitation if they forgo the use of any utensils or decorum. Indeed, such behavior, if it becomes publicly known, can even cause a person to lose his employment.

While most of us appreciate our freedom of association, few people acknowledge the importance of disassociation and publicly expressed disapproval. While exclusion does make people feel terrible, it is the best tool we have to regulate social norms and values in a free society. In this way, everyone is free to choose their own social circles, promote the values which are important to them, and exclude those who do not share such values. The only alternative is to have a governmental authority dictate all values and associations. That is completely unacceptable—but it seems many people are calling for exactly that in an effort to address cyberbullying.

Obviously, any responsible school should have reasonable policies prohibiting bullying on its grounds. Name calling and similar behavior is not only rude, it is disruptive to the educational process and should be sharply corrected. In the event of a physical altercation, the law, in addition to any school policy, can bring severe penalties to the aggressor, though all people have a right to defend themselves and others. However, when school policy or legislation extends beyond the school grounds and classrooms into the social lives and online interactions of students, problems arise.

Unless an overt physical threat is expressed, cyberbullying, while often cruel and rude, is often no more than disdainful speech. Any attempt to limit it can run afoul of the first amendment. It has other unpleasant consequences as well.

By interfering in the social lives and expressions of youth, such policies take away any opportunity students may have to express and enforce their own values, and places that responsibility solely on a governmental authority. The proper response to a bully who is rudely or inappropriately deriding a friend in speech or in any online forum is to exclude the bully from social life. Conversely, if someone expresses legitimate condemnation of unacceptable behavior, the object of such condemnation should be excluded. In this way, students learn to stand up for their own values and regulate their own behaviors. It does wonders for their sense of self worth as well. When the state or school authority criminalizes such behavior and usurps all power to regulate associations and interactions, it teaches our youth to rely not upon themselves and their friends to solve problems, but on official authority. In later life, that produces well trained sheep without any self esteem who follow their employers without question and who expect governmental authority, not individual innovation, to solve all of their problems for them. That is not how a free people should live. That is how slaves and serfs live.

Every time law intrudes into the province of etiquette, these problems arise. As a lawyer, I know it for absolute truth that law is seldom the best solution to any given problem. It is vital to remember that the authority of law ultimately issues from the barrel of a gun. Law is force. It takes away any choice or option and imposes a permanent directive which must be followed lest one lose property, liberty, or even life. Etiquette, on the other hand, is wholly consensual, dynamic, and continually adaptable. Merely by exercising our right to associate and disassociate as we see fit, we express and enforce the values which we want to guide our individual lives.

At times, we will all face situations in which we are rudely or perhaps even unjustly excluded and demeaned by those who do not share our values. Certainly, young gay students face this more often than most, and I have the greatest sympathy for them and what they endure. The solution, however, is not to call for the school authorities or state legislature to enforce tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality, or whatever the case may be, upon everyone else.

Any victim of such ridicule should instead seek out a group of peers who share his values and stand ready to defend them and one another. Other students should express their own support of such individuals while publicly censuring and excluding anyone they believe is behaving rudely or inappropriately toward another individual. As families, friends, and community members, we should be encouraging our youth to express and defend our values. When we see others attacked for values we share, we should live by example and speak out in their defense, censuring and excluding bullies from our own social circles and networks. In this way, free people constantly foster and defend the values they live by—not by law, force, and compliance—but by individual choice, responsibility, and virtue. Moreover, unlike law, which imposes one standard on everyone, etiquette leaves each person free to find their own group of like minded individuals.

Having experienced the hardships bullies can impose first hand, I understand the deep desire people have to protect their children from enduring similar circumstances. As a current practitioner of corporate law with its stringent demands for professionalism, I abhor rudeness of any sort. Here at the PPC, we even created the “Political Breath” page to address issues of etiquette in political activism. However, much as I despise bullying and rudeness, I am unwilling to sacrifice my freedoms for the illusion of acceptance. Government cannot legislate social inclusion. It cannot grant self esteem. It cannot force virtue into human hearts. Only individuals have that power, and as individuals we must take the responsibility to do so.

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