See the evil, hear the evil, speak the truth.
24 July 2014 14:54 (South Africa)
Opinionista John Stephens

Bullying: Compassion is the answer, not clampdown

  • John Stephens
The lesson from science and mythology is that our reaction to bullying must allow for young people to change and grow. There can be no ‘joy’ in knowing that the young person shot dead on 19 November was denied that chance. 

Police allege that on 19 November, an 18-year-old student came home after being bullied, found his mother’s gun, took it to school and shot and killed the classmate who bullied him. Three days later, The Star printed this front-page headline: “Joy after bully shot: no tears for pupil shot dead by one of the boys he accosted with school gang”. It is a headline that narrows and flattens us all. It is a reaction that takes what should be grief and twists it to blame, grief’s ugly cloak.

Another common reaction to a tragedy like this is to criminalise young people: get tough on bullying by escalating surveillance and punishment. This time, we’ve heard calls for metal detectors and video cameras in the schools – these are reactions that fail to recognise that young people do not need or want to be watched but rather seen. They are reactions more childish than the young people they target. They propose to bully the bullies and everyone else.

Instead, we should let grief be grief. A person, as sacred as any of us, is dead and another faces a life sentence. Part of our grief should be to reflect that we, too, were once youth possessed of the vanity and vulnerability that allow us to bully and be bullied as well as the kindness and compassion that enable us to bless and be blessed. 

For those of us who made it, our experiences of passing through youth and finding a place in the world have been the subject of both mythology and scientific study; both of which hold lessons for how we should respond to bullying.

Mythologically, there is an old idea that reaches through history and across continents and finds its way into stories around the globe: the young person who was eaten by trouble grew to greatness. We all know this story because it is hardwired into us; it is an archetypal myth. It has been passed from culture to culture and generation to generation to become part of our shared understanding of what humans are and do.

Greek mythology and philosophy tell us that each person enters the world bearing a gift, a unique purpose and talent or telos that only that person can offer. Society should lead that gift out so that it takes root and grows into its place in this world. Indeed, the word “education”, from the Latin educo, etymologically means “to lead it out”. In the throes of a tragedy like this, we should ask ourselves: what are we doing to truly educate our youth, to lead out their gifts?

Each of us requires great mentors to guide our passage through the dark waters of youth. These mentors are the ones who can peer through the fog of conceit or anger or insecurity that covers youth and see a person’s gifts, because someone once saw theirs, and help lead those gifts out.

Bullying is about rejection and belonging. It stems from the need for a place in the world and the feeling that one has been denied that need. When young people feel properly welcomed in the world, when they feel their gifts being led out, they do not feel the need to claim their place through violence or meanness. When a person bullies, or shoots his bully, it shows us that we did not provide that young person the opportunity to grow his or her gifts. 

Instead of recognising this, our emotional reaction is often to try to reclaim control, to clamp down. It is a reaction that feeds and deepens the roots of alienation in young people – roots that grab in the belly and grow through the heart until they bloom red in schools. In the United States, where I am from, we have experienced school violence at heretofore unknown levels. We have often responded in all the wrong ways and have managed to turn many of our schools into places that more closely resemble prisons than places in which the inherent gifts of each individual person are ushered into the world.

The Star headline, and the reactions that call for bloodshed in the wake of bloodshed, exile young people, not only the tragically dead and accused, but all youth who hold within them the potential to bully or kill, which is all youth and all people. In the desert of exile, the gifts that young people bear within them do not grow. The old myths tell us that the gifts the troubled hold within them, often turn out to be the greatest gifts of all; they tell us that hopelessness is a seed that should find no purchase in youth. 

People will say that this incident did not involve “youth”. It is true; we do not have a consensus on what it means to be 18 and what the world should demand of someone that age. However, recent developments in science have shown us that brain development does not complete until a person is in his or her late twenties. Some brain functions develop faster than others and these developments are neither linear nor obvious. 

Thus, young people develop most of their cognitive abilities before they know how to properly apply them because cognitive abilities develop faster than “decision making” abilities. Decision-making is based, in large part, on experience, but is also associated with the “prefrontal cortex”, the part of the brain that completes development last. In a nutshell, 18 year olds are smart enough to be dangerously dumb: they are essentially equipped with a gas pedal but no brake pedal.

Lawyers that advocate for young people extend two legal arguments from these findings, both indicating the need for leniency when sentencing young people:

  • Decreased culpability due to undeveloped brain functioning;
  • Increased ability to change due to still-developing cognitive functions, emotional maturity and decision-making skills.

Thus, science has confirmed what the old stories tell us: young people can change and the greatest things can come from the troubled ones. In sum, the lesson from science and mythology is that our reaction to bullying should rather be one that allows for young people to change and grow. Tragically, the young person shot dead last Monday will not have that chance. But, there remains a nation of young people out there struggling with the greatness and meanness within them. They can change and grow and this is a moment in which we will signal to them whether we believe they can choose greatness. We can clamp down on them. We can tell them that the bully in them means there will be “joy” upon their death. Or, we can tell them that a seed of kindness grows within them if only they cultivate it. I propose we try the latter and see what happens. DM

John Stephens' work as a Legal Researcher at SECTION27 focuses on human rights, the right to health and, more particularly, issues around tuberculosis.

  • John Stephens
john stephens

John Stephens' work as a Legal Researcher at SECTION27 focuses on human rights, the right to health and, more particularly, issues around tuberculosis


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