Protection by Discrimination: Not a Solution for Bullying
Tuesday, March 12, 2013Tweet
The other night at dinner, Mike mentioned that the NFL is investigating whether some prospects were asked by scouts about their sexual orientation. This is against the rules, and we wondered why anyone would care enough to try to get this information out of someone.
"Maybe they're worried that if they put a gay player on the team, they'll get picked on," Mike suggested.
I sighed and buried my face in my hands.
This is not a new argument. This kind of logic has backed everything from Don't Ask Don't Tell to trying to keep students from coming out of the closet. A similar logic was involved in keeping women off submarines and out of combat until recently -- as a way of "protecting" them.
The argument boils down to this: "I need to discriminate against you so you won't be bullied."
Let's look at a few of the problems with this argument.
In many cases, these arguments are made not on actual evidence but on hypotheses stemming from fear. Plenty of people predicted dire consequences for the military when Don't Ask Don't Tell was lifted. Soldiers would be "distracted" from their duties by issues of sexual orientation; gay soldiers would face discrimination from their peers (which apparently is worse than systemic discrimination from the government). Once the policy was finally repealed, however, the negative consequences failed to materialize, and if anything the repeat has been a net positive for the military. Ditto with lifting the ban on women in submarines.
There are already plenty of students who choose to stay in the closet while in school because of either real or hypothetical negative consequences of being an openly gay student. When a student makes the decision to come out, however, then they are making a choice to express their true and whole identity regardless of the consequences. It is not the school administration's responsibility to "protect" the student by trying to put them back in the closet -- forbidding them from talking about their sexual orientation or from bringing a same-sex date to a school dance -- regardless of what supposed consequences the administrators think might occur. And as our culture becomes more and more accepting, particularly younger generations, the consequences that those of an older generation envision happening are less and less likely to match reality.
Who's the Bully Here?
One story that has stuck with me is about a male high school student who wore a dress to prom. The principal attempted to prevent him from doing so and the school secretary forced him to change partway through the dance, all in the name of supposedly preventing discrimination against the student. Yet not a single person at the dance discriminated against the student -- except these administrators.
I know there is no clear agreement on what exactly constitutes "bullying," and I'm not interested in having the argument about whether using one's administrative power to prevent a student's gender expression or disclosure of sexual orientation technically constitutes bullying. But I do think there's something very wrong when someone in power attempts to single out a person or group in a minority and subject them to special (i.e., discriminatory) treatment, and especially to do it in the name of preventing hypothetical negative consequences. This robs the individual of control of their own life and places that control with the people in power.
Remember the Little Rock Nine, the black students who came to symbolize the racial integration of schools? They suffered terrible harassment as a result of attending a previously all-white school. Yet those who fought for desegregation of schools knew that it was better to have the choice to attend a better school, even if it meant facing one-on-one bullying, than to be given no choice at all and forced into a discriminatory system of separate and inferior schools. "Protection" in the form of discrimination is patronizing, oppressive, and no better than those who bully through taunting or violence.
In response to news of a sexual assault, our culture is quick to tell people -- particularly women -- what they should and should not do to avoid being sexually assaulted, and very, very slow to tell anyone not to sexually assault others. This is known as victim-blaming -- placing the responsibility for crime prevention on those being victimized rather than those committing the crime. We do this for some crimes more than others (as this robbery analogy makes clear).
In cases where someone is being harassed, whether a gay student, a female soldier, or someone else, immediately focusing on what we can do about those being harassed -- e.g., prevent students from talking about sexual orientation, keep women out of certain military positions -- is a form of victim-blaming. It is predicated on the assumption that bullying would go away if we just removed the bully's targets from the situation. This type of "solution" avoids dealing with more complex questions like, "Why do people bully others? What are the rewards and consequences in place for those who bully? How can we prevent people from bullying others?"
This approach also tends to focus on demographic categories like gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity. It ignores the fact that people get bullied for all kinds of reasons and about all kinds of things -- for being overweight, for being disabled, for being overly enthusiastic about academics, or (in my case) for no apparent reason other than being assigned a lunch seat next to a person looking for someone nearby to mock and torment. When we acknowledge that there are not always straightforward attributes for which a person is bullied, it becomes clearer that people don't "cause" themselves to be bullied in some way that is easily addressed by a discriminatory policy. The problem lies with those who choose to bully, just as the blame for rape lies with those who rape and the blame for robbery lies with those who rob.
Perpetuating Discriminatory Narratives
Children are not born inherently racist, sexist, ableist, or homophobic. They learn from those around them about which attributes are "good" and which are "bad," about what behaviors are acceptable and which they'll be reprimanded for. For example, I was in a public bathroom line yesterday behind two women, one of whom was telling the other about how they'd recently painted her son's bedroom the same blue as the bathroom walls. She added that her son had wanted pink, so she'd said, "We'll let Mom make this decision," adding to her friend, "He just doesn't understand why that's not appropriate."
When we codify discrimination into policy and law, even as a means of "protecting" minority groups, we send a clear message about what falls within the bounds of "right" behavior. A boy in a dress might be unusual and, yes, some might tease him, but if he is confident in his decision and most people act as if it's not a big deal, then by and large it won't be one. But when those in positions of power declare that his attire is not allowed and must be changed, that reinforces, rather than silences, those who want to draw negative attention to the unusualness of his decision. When women are legally barred from certain positions, it reinforces cultural narratives about women being inferior or less capable than men. When students are shushed about their sexual orientation, it perpetuates the idea that sexual orientation can be shameful and should be secretive rather than a simple fact about a person's identity.
I believe that in many cases, the idea that a policy "is for X group's protection from harassment" is a politically correct excuse given by those who are simply uncomfortable by others' differences. As such, it should be soundly demolished as illogical and deeply problematic so as to no longer be a legitimate shield behind which to hide one's own discomfort and prejudice.
Those who are truly concerned about harassment need not to discriminate against those who are harassed but to take a strict stance on those who harass others. If someone is being bullied, the question to ask is not "What is it about them that is causing them to be bullied and how can we change/hide that about them?" The more pressing question is "How can we communicate that this bullying is unacceptable and ensure consequences for those who bully?"
Where else have you seen this faulty argument about protective discrimination made?