The bully pulpit

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Indiana’s Herald Bulletin published a recent editorial in response to bullying, which is defined by the state as “repeated acts or gestures intended to intimidate or harm another student.” The editorial contends that according to research from Ohio State School of Psychology, students who engage in bullying are more likely to engage in substance abuse, what the piece notes as risky behavior leading to other risky behavior.

The editorial also draws attention to Olivia Fisk, a 14-year-old who, with her mother, created a non-profit called “Olivia’s Cause” to stop bullying. Olivia is clearly no ordinary teenager. She has alopecia, an autoimmune condition that causes hair loss. Olivia is bald. She also self-published a book titled Just Your Average Teenager Who Happens to be Bald. I encourage you to show her YouTube music video “I Could Be Great” to kids you know—and a few adults, too.

The recent national attention to bullying, not surprisingly, coincides with research on American loneliness. John Cacioppo, a professor of social neuroscience at University of Chicago, published his book Loneliness in 2008 and concludes that loneliness affects both the brain and the body, making people vulnerable to illness in addition to isolation. The just-out issue of The Atlantic Monthly’s cover story “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” claims that in 1985, 10 percent of Americans had no one with whom to discus important matters. By 2004, that number went to 25 percent. Instead, we outsource conversations to professionals. In the late ’40s, there were 2,500 clinical psychologists and 500 marriage and family therapists. As of 2010, those numbers changed to 77,000 and 50,000 respectively.

In a “Dear Amy” column this week, a questioner wanted to know why lost friends and old co-workers contacted him through Facebook but never responded to his e-mails. Her response: “The people attempting to be in touch with you aren't actually interested in individual and personal contact.” They are most likely looking to add friends or followers to their growing list. And here is the ultimate irony in her response: “It’s not personal. It’s Facebook.”

Why does so much bullying happen in cyberspace? “It’s not personal. It’s technology.” But here’s the rub. It is personal. Deeply personal. When you shoot off an aggressive e-mail and cc lots of people, it’s bullying. The person on the other end has no control, little way to respond and feels overwhelmed by the speed that bad news travels. There is nothing private or confidential in the exchange.  

We do not look someone in the eye and share our feelings. We vent. We rage. We make trouble and there are often few consequences for us. But the consequences for the victims are immense. We’ve all heard of too many teenagers who commit suicide or lose all sense of self because of bullying.

Isaiah called attention to the way that people bully one another, referring specifically to the biblical injunction in Leviticus not to oppress another. If you look carefully at this chapter of Isaiah, you’ll find this ancient prophet creating a picture of society that is upside down. Young bully the old. Baseless people oppress the wise. Boys become rulers, and babes rule over them. An upside down society is a place where you can have a thousand friends and not one. An upside down society is one where someone who does not see you can shame you and question your integrity.

And in an election year, bullying takes a whole political overtone. It’s hard to fault citizens who delegitimize another political party when our own candidates can be vicious in the way they speak about other. A recent poll claims that only 17 percent of media coverage today is about political platforms and policies. The rest is what we call “shmutz”in Yiddish. It’s nothing more than old-fashioned dirt. And it’s a distraction.

It’s time to take Isaiah’s high road and build bridges. Bullying hurts. Loneliness hurts. It's Reach out to others in respect, and maybe even love.

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places(OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list at http://leadingwithmeaning.com.

Posted on April 26, 2012 and filed under Jewish Life, Torah Commentary.