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Bullying and Gay Marriage: The Dreaded Comparison

March 14, 2011

Schoolchildren aren’t exactly a target demographic for politicians. Aside from the obvious fact that they can’t vote, I don’t think it’s much of an overgeneralization to say that most of them don’t really concern themselves with issues that are of central importance to politicians. That, and if my own high school experience is any indication, you’re not really prepared for civic debate because all your history classes stop with the Taft presidency. Spoiler alert for any young readers out there: trust-busting is no longer the primary concern of the Republican party, and we no longer elect presidents with facial hair.

But I digress. Point is, schoolchildren in our culture aren’t really set up or expected to take much interest in political issues. But what about when politicians take interest in issues of concern to schoolchildren? That’s exactly what President Obama did last week, when he and the First Lady welcomed a number of advocates to the White House for a conference about preventing bullying. Again, if my high school experience is any indication, bullying is the sort of thing that sucks really bad when it happens, but eventually you move away and you only see the people who bullied you when you run into them while visiting your folks. Then they act like you’re their best buddy they haven’t seen in forever and you’ve got to respect social norms that say you shouldn’t draw attention to the fact that not seeing them is awesome. Spoiler alert for any young readers out there: the feeling of smug superiority that you get when they tell you that they have some awful job around town is almost worth the awkwardness.

But I digress again. Point is, by the time you start voting, chances are pretty high that bullying will be replaced by more general human crappiness and the ever-nagging ennui of adulthood. So, why is this suddenly a political issue worthy of a White House conference? First off, as Obama points out in his welcoming remarks at the conference, as adults we think of bullying as some inescapable part of childhood, and that’s honestly kinda weird. Furthermore, a number of recent suicides by bullied kids—including gay Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi—have gained international press coverage. Again, as Obama points out, these tragedies force us to recognize that not everyone turns out okay in the end and that bullying is an issue that has ripple effects throughout the community. But most interestingly to me, especially in light of Clementi’s tragic death, Obama’s remarks have implications for gay rights that diverge somewhat from his official position.

At two points in his speech, Obama makes reference to bullying based on sexual orientation. In the first, he says that bullying is “more likely to affect kids that are seen as different, whether it’s because of the color of their skin, the clothes they wear, the disability they may have, or sexual orientation.” In the second, he discusses MTV’s new ads “about the damage that’s done when kids are bullied for the color of their skin or their religion or being gay or just being who they are.”

Note how these quotes equate bullying based on sexuality with bullying based on race, clothing, religion, and disability—all things that there’s pretty much universal agreement that people ought not to be mocked for. So while the status of gay rights is still a contested issue—a recent article in the New York Times notes that “polls show the public is broadly supportive of equal rights for gay people — with the exception of the right to marry”—here we have Obama equating sexual orientation with a number of other things that are widely accepted as central facets of identity and self-expression.

But if we follow this link to its logical conclusion, we notice a divergence between the public’s and Obama’s stance on the issue of gay marriage (according to the Times article above, Obama still supports civil unions as a compromise). What I mean is if mockery based on all of these things is equally abhorrent—and Obama’s remarks take for granted that they are—it stands to reason that these are things that, as a society, we shouldn’t treat people differently for (after all, what’s mockery if not a means of negatively evaluating difference?). We wouldn’t dream of denying someone the right to be married by virtue of their race or religion. We wouldn’t say that people who wear certain clothes could only enter civil unions (even if they’re clothes from JC Penney). If there’s any good whatsoever to come from the tragic deaths of kids like Tyler Clementi, perhaps it’s that the way we express our own abhorrence over how he was treated can help us realize that we should stop treating gay people differently.

If you want to know more:

  • Many modern rhetoricians, from Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca in The New Rhetoric to Michael Gilbert in Coalescent Argumentation, argue that the purpose of rhetoric—especially epideictic rhetoric, or rhetoric dealing with “recognizing values,” “praise and blame,” and what is “beautiful or ugly” (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, p. 48), which I would argue Obama’s speech is an example of—is to increase adherence to certain values and premises. What’s interesting about this speech, however, is that really adhering to the values being presented would necessitate that even the speaker alter his own position.
  • My point that mockery is a means of negatively evaluating difference comes from Keith Basso’s Portraits of ‘The Whiteman’: Linguistic Play and Cultural Symbols among the Western Apache. Basso observes that the Western Apache use mocking impressions of white people to display solidarity and adherence to Apache cultural traditions, while simultaneously criticizing the seemingly divergent behavior of whites. Of course, they do these impressions around one another and not as a means of making fun of white people to their faces, so don’t worry, Barack, it’s not bullying.
  • Yes, to all you animal rights folks out there, I stole the title of this post from Marjorie Spiegel’s controversial book, which is about a different kind of bullying altogether. Mostly, though, I just liked how catchy it sounded and hoped it’d get this post more hits.
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