Purple Mustache

This essay discusses “Spirit Day,” a day of remembrance for sexually atypical victims of bullying. The first Spirit Day was October 20 of this year (2010).

This essay was originally published, in an abbreviated form, elsewhere. It is republished here in full.

Six gay teenagers committed suicide in the past few months. Most were victims of bullying. This distresses a large number of people, including many who never met the suicides. A teenager decided to make October 20th “Spirit Day” to honor homo-/bi-/transsexual victims of bullying. Many people joined the cause, from Dan Savage to Cyndi Lauper; Tumblr’s staff re-skinned their website in purple to fit the theme.

Every article I’ve read about Spirit Day makes liberal use of vague stock phrases, e.g. “bear witness,” “raise awareness,” “faith leader,” “tolerance” and so on. Alarm bells ring in my head when I hear these phrases, because I know they mean nothing––or, more accurately, that they mean very different things to every person. Words hold histories within them, histories stretching back through civilizations into the beginnings of consciousness and pre-verbal thought. They illuminate or obfuscate, depending on how you use them. When you use them in stale and timeworn ways they cease to mean anything.

Stale and timeworn language simultaneously hides and expresses lazy thought. Anyone who has written a term paper on short notice will know what I mean. These phrases save considerable time; instead of coming up with a novel idea, or a novel expression of a timeless one, you simply let the language do the work for you, and before you know it you have seven pages of “raise awareness” and “take a stand” and “actionable gestures” and “people of faith.”

Why, then, the unfocused language? I think it comes from an indefinite purpose. For some, Spirit Day is about mourning the deaths of those six teenagers, for others, it’s a day against bullying in general, to others, it’s against bullying based on sexual orientation, or  it’s to “raise awareness” of a problem, or it’s a day to teach tolerance.

I do not support bullying. But I do not see how it could be eliminated from every high school in America, while maintaining any sort of ethical code. Suppose we dispense with ethics; even a Heathers-style plot would probably not work in real life. And bullying is not the only endemic social problem schools have to face. E.M. Forster expressed this, quite well, in The Longest Journey:

“There’s very little bullying here,” said Agnes.

“There was very little bullying at my school. There was simply the atmosphere of unkindness, which no discipline can dispel. It’s not what people do to you, but what they mean, that hurts.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Physical pain doesn’t hurt–at least not what I call hurt–if a man hits you by accident or play. But just a little tap, when you know it comes from hatred, is too terrible. Boys do hate each other: I remember it, and see it again. They can make strong isolated friendships, but of general good-fellowship they haven’t a notion.”

How could you foster “general good-fellowship” among teenagers, especially ones brought up believing their comfort, self-esteem and satisfaction are of upmost importance?

Note the draconian undertone of some of these pronouncements. We start out with a stand against bullying, and end up at a position where dislike/disgust with homosexuality is partially responsible for the suicides of distant strangers. If true, should we mandate that all people believe that gay is okay, so no more children will have to die? Even if many people hate homosexuals, how on earth will berating them help anyone, least of all the recipients of their hatred? The “atmosphere of unkindness, which no discipline can dispel” may be painful, but it cannot be banished through force. Likewise, people are entitled to believe whatever they like, including beliefs that, if widely held, might drive someone to suicide or murder.

It’s also unclear if all the gay suicides came from bullying. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among 10-24 year olds; some of these are bound to be gay, bullying or no bullying. There are also straight children who commit suicide because of bullying, though there’s an essential mystery in anyone’s motives to kill themselves.

While standing up to bullies can go a long way, conflating bullying with dislike of homosexuality does everyone a disservice. Plenty of people view homosexual and bisexual behavior as unnatural or immoral, yet they don’t act on it by psychologically torturing children. When you conflate bullying with someone saying that they think homosexuality immoral, you attempt to reframe the debate so that anyone who disagrees with you is morally equivalent to someone who torments a 13 year-old. Which you may believe––but I don’t.

Proponents of Spirit Day also appear not to consider practical solutions to sexuality-based bullying, such as homeschooling, private tutoring, school vouchers or an early high school exit exam (a CHSPE in California) to take the victim out of the offensive environment. Making expulsion from a public school possible for egregious bullies (along with other offenders) has not been brought up, to the best of my knowledge. No one deserves abuse, but it is foolish to expect it never to happen. Rather than bemoaning its existence, why not take practical steps so more and more children can learn in safety, free from undue harassment?

Let’s move on to emotions. All beliefs are based on them. I suspect that every person over the age of six, with normal cognitive functioning, has experienced every major negative emotion: hate, anger, bitterness, jealousy, rage, desire to kill, desire to hurt, race animus, sex animus and more. Can you, reader, honestly say that you have never felt any of the above? Depending on your social circle, certain people, groups and organizations are acceptable targets for negativity, while others are protected and sacrosanct. Often, people who “show solidarity” with victims use that as an excuse to batten on the enemy. We should not ignore this facet of human nature, since it motivates much seemingly altruistic action.

Showing solidarity with bullying victims is a worthy cause. But stopping there, as this campaign seems to do, is more cruel than ignoring the problem entirely. What will you do the other 364 days of the year? Does anyone plan to, say, build a boarding school or a safehouse for sexually atypical, at-risk youth? Or run a crisis center for young people struggling with life? And what will happen to those bullies, anyway? Perhaps, on some distant day, all people will join hands in harmony; until that day, I have to agree with J.D., from Heathers:

The only place different social types can genuinely get along with each other is in heaven.

It’s still not clear to me whether Spirit Day is about discouraging people from mistreating each other, or upbraiding other people for disliking a group they’re supposed to like. If it’s the latter, I cannot support it.