When politicians try to be hip to the youth, it’s rarely effective. Remember the Liberal party posse dancing to Daft Punk? Well, today we learned that just as politicians should not attempt to sing and dance (unless they’re this guy), celebrities also should not wade into education policy.
Indeed, a few well-meaning celebrities have made the misguided call to advise the government on how it should combat bullying, seemingly without consulting any experts on the matter.
Missy Higgins, Troye Sivan, Guy Pearce and Joel Creasey were among those who signed an open letter and launched a change.org petition asking the Prime Minister and Education Minister to fund a new anti-bullying, anti-violence program that wasn’t mired down in “politics and controversy” like the ill-fated Safe Schools Coalition.
The letter clumsily calls for a new program – specifically “an anti-bullying, anti-violence program with a focus on LGBTI bullying that isn’t just another anti-bullying program” – and it suggests other forms of bullying be included, such as “religion, race, gender, faith, sexuality, disability, skin conditions, social standing or political persuasions”.
Unfortunately, the letter also makes it abundantly clear they aren’t asking for actual equality or change.
“Make no mistake of our request,” the petition reads, “we do not seek a program that seeks approval of the way certain members of our society live. We seek only mutual respect and tolerance.”
The petition is lengthy and you are welcome to read it in full but these excerpts get to the heart of what is wrong here: problems with our definitions of “tolerance” and “bullying”.
Firstly, as one of the “certain members of society” the petition regards, I will not be satisfied by mere tolerance. Tolerance does not lead to equality and it does not lead to understanding. Tolerance is ignoring your differences, not finding common ground or changing hearts and minds. Tolerance is begging for crumbs from your oppressor.
Moving from the linguistic to the practical, though, can someone please tell me how we teach kids not to bully without addressing the actual differences between the bullies and the bullied?
Perhaps one of the greatest casualties of the Safe Schools debate has been our lack of ability to define bullying – or explain how education is necessary to combat it.
And the LGBTI community and our allies should take some responsibility for that.
As a community, we defended Safe Schools by asserting that it wasn’t a educational tool for sexuality and gender diversity, but rather an anti-bullying program. So passionate were we to keep the program intact, we all leapt to its defense, many of us not fully cognisant of its content. We queers ran to the barricades (myself included) to declare that Safe Schools would have saved our lives, without a real understanding of what it does or how it works.
Sadly, this defense backed us into a corner. If we are just preventing bullying, why do queer and trans kids need special treatment? If we believe in inclusivity, why wouldn’t we want an anti-bullying program that protects everyone?
In our society, bullying is often associated with behaviour committed by an individual. Bullying is treating other people badly. It’s teasing someone or excluding them. Bullying is considered juvenile. When I say “bully”, you conjure up an image of a big kid in a 1980s teen movie yelling insults at the nerds.
The thing is, homophobia and transphobia are not individual acts committed by freckled kids. They are institutionalised structural oppressions. They stem not from kids being naughty but from a fundamental lack of understanding; they come from a society that does not understand sexuality and gender diversity.
How are we meant to tell young people not to bully trans kinds if we don’t teach them basic gender theory? Do we just make kids write “I will not be mean” over and over on the blackboard? Do schools even have blackboards anymore?
When it comes to the bullying of LGBTI kids, it’s a symptom of broader attitudes and lack of understanding. To really combat homophobic and transphobic bullying we cannot reduce the issue to just kids being immature and cruel. We need to address the source.
Kids mirror existing power imbalances in society. If we don’t address those power imbalances, if we ask merely for tolerance and not change, we will continue to see the “suicides, self-harm, murders, and domestic violence” these celebrities want so desperately to prevent.
The letter and petition have clearly been delivered with good intentions, but how often are “good intentions” actually useful? People only reference your “good intentions” when you’ve done something bad. And I’m sorry to say it, but this petition is B.A.D.
I don’t blame our celebrity friends for getting confused. Oppression is designed to confound and confuse its victims and their allies. But when conservatives demand that we jump around begging for tolerance, we should hold our ground, not ask “how high?”