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Friday, April 26, 2013

Confusing the Issue

Is the problem of bullying a legal issue or a moral issue?  This is a question that is seldom asked.  By not asking it, those in leadership positions easily and without thinking accept the default approach to solving serious problems: pass a law against it and then enforce the law.  This approach is concrete and demonstrates that “something” is being done about a problem that we would like to go away. What could be wrong with that?

Most laws work well in setting limits on behaviors.  It is easier to stop people from doing unacceptable things or at least containing and constraining that behavior within reasonable limits.  Stopping an unacceptable behavior doesn’t require getting someone to learn anything new.   Strategies for stopping or containing an unacceptable behavior consist primarily of monitoring people’s behavior and only interacting with the people who overstep or exceed the limits.  Think of the speed limit on driving.  People don’t need to be taught how to stay within the limit.  Police just monitor the roads and when they detect someone exceeding the limit they have the authority to stop them and provide a consequence for the behavior that “broke the law.”  Most people drive in a relatively rational state of mind-they have to make decisions about where they need to go so it is not hard for them to decide if they want to take the risk of exceeding the limit to get to their destination sooner.  To a large degree, driving over the speed limit is a choice most people make and they weight the risks involved along with  their awareness of police presence and the likelihood of being caught.   This approach to problems “works” for some problems.  It doesn’t work for all problems.  Life would be simpler and easier if it did but it doesn’t.  We can be fooled thinking that it should work for all problems. since it is hard to do “nothing” and it is unclear what the solution is to the more complex problem, we go ahead and use the tried and true solution used for a very different type of problem.
Some problems are more concrete and can be contained by setting and monitoring reasonable limits on the problem behavior.  Because this approach is so concrete and only requires effective monitoring and enforcement, we want all problems to be solved this way.  In fact, when confronted with a more complex problem that requires a different approach, those in authority continue to see the problem in simpler terms so that they can feel like they are doing something about it.  I recently heard a story that illustrates this phenomenon:
A man is doesn’t feel good and goes to his doctor.  The doctor examines him and can’t diagnose what is wrong.  He tells the man to go home strip down to his underwear, open up the window and stand in front of the cold air.  The  man says to the doctor that if he does that he is likely to catch pneumonia.  The doctor replies, “Good, then you can back to me and I will know how to treat you.”

This is what happens when a legal solution is used for a moral problem.  The cliché that you can’t legislate morality is true. Moral behavior is different from legal behavior.  Not all immoral behavior is illegal and not all legal behavior is moral.  Getting the two mixed up is confusing and leads to getting nowhere with either problem.  The irony of this situation is that moral people don’t need laws.  Immoral people are not constrained too much by the law anyway.

 Ask a group of your friends what law would they break if there were no law there to prevent them.  If they name a law they would break, it would probably be a questionable law only pertains to their own individual behavior, i.e. marijuana use.  Even in that case it is doubtful that it is the law that would inhibit them-if they wanted to do they would find a way to do it without getting caught.

An example of a disastrous attempt, to address a moral problem with a legal solution was Prohibition.   Alcohol abuse does tremendous damage to our society.  They were many people who wanted to stop this damage and it must have been appealing to those people to solve the problem by banning the source of it.  (This doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be limits on using it-there should be limits and limits are necessary and useful.) Lifting the prohibition on alcohol, is not the same as saying alcohol abuse is good and go ahead and drink all you want.  In the case of Prohibition we learned that banning something that people were already doing was not the solution to the abuse of the behavior.  Responsible use of alcohol is really a moral issue and getting people to use it responsibility requires a lot more than simply telling them not to use it at all.

The problem of bullying is ultimately a moral problem not just a legal one. When kids bully other kids it is not usually a rational decision that one that a driver would make to stay within the speed limit.  Kids bully for many reasons-most of them they are not aware of.  Bystanders don't intervene or help for many reasons most are not rational clear cut decisions.  We need to help kids learn about this problem and what is going on inside of them and how it connects to the social world that is their reality.  The solution to the problem needs to be more than just telling people not to do it.  The solution (solution is probably not the right word) requires helping people learn what responsible behavior is and helping them become responsible.  Learning to live in the social world is not easy-it is a learning process.  We interact with each other in many subtle and complex ways and it is inevitable that we will all make mistakes.  Mistakes shouldn’t be crimes.  People who make mistakes shouldn’t be thought of as criminals-we would all be criminals if that were true. 

Some mistakes are egregious and shouldn’t ever occur.  These more serious mistakes are more likely to be avoided when the less serious mistakes that people make can be talked about in an environment free from shame and blame.  If adults only talk to kids about responsible behavior after the limit to that behavior is crossed, we are not really giving them the guidance and wisdom they need to become more and more responsible.   When mistakes are perceived as crimes and people are not caught making them, there is no reason for even discussing them, in fact most people want to keep them secret and hidden.  When mistakes are perceived as crimes, most people will deny that they made a mistake for admitting the mistake would mean they are admitting they are a criminal and few people would want to accept that as their identity.  In effect when the emphasis is on the legal and not the moral and human element, we reduce the amount of learning that can and should occur concerning the problem.

When we make bullying a legal, criminal issue we push kids away from ever admitting a mistake in the social world.  We make those necessary conversations with adults where they can get our help and guidance less and less likely to happen.  "Bullying" becomes an adult word that is just another attempt on the part of adults to control and manipulate them.  We are pushing kids away from our help and support in becoming more responsible.  When we criminalize bullying we are removing all distinctions of social interactions and leaving kids on their own to figure it all out,and get it  right on their own.  We are just crossing our fingers and hoping it turns out all right.  We are trading our need to keep things simple and to feel like we are doing “something” for doing what it really takes to help kids-becoming trustworthy in their eyes.   We need to realize that bullying is really a moral issue and morality is something that is learned from human relationships and the connections among people. 

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