Saturday, October 9, 2010

The lonesome death of Hope Witsell

It looks like at least one segment of the American population—the mainstream media—is finally waking up to the reality of bullying. At least among young people. (If ever the MSM woke up to the reality of political bullying, and how they feed and feed on it, I would get on my knees and pray because I would know the Second Coming was nigh.)

At my high school class’ 20th reunion, one person who had given me grief throughout my last three years of mandatory education approached me and said, “I wanted to let you know that I’m sorry for being such an asshole to you.” I was, to say the least, nonplussed; I’d finally let go of my anger some years before and wasn’t even thinking about it. But I managed to summon up enough of my customary tact and grace to shake his hand and say, “Hey, we were all assholes in high school.”

Mister Diplomacy, that’s me.

So I could tell you how my life in the years from seventh grade through twelfth was a living hell of insults, torments and general disdain, and to a certain extent it would be the truth. But it wouldn’t be the whole truth, even if it felt so at the time. For while I didn’t make a lot of close friends, and even made some enemies that lasted through graduation, I did meet some good people and have some good times … even if I sometimes felt more like an observer than a participant. (And I’ve been fortunate to find some of them again through the medium of Facebook.)

But that ability, even tendency, to detach myself from my environment is just one legacy of that period. I thank God that I did have some friends, and at times could maintain some semblance of gregariousness; otherwise, I might just as easily have become a sociopath. And it’s true that when I parted from Omaha Northwest in May of 1982, I was a lump of anger, bitterness, self-righteousness and self-pity who could forgive neither his tormentors nor himself.

Suicide wasn’t an option. I disdained people who killed themselves; I considered them cowards who couldn’t or wouldn’t fight back.

May God have mercy on me.

Now, when I consider the plight of young Hope Witsell, who hung herself after a year of being bullied mercilessly, I feel the pity and terror evoked by tragedy. For thirteen-year-old Hope’s great social crime was to “sext” a picture of her breasts to her boyfriend. Another girl got a hold of the boyfriend’s picture, sent it to friends in six other middle schools … and it went viral from there. Between the physical assaults and the continual shouts of “slut”, “whore” and “skank”—even a MySpace page given over to such abuse, which should cause social-media outlets to rethink their policies—young Hope had to be escorted to classes, surrounded by a wall of her friends.

Now, it’s easy to lay the blame on the parents and on the school for her death, insofar as they never effectively intervened in the harassment or its effects on Hope, or for not equipping her with the internal resources to stand tall and stand up for herself.[1] It’s less easy—for me, now at any rate—to blame young Hope for not drawing strength and encouragement from her friends, because I know from the inside how an atmosphere of hostility isolates a person from his support network, even when that support is overwhelming.

If we must play the “blame game”—an ordinarily useless exercise, because it ordinarily exists only to create scapegoats—we should lay blame on ourselves as a society, because we fail to make children accountable for their behavior. While the myth of childhood innocence has some use, especially when considering the dangers posed by adult predators, it can be dangerously misleading when taken too thoroughly to heart.

At some point, somewhere around the age of five or six, the child is fully capable of doing things he knows are wrong. What was once simply raw lack of manners becomes deliberate malice. They lie to escape punishment, but they also lie out of desire to hurt or to get what they want. They steal from other kids not because they don’t know better but because it gets them what they want. They push others around and get in fights not just due to excess energy and aggressiveness but because they hate each other. They scream and throw temper tantrums when they don’t get what they want from their parents because it works, and it works because their parents are too concerned about being considered abusive parents to firmly set boundaries of acceptable behavior.

(Not that their worries are completely selfish and unjustified. There is a class of social worker whose concern for children is almost completely informed by the myth of childhood innocence, and who sometimes work to protect that notional innocence at the expense of effective parenting. I’m convinced that no one should be employed by Child Protective Services who has not raised at least two children to adulthood … said adults being twenty-five or older, self-supporting and with no felony record. Such experience should be a complement and a corrective to whatever ivory-tower theory they learned in college.)

The problem, I believe, comes from a couple of generations of modern liberals (as opposed to classic liberals) who want all the benefits of a polite society without the discipline that produces politeness. They want their children to be able to freely express themselves, but they also don’t want their children hurt by free speech. They want children to be able to make their own decisions, but they also don’t want their children to suffer the consequences of bad decisions. They want children to develop character, but don’t want to expose them to adversity. They want each person to be accepted for what they are, even as they hold some types of personality and behavior unacceptable. In sum, their conception of childrearing as a task of society is crippled by their unquestioning belief that children should not have their innocence sullied by bad memories of mean, demanding, authoritative, intolerant adults.

Not that classic liberals or conservatives want their children to suffer, to be hurt, to experience hostility or animosity or lack of acceptance. But they also know it’s going to happen whether they want it or not.

The fact of the matter is, we have to start demanding politeness, discretion and moral conduct from our children even before they set foot in a school, because they don’t have the wisdom or the foresight to see the potential consequences of their actions. Consider young Hope: even though her parents had discussed with her the dangers in the new forms of social communication, how could she know that the picture she naïvely sent to her boyfriend would escape his control, or that other girls would react so violently to her bare breasts? Or consider the weight of the guilt that will eventually fall on the other girls’ heads when they finally understand that they hounded Hope to her death: is that what they really wanted, or were they just too centered on their envy to consider it a possible outcome?[2]

I haven’t weighed in on the evils of “sexting” because, as long as our culture continues to mass-market a completely unrealistic and unhealthy view of sex, reproduction and marriage, we may as well bail out the Mississippi River with a teaspoon as try to stop young people from imitating adult sexual behavior. Young people look to adults as role models, and their role models not only behave foolishly but also openly preach sexual stupidity as the only sane way to live. When adults are busy not only buying or downloading professionally-produced blue movies but also shooting and uploading amateur porn, should we be really surprised if eventually we find an underground market for self-produced teen sex flicks, distributed surreptitiously by the ubiquitous cell phone? As long as adults refuse to hold themselves to higher standards of behavior, we can hardly expect our children to take our moralizing seriously.

Meanwhile, the death of poor young Hope has been buried by news of a rash of other suicides by gay college students and other examples of bullying, such as the loathsome activities of the Westboro Baptist Church.[3] Here my concern is not so much that the issue of “gay-bashing” will be used to squelch dissent (oh, what else is new?), but that the problem of bullying is being co-opted by the gay rights movement at the expense of children who don’t suffer from same-sex attraction.

Young people are bullied for all sorts of stupid reasons. “Fag” and “lezzy” are only two of a wide variety of epithets young people hurl at each other. Homoerotism is not the only taboo in the ranks of the middle school. Walk in a slightly strange manner, talk with a lisp, have a harelip, wear out-of-fashion clothes, be clumsy or unathletic, be underweight or overweight or too tall or too short, be just a bit too smart or just not smart enough … any one of these social sins, plus dozens of others, will let you in for hazing from your peers.

Hope Witsell wasn’t gay. She was simply a girl who acted on an impulse, and was made to pay out of all proportion to her actual sin. And the lessons we should learn from the tragedy of her last year of life are already lost in the shadows of social politics.

God have mercy on us all.


[1] While I don’t encourage fighting, I also don’t encourage allowing oneself to be beaten up for no good reason. There’s a season for turning the other cheek, and a season for kicking your attacker in the stones.
[2] I’m certain the other girls hated her because the picture drew boys’ attention from themselves. Putting myself back in my own thirteen-year-old-animal shoes, I’m certain my male classmates and I would have paid a lot of attention to any halfway-pretty girl whose naked breasts we had seen … or were even rumored to have been in a photograph. The boy who actually possessed such a photo would have been a hero and a figure of jealousy. How could any girl compete with that, shy of seducing as many boys as possible?
[3] Frankly, Fred Phelps—whom I refuse to accord the dignity of the title “Reverend”—is prima faciae evidence that sola scriptura is dangerously bad doctrine.