Is hate learned or is it human nature?


An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            Audiences will watch the documentary Bully from the framework of their own life experience. Have they been teachers, victims, parents of either victims or bullies, or has the problem never surfaced on their parental radar? The takeaway here is that it is a dominant problem in the lives of students who fit nowhere in the prevailing cliques. The movie concludes that teachers and administrators are ignorant and dismissive about the cruelties inflicted on their turf. These particular parents are both aware and heartbroken and unable to get a serious hearing at their schools.
            Bully is a step toward public recognition that school bureaucracies are ill equipped to deal with abuse, but suggests no solutions. To his credit, director Lee Hirsch doesn't use his movie to preach. He leaves us there, sunk in our seats wondering what can be done. An Iowa middle school student suffers cruelty every day on the bus; a gay Oklahoma high schooler is humiliated in and out of school; a Mississippi girl, desperate, carries her mother's gun onto the bus and points it at her peers in answer to their taunts. Is there a reason the bullying shown here is all centered in rural Bible Belt America?
            One family, with enormous dignity, ponders what they can do to help others in the wake of their son's suicide. These kids are going home to parents who love them, but every morning they face busses and schools that are straight from Lord of the Flies. Because they agreed to be filmed, there's no denying the awful reality of it.
            Dozens of questions come to mind, and none have easy answers. What can be said when, on the day after a boy has hung himself, his classmates came to school wearing ropes around their necks in mockery? What is our answer to the boy who says, "If I were king of America, there would be no popularity; everybody would be equal." Or to the father who says, "We're nobody, but we love each other and we loved our son." If bullying is as old as history, "kids will be kids" is an absolutely unacceptable defense in a society that aspires to celebrate acceptance.
            Is hate always learned or is it human nature? In the educational bureaucracy, how can you inform teachers who think they know, but don't? One question fairly screams from the screen: how do you encourage genuine outrage in the naturally compassionate kids who are usually not the bullies, but pass by, self-absorbed and unaware? The answers have to come from students who decide they won't tolerate abuse of classmates who don't fit. Lectures from adults don't work. Is partnership possible? We have learned often that a student bully ignored is likely to become an adult bully unchecked. The movie stops short of documenting the new technological tools available for inflicting abuse. It is already clear that the problem of cruelty, one young person to another, is getting worse.


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