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The Brutal Years

Review of Sticks and Stones, by Emily Bazelon

Sticks and Stones, by Emily Bazelon

The question of whether humans are becoming more brutal or more civilized has been debated urgently by the Athenians, the philosophers of the Renaissance, the Victorians and the existentialists. Those who argue that cruelty is currently becoming more acute point to the Rwandan genocide, global warming, and the malicious acts of selfish corporations and corrupt politicians. Contrariwise, others point to a safer and kinder society of greater prosperity and less prejudice against social, religious and ethnic minorities; Steven Pinker’s 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, proposes that we live more peaceably now than ever before. The dichotomous argument has particular resonance in the context of childhood. Teachers no longer routinely hit students; laws require accommodations for young people with learning disabilities; parents keep watch for teachers’ abuse and vice versa; developmental therapists are around every corner. Yet the Internet has unleashed meanness of a previously unimagined scope and celerity; broken households escalate children’s proclivity to launch unmonitored assaults on weaker kids; ethics are preached neither at home nor at school; and the accessibility of assault rifles enables nearly apocalyptic juvenile excess. Adult bullies from talk radio to Congress get constant airtime, and in many quarters their belligerence is applauded. Still, we are shocked when children behave belligerently toward one another. Youthful aggression has always been a problem and always will be; the pitilessness of childhood, like that of the world, is most likely a constant quantity.

Emily Bazelon’s intelligent, rigorous Sticks and Stones charts the experiences of a few bullied children and synthesizes the scholarship on how to contain or prevent such harm. She focuses primarily on the stories of three kids: an African-American girl, Monique McClain, who became the target of a few girls at her school in Connecticut, went through a depression and finally switched schools and found happiness; a gay boy in upstate New York, Jacob Lasher, who struggled against prejudice but also enjoyed being a provocateur; and Phoebe Prince, an Irish girl transplanted to a town in Massachusetts, who was bullied atrociously and committed suicide. Bazelon includes chapters on anti-bullying measures with good track records. She reviews jurisprudence on bullying, and examines both the virtues and the pitfalls of treating it as a crime. She tries to delineate what parents can achieve, what schools can achieve, and what may come of the shifting power differential among parents and schools and social agencies.

Bazelon is at her best as a storyteller, and the most interesting parts of the book are its human narratives. She resists the idea that there is always an innocent victim; among her three subjects, she paints Monique as essentially blameless, but the others as having some hand in their own suffering. Her writing about Phoebe Prince for Slate, which inspired and is expanded in this book, is especially trenchant; it rejects the simple “bullied to death” narrative that dominated the media at the time. Bazelon indicates that Phoebe’s situation was complicated: she had been cutting herself, had had problems in a previous school, had made a prior suicide attempt and had gone off her antidepressants six weeks before she took her life. Given Phoebe’s history, Bazelon writes that she couldn’t understand the prosecutor’s decision “to lay the burden of her suicide at the feet of six adolescents.”

If charity begins at home, then so, too, does brutality: at home and early, and Bazelon looks for the seeds of troubling behavior in the home lives of bullies. She is taken with the work of Dan Olweus, the grand old man of anti-bullying theory and practice, whose programs target the school, the classroom and the individual. She describes a headmaster who was able to transform the climate at his school largely through charisma, will and the methodology proposed by George Sugai, who believes that positive rewards given to students for positive social skills may be just as effective as punishment for those who are out of line. Investigating the role of the Internet in modern bullying, Bazelon visited the offices of Facebook, achieving an unusual degree of access. She describes both the company’s woefully inadequate anti-bullying protocols for young subscribers — Facebook’s current business model seems built on “habituating kids to giving up their privacy” — and their ill-advised efforts to bully her once they got a whiff of her criticisms. Bazelon explores the role of adults in the lives of kids who are bullied, and shows that often, parents and teachers who set out to help end up exacerbating the problem. She refuses the notion that the real reason for bullying is violent video games, rock music, parental neglect, social media or any other single cause. She thinks with nuance, making it clear that the problem is overdetermined and requires complex, subtle solutions.

Sometimes, that makes the book feel confused. Sticks and Stones lacks a central thesis; it describes a problem, reports on many proposed solutions and leaves it to readers to draw their own conclusions. As someone who was bullied as a child, I found myself wishing to avoid these familiar narratives, which stirred up nostalgic fear; as the father of young children, I devoured them with anticipatory terror. Yet even though I came away from this book far better informed, I was left with no particular sense of what to do. Bazelon often provides excessive detail about process: details of how she arrived at conclusions that are not particularly startling. There is little meta-thinking; the analysis has an atomized quality. In The Bully Society, published a year ago, Jessie Klein argues persuasively that the preponderance of bullying stems from the escalating social imperative for boys and girls to conform to oppressive masculine stereotypes. Bazelon accurately avers that such generalizations are reductive. “We have to be smart and careful about the Web,” she concludes. “The Internet won’t do it for us. The best thing we can do is help kids learn to look out for themselves.” But sometimes reductive answers can be arresting, and one longs for Bazelon to proclaim a bit more, not always to let common sense trump revelation.

Her most winning achievement is the kindness she demonstrates throughout the book. She is nonjudgmental in a generous rather than simply neutral way, and she culls as much pathos from the circumstances of bullies as from those of their victims. She identifies not only the sadism of abusive children, but also their sadness. She is a compassionate champion for justice in the domain of childhood’s essential unfairness. In several touching instances, she recounts her retreat from journalistic neutrality. On a subway in Washington, she sees some teenagers berating an older man, and forces herself to intervene after she thinks: “Wait, I’m writing a book about bullying! Bystanders are supposed to speak up!” The intervention leads to her being attacked verbally, and generates feelings of intense embarrassment; she ends up wondering whether she should have just stayed out of it. Then she suddenly figures out why so many students keep their distance when they witness bullying. In another passage, she describes exploiting her personal connections to help Monique escape her bullies by switching schools — “figuring that there’s nothing fair about who knows whom in life.” It’s not standard operating procedure, but it reflects an essential humanity that is more important in this book than pure objectivity would be.