Sunday, February 20, 2011

marketing meanness, and possible alternatives

I’m trying to figure out whether I can be of any meaningful help to students at our local high school who are being bullied. The problem is still new to me. I didn’t go to high school; my friends were of all different ages, and the same-age ones I did have were part of a fairly small group of people who were mostly aware and unashamed of being different in a variety of ways.

I have been aware of particular instances of bullying among the students we’ve tried to help. I hadn’t really understood how systemic and how damaging bullying gets until two months ago, when I overheard a hall monitor trying to get a student to go back to her classroom. The student, on the verge of tears, said she couldn’t; a fellow student had started a rumor about her, it had spread, people gave her looks and said filthy things about her, she couldn’t take it any longer, if she hit anyone else or left the building on he own she’d be in serious trouble, and she couldn’t call her mother to pick her up early, because her mother was already in trouble at work for having left early to pick her daughter up on other days.

After that I kept hearing stories. A student said it is just miserable being a girl in high school; you can be mocked for not having sex, but if you do have sex you’re branded a slut and discussed explicitly and endlessly. A grandmother told how her granddaughter gets off the bus every day and sprints for the bathroom because she doesn’t dare to use the bathroom at the school. An administrator said that kids arrive at school fighting mad because of obscene or insulting messages about them that their classmates have spread electronically.

I don’t think our district is unusually rough. Earlier this year a student group from a very affluent high school visited. Some of them spoke of being upset by the verbal and physical humiliations they often saw other students being put through. Others said no, there was no bullying problem at their school; the only kids who were picked on were those who deserved it. Deserved it how? I asked. Well, they were obnoxious, they were weird, they didn’t even try to fit in. But those same students said that in any case they’d never intervene on behalf of a person who was being picked on, because if they did they’d ‘get the target put on them’.

I started researching online, at the library, by picking the brains of my friends. I met with some school administrators and started talking about how I and others from the community might be able to support their anti-bullying measures. And I started to notice that the bullying problem was symptomatic of other issues pretty deeply embedded in our culture.

I read that bullies were likely to be substantially more popular--often among adults as well as fellow students--than other kids. This seemed very bizarre to me at first. Then I read Susan Linn’s rather chilling book Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood, which describes how advertising messages are designed to convince young people that they aren’t smart, sexy, popular, happy, worthy, but that they could be if they bought the right stuff. Apparently a lot of kids are convinced; in the things I’ve read a lot of people talk about bullying others or being bullied because they don’t have the right stuff. And I just finished reading Generation MySpace by Candice Kelsey, which talks (among other things) about how the lines between friendship and marketing get blurred as advertisers pay popular people to promote their products to friends, and as kids learn to market themselves electronically in order to get a large enough friend list to show that they’re not hopelessly uncool. A large part of this ‘marketing’ seems to involve looking sexy, having cool-looking friends and not being associated with anyone unattractive or unusual.

The really sad part is that both advertising and the electronic culture sell themselves as solutions to the wish for power, for community, and for self-worth, all of which they actually undermine. One advertiser quoted in Consuming Kids explains that “Kids respond well to products that allow them to make their own choices and give them a sense of control. That is because kids have very little control over their own lives...Candy can help satisfy the child’s unmet desire for control in a number of ways.” The same kid of arguments are made for cigarettes, video games, and other not terribly empowering things. Young teenagers in Generation MySpace explain that “Getting comments from friends and strangers makes me feel like I really matter..I feel so validated, like someone thinks I’m good enough to be friended...”

So what, besides the constant distraction of marketing, gives people the idea that they don’t matter? that they don’t have meaningful choices? that they’re not valid? that no one would want to befriend them? This doesn’t seem to be a problem only for a few kids with difficult families or biochemical imbalances. In fact, another advertiser quoted in Consuming Kids noted that “What used to be trusted, reliable and consistent sources of support and direction (education, government, religion...) are now objects of a great deal of cynicism and rejection. So what’s left to hold onto? In each human being there is a basic capital of trust,respect, and love which needs to be invested in something or somebody... Could brands take over the role that religions and philosophical movements used to own?”

I suppose they might, if we let them, if we don’t provide a meaningful alternative. Back when I was in my early teens I joined a church meeting about youth religious education. I was the only teenager there. Various adults talked about how the religious ed. program had to be made snappier so that it could compete with video games. I said that I really wasn’t looking for a video game-type experience, that I wanted a chance to work in-depth with some tough issues--including coming-of-age questions and social justice--and maybe to get out and do some kind of community service work. They said how nice it was for me to come and participate, and they went back to talking abut how to make sessions more amusing. Now that I’ve more or less grown up I still find myself in meetings where other adults say that kids just are constantly wired and distracted, there’s nothing to be done about it, and we have to figure out how to package community service, character education, basic education, etc. excitingly enough so that they can compete for a little piece of mind space.

I don’t think it has to be this way. The Generation MySpace author writes about taking students for weeklong camping trips without their electronics; she says they seem to relate to each other more constructively while they’re away, and that as they drive back into civilization and get into the billboard zone they groan and say they don’t want to have to deal with all that stuff. We’ve heard similar responses from some people who’ve spent time here working and walking and singing and praying and being unplugged. There is still a basic hunger for the created world, for silence, for shared work, for real (not virtual) community, for meaning. And as people work and pray together they still can start to let their prejudices down and know each other as people. This isn't an experience that can be packaged and sold. I don't always know how to invite people in as effectively as I would like to. But it seems to me essential that we keep offering an alternative for people who are ready to try it.

I would like to hear from any of you who are working on parts of this problem. I’d be grateful for stories, resources, clarifying questions, parts of the truth that I may still be missing.