Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Respect Begins With Awareness

Published in the Centre Daily Times, Feb 4, 2011

In the United States, we are very sensitive in accommodating different abilities and individual styles of learning and functioning in our schools, workplaces and public spaces.

Differentiated teaching, accessible buildings and parking spaces and laws that protect against discrimination are examples of accepting the equality of and the differences among people.

Yet our current national focus on preventing bullying points to the existence of subtler hurdles that prevent the complete inclusion of everyone.

“No Name Calling Week,” celebrated annually in January, is an anti-bullying awareness-raising program aimed at schools.

This year, Barnes and Noble, which is one of the corporate sponsors, put together a compilation of short videos on its website of children’s book authors taking a stand against bullying.

The authors use their books and lives to share anecdotes and strategies, reminding us that we can all be bullies or be bullied, depending on the situation.

Name calling and bullying are not limited to children. Adults sometimes resort to name calling instead of offering specific criticism of a particular action.

It is much easier to ask someone, “Why are you acting so American, Indian, Chinese or like some other nationality or Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew or other religion or so conservative or liberal, or like a girl, boy or any other random group?” than to offer specifics of a disagreement.

Such statements stereotype people and assume that some groups and ways of thinking are superior to others.

Bullying is an international phenomenon, and people use many excuses for bullying: They are bigger, older, traditional or modern or know better. They are richer, more or less educated, very skilled or unskilled, closer to God, or pray to the right God or belong to the correct political party. They have the “right” kinds of names, and those they are bullying don’t.

I grew up in India, and bullying there had its own cultural specificity. Because age and seniority are respected, birth order and superior hierarchy can give people the ability to bully. Because education and money are respected, professionals and

the rich can appear all knowing, and bully by withholding information and access.

This by no means implies that everyone who can misuse their power does so.

However, when awareness of these actions as “bullying” does not exist, such behavior can be deemed normal, and those who stand up against it labeled deviants. Now that I have spent more years abroad than in India, I may take offense at things many Indians take in stride, and they may take offense at things I take in stride.

Some people hide their bullying behind humor to make it acceptable. And when there is no awareness that this is still bullying, anyone who reacts to this could be portrayed as being too sensitive and can be further bullied.

At Park Forest Middle School, where my daughter attends school, programs like P.R.I.D.E., or Park Forest Respects Individual Differences Every Day, are helping students get a better handle on the multiple facets of bullying. They are lucky to get an early start at learning lessons on respect that some adults are yet to comprehend.

These awareness campaigns are laudable steps toward a common language of respect.

Of course, the more sensitive we are, the more work we have to do to stand up against bullying and to make sure that we, ourselves, do not bully others.

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