I love Lady Gaga. I love her bizarre style. I love her music (Born This Way is my JAM). I love how unabashedly weird she is. Whenever I hear about her or something she’s working on, I want to scream, “PUT YOUR PAWS UP!”
Lady Gaga understands that we currently face a culture and climate in the United States where it is just plain not safe to be young and gay. While the number one cause of death among teenagers in the U.S. is an auto accident, the number one cause of death among gay teenagers is suicide.
In the midst of this, I appreciate Lady Gaga’s attention to the issue. She has a HUGE microphone, and she is able to reach a lot of people with a message of acceptance and love while advocating action to end bullying of LGBTQ teens.
She recently wrote and performed the song “Hair” after 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer committed suicide because he was bullied.
However, in some of her advocacy around this issue, I think she is wildly misguided. I’m sorry, Mother Monster.
She recently recorded this video for the students at Etobicoke School of the Arts in Toronto after they made a pledge to end bullying.
I was totally on board until she said, “I am going to be working as hard as I can to make bullying a hate crime.”
Now, while I find her sentiment a noble one, I find a lot of things problematic with her approach, as she tries to make bullying a hate crime.
First, in any state where LGBTQ identities are protected under hate crime legislation (only 31 states have this protection in place), targeting a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender person with bullying can be legally argued as a hate crime, particularly if the bullying involves physical or emotional intimidation or violence. Thus, it seems that her attention should be more directly focused at lobbying the 19 states that do not have LGBTQ hate crime protection to include sexual orientation and gender identity in their hate crime protection. This would ensure that, as she claims she wants, LGBTQ bullying is indeed a hate crime.
However, I am a little troubled by her language, as she states that she wants to “make bullying a hate crime.” She does not say that she wants to make identity-based bullying a hate crime. This seems to open a very-problematic door, as if you give bullying in general this designation, it has the unintended effect of watering down the hard-won hate crime legislation. Hate crimes have the specific purpose of highlighting the nature of prejudice and bigotry based on identity that enters into many violent crimes. Bullying, though, is a much more amorphous reality. It can relate to everything from gender identity, race, and sexual orientation to style of dress or music preference. As such, while some forms of bullying are indeed hate crimes, to claim that bullying in general should be viewed as a hate crime discredits many of the legitimate ways in which people are the targets of bias-motivated crime.
Lastly, as most any parent of teenagers will tell you, consequences don’t really work to modify teenage behavior. Recent research on the cognitive functioning of teenagers has found that teenage brains do not function in the same way as adult brains. In their process of developing, teenage brains rely much more heavily on the frontal lobe, which explains a lot of teenage behavior. Relying on the frontal lobe of the brain ensures that teenagers act in the moment without considering consequences nearly as well as fully-developed brains. As such, teenagers are much more prone to high-risk behavior. Thus, if an adolescent or teenager is motivated by insecurity or frustration or anger to bully another young person, there is no way they are going to stop and say, “Well, what are the consequences of this action? Will I get in trouble in school? Are there legal consequences I should consider before I punch this kid in the stomach?” No . . . they are going to act, taking a risk, and deal with the consequences later.
Further, even with adults, consequences are not highly effective. Consider the Death Penalty, arguably the harshest consequence set out by law for an action. When surveyed, police chiefs from around the United States said that the least effective method for controlling crime is a deterrent like the Death Penalty. Again, this is because most murder is a frontal-lobe action, a crime of passion, a crime in which the brain is not considering consequences through reasoned thought.
Now, I can hear many of the objections to what I’m saying here. “Jamie, this sounds awfully pessimistic. Are you saying that because this is the way the brain works, we should do nothing to try to stop LGBTQ bullying or bullying in general?”
No. That’s not what I’m saying at all. In fact, I work with schools all over the country to help them address the problem of bullying, but never in those conversations do I tell schools to consider harsher consequences.
We have a problem in our country where we would rather be reactive than preventative when it comes to large-scale social problems. Take the “war on drugs,” for instance. Rather than focusing on the root of the problem, drug addiction and its common relationship to poverty, we deal with the problem by criminalizing anything related to drugs. Rather than doing the tough upfront work of helping those addicted to drugs to understand and get past their addiction, we throw them in jail for possession. Rather than looking at the ways in which low-income communities create a drug-related economy because of the lack of access to alternative economic options, we throw drug dealers in jail.
In much the same mindset, communities and schools deal with bullying by trying to punish bullying into oblivion. However, because of the reasons I stated above, this will never work. Instead, we need to be working to alter the environments in which bullying is occurring. One thing Mother Monster says well in the video above is that “it is important that we push the boundaries of love and acceptance. It is important that we spread tolerance and equality for all students.”
Bullying prevention is the work of school culture and climate. It is the work of helping students understand the ways in which they hold the power to creating the kind of environments they wish to see in their schools. Whenever I work with young people, I ask them, “How many of you have ever felt fed up with how you are treated in school or with how you see other people treated in school?” Every time, without fail, just about every hand goes up. When I am standing in an auditorium of 1800 students, that’s a powerful site.
Thus, empowering students to be that change through bystander intervention training and social norming training goes a lot further than passing laws that further criminalize bullying. One powerful reality of the teenage brain is that the only consequence, if any, that can affect an emotional response is the immediate impact of social norming. If a teenager’s peers have made it clear to that person that an action is unacceptable in this environment, that is one of the few deterrents that might affect behavior.
Thus, we must be working to help young people realize that they are the only ones that can end bullying in their schools.