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What's the Difference Between a Bystander and a Bully?

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Anderson Cooper ran a documentary Feb 28 on CNN called "The Bully Effect." It follows some of the people Lee Hirsch introduced in his movie Bully in 2012. Much of special focused on the role of the bystander.

Listening to the different voices, from the mother of a son who was bullied, to the vice principal of a school and the plight of one young man in particular, it reminded me of an article in the Toronto Star last October after we all heard about Amanda Todd.

The story is timeless.

"Why did I, a nice kid by all other accounts, stay silent and do nothing?" That is the question staff reporter, Victoria Ptashnick asked in the story she wrote in the Toronto Star on Friday, October 19, trying to make sense of the actions of others regarding Amanda Todd.

Ptashnick is an adult now, carrying what she calls, "Well deserved guilt about the actions I should have taken" when she realized she "had had many opportunities 12 years ago to help a young girl I saw being tortured." Perhaps she was afraid of intervening and being bullied herself. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, "Fear is such a powerful emotion for humans that when we allow it to take us over, it drives compassion right out of our hearts."

Our country prides itself on being a multicultural society -- no moral absolutes for us. Unfortunately, we threw out the most important moral absolute bequeathed to us. The absolute we learned from the answer to the question, "Am I my brother's keeper?" And the answer is "Yes!" That answer is the very foundation of Western culture and our country's policies regarding social justice. Yes, we care for the weak and the downtrodden, the stranger and the oppressed. Yes, in theory, but not so often in practice.

Our secular society has taken that lesson for granted and it seems to have gotten lost, especially in social media where there is unrestrained lack of compassion, often hiding behind anonymous web screen names.

Caring for the other was the major theme of Anderson Cooper's special. I listened to the families talk about the hurt incurred by their children. I heard one father repeat over and over that we must not stand by and do nothing. And I hurt for him. Why, in this age, are we talking about care for the other as if it were some new revelation? How terribly sad that we have come to that place.

American writer, Paul Tough, in his book How Children Succeed, published September 2012, argues that children who do well have learned amongst other qualities, discipline, self-control and conscientiousness. We have stopped teaching these traits along with compassion for others in our schools, in our places of worship, in our workplaces. But, we know from all these acts of violence that when we stop actively teaching these behaviours we regress, back to our instinctual, selfish selves and we turn away from those in need.

When we choose not to get involved and a heinous act is committed we seek explanations rather than look at our own inaction. From Ms. Ptashnick, "Why did I, a nice kid, by all other accounts stay silent and do nothing...Why did the kids who watched Todd's bullying do the same?" We lose sight of the fact that the evil of selfishness is insidious. It exists on a continuum and if we don't pay attention, we slide, individually and collectively, into evil, selfish actions. I would like to suggest that the greatest evil is committed by sins of omission, ignorantia affectata, a cultivated ignorance, a willful lack of knowledge. As Ms. Ptashnick confessed, "I simply watched. I now realize that made me equally responsible in the act."

When we, as a society, refuse to teach morals, values and ethics for fear of offending, we develop an apathetic lack of concern for others. It takes energy to care. And that energy comes from internalizing the "rightness" of intervention on behalf of another. Instead we have come to accept uncivilized, hurtful, demeaning behaviour in our institutions; schools, parliaments, and in the media; television and Internet.

A bully not only hurts and demeans the other, she demeans and denigrates herself. She belittles herself. In our desire to refrain from hurting the feelings of our young people, based on a misplaced fear of the fragility of their egos, we decided to remove the possibility of shaming our children. And we have inadvertently harmed them. Unintended consequences. Without shame there is no guilt. And without guilt, there is no repentance, no learning and no transformation of behaviour.

The problem that we who believe in the teachings of the Bible have to embrace and solve is how we bring the morals, values and ethics, the cultural memes of Western culture, back into the mainstream.

Amanda Todd Remembered
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