Every morning last week, as I brought my three-year-old son Emile to daycare, we walked past pink posters adorning the windows, doors, and hallways of the elementary school. Made by tiny hands in arts-and-crafts class, they bore slogans like "your difference is your specialty," "include everyone no matter what," and "bullies don't belong here" to promote "Day of Pink," an international event on April 10 to raise awareness about bullying.
As if there could possibly be more awareness of bullying right now.
Just three days earlier, 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons was taken off life support after she hanged herself the previous Thursday, unable to cope with the trauma of an alleged gang-rape by four classmates and the relentless bullying from a whole lot more of them once a cellphone photo of her was email-blasted to her fellow students. The bullying and shaming, online and off, chased her out of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia and, eventually, led Rehtaeh to suicide.
Her father, Glen Canning, wrote a blog about Rehtaeh, which I read coming home on the TTC. There is something so overwhelming about being emotionally wracked on public transit, trying to keep your eyes dry while your heart rends in empathy. (This is a word I will get back to.)
Glen's post began, "My daughter was three years old." It ended with "I feel like I'm dead inside."
In between, he wrote, "They say parents need to teach their children. Instead, it was Rehtaeh who was my teacher." But here's the thing: Parents do need to teach their children, and they are not doing it. Rehtaeh Parsons' death arrives on the horrific heels of the Steubenvile high-school rape case and Amanda Todd's suicide near Vancouver last fall after a sexually explicit photo led to the bullying that eventually drove her to take her own life, too. And it continued, even in her death, with unimaginably awful comments marring her memorial Facebook wall.
It would be easy to blame this generation of youth, just as it is easy to blame the rise of social media or the Internet itself. But rape and bullying are (sadly) not new, and while technology has perhaps made these instances more seemingly inescapable, ultimately the problem is that these children -- and these tormentors and their enablers are still children -- have no apparent empathy.
And that is a fault of their parents.
Children enter this world as blank slates, and while each is an individual with free will and all the potential for good and evil that entails, how they are raised is what guides that direction. Yes, the RCMP appear to have been criminally negligent in Rehtaeh's case, and her school seems equally so. But even if they hadn't been, that would be treating the symptom, not the disease. The cause of this effect is parenting.
These four boys were raised to somehow think it was acceptable to rape Rehtaeh, to take a photo of their assault, and to distribute it. And other students at her school were raised to think it was acceptable to further spread the photo around and to bully her about it.
Rehtaeh's mother told CBC that "her friends turned against her. People harassed her. Boys she didn't know started texting her and Facebooking her asking her to have sex with them. It just never stopped." A classmate told the Nova Scotia Chronicle Herald, "I think it started as a smaller group, but then it grew. A lot of people thought it was her fault. They were basically putting the blame on Rehtaeh."
This isn't just about four boys. And while, as a parent and a human being, I am glad to see Anonymous launch #OpJustice4Rehtaeh to put pressure on the authorities to prosecute her attackers, that won't prevent such incidents from happening again to someone else, or a similar, subsequent cyber-bullying campaign.
The only thing that might is parents raising their children not to rape, shame, and bully by instilling in them empathy. It's not something that can be eradicated -- I was both bullied and, briefly, a bully when I was young -- but it can be reduced. And, in an age where bullying can be accomplished with a few keystrokes, it must be reduced.
Where were the parents in Cole Harbour -- not just over the past two years, but the 15 or so before then? Where were the parents in Vancouver and in Steubenville and in every other goddamn place this happens?
Our job is not just to feed and clothe our kids, but to shape them.
School events like Day of Pink are important, of course, but it is ultimately up to the parents at home to teach their kids about morals and ethics and, above all, empathy.
So my wife and I don't just teach our son not to hit other children or be mean to them, we teach him why not to do it -- because it will hurt their feelings, and how other people feel matters. We teach him to think about how his actions will affect others physically and emotionally. The "why" makes the "what" stick.
Rehtaeh's father also wrote, "She was my daughter, but she was your daughter, too." And we failed her. But those other boys and girls, they are ours, too. And we also failed them. We can't do that any more. It's not enough to punish, we must also prevent. And that starts at home.