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…But Words Can Really Hurt us

October 2, 2010

I can’t think about  Tyler Clementi without feeling nauseous, tight-chested and watery-eyed. I can’t find words to explain the myriad ways in which this is emblematic of the very worst of human nature. The myriad ways it could be considered a harbinger of the human horrors to come if we don’t learn to tolerate, if not respect and appreciate, the differences amongst us.

The reason I can’t think of those words is because I am stuck at the beginning, with the very simple question, “how did this happen?” And I keep coming back to the one place where it has to have started: parents.

Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei both had parents. They had parents who loved them. They had parents who supported their education, who wanted the best for their kids, helped them excel at extra-curricular activities. But they also had parents who raised children capable of the kind of intentional psychological bullying that makes people think it would be better to be dead than to exist in a world with people like Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei. No matter how many great things you do as a parent, there is no way to make up for that.

Can you imagine the cocktail party in which Ravi and Wei’s parents say to Clementi’s parents, “sorry about that, but my kid was tops at math and soccer?”  No. In our hearts, we know it doesn’t matter what activities you’re good at if you are the kind of monster that kills people will the sheer force of your ignorance.

I’m a parent. I’m pretty sure that my daughter will spend years in therapy as a result of being my daughter, because I am no better at it than your average person. I can hardly imagine how the parents of Ravi and Wei are feeling right now. They must be devastated, beyond words. Feeling responsible for unspeakable horror would actually be worse than being the victim. It would be easier to think, “the world is full of random evil,” than, “I am responsible for the random evil.”

But we can’t escape it. Evil, like tolerance, starts at home. It’s fine to say that this is a society of bigoted arrogance that manifests as violence in many forms. But a society is made up of individuals. Individuals have parents, and the primary job of those parents is to raise the next generation of people who will, together, create society. All those violent people committing acts of bigoted ignorance learned it somewhere. Saying that “society” is the problem is a total cop-out, because you and me and everyone we see, is what makes up a society.

There are a lot of “I’m sorrys” that need to be heard:

  • I am sorry that I raised a child capable of degrading another human in so vile a manner that it resulted in them wishing they were dead.
  • I am sorry that I failed to instill basic human values of respect, kindness and compassion in my child.
  • I am sorry that I didn’t teach my child that they are no better than the worst action they commit against another human being.
  • I am sorry that I didn’t teach my child that the foundation of civilized society is civilized behavior.
  • I am sorry that I didn’t teach my child that “getting ahead” at the expense of others is an expense that civilized society cannot afford.

Apologies, however, are pointless. An apology cannot change the past. Unless you understand WHY and HOW what you did is bad, and can explain why it happened and how you will make different decisions in the future, an apology is just a waste of breath that does little more than blow out the birthday candles of the future.

There is no apology that will bring back Tyler Clementi.

So here’s the question: What are we going to do to raise the kind of society that we want to live in?

I can only answer, really, with how I am raising my own child. She’s in 7th grade now, and I remember her teacher’s conferences last year, during which her teachers were extolling her virtues and successes, and Celia said, “my mom is going to ask you if I’m kind.”

And she’s right. She knows that we are proud of her accomplishments. She is bright, successful, a high-achiever. But those are just accomplishments. What we VALUE is who she is and how she approaches the world. With kindness, compassion, strength and a commitment to leaving every situation better than she found it, even if only by a little.

She can identify “stupid girl drama” when she sees it, and she is the kid who finds an inclusive way to eliminate it. She can identify injustice when she sees it, and she is the kid who will speak up and try to stop it. She thinks about other people, and although she may not always understand them, or agree with them, she does not hurt, isolate or shame them.

I asked her what she thinks about the Tyler Clementi situation. She shook her head and said, “I actually don’t know what to think.”  We talked about it, and agreed that there is no winner here, no clear bad guy. What Ravi and Wei did was abominable, for sure. But they are “victims” of parents and a society that raised them with fucked up values. Whether tacitly or explicitly is irrelevant. It happened. They were not given the tools to evaluate a situation fully. If they were given the tools, they were not taught how to use them. (Unless they are true sociopaths, but there is no evidence to support such a notion.)

As a parent, I am using this situation as a way to show my daughter the very real consequences of bullying, ignorance, prejudice and social violence. We’re role-playing, “What would you do if you were Ravi? What would you do if you were Wei? What would you do if you were Clementi?”

I wonder what Ravi and Wei are thinking now. And I do care. There is no punishment than can be handed down to them that is worse than what they have done to their own lives. The bright futures they once saw for themselves are gone. They will forever be “those kids who killed that other kid with the gay sex tape, right?” Google will be a far harsher judge and jury for them than the judicial system could ever be.

And their parents? Here’s the catch…  I’m willing to bet that, on paper, their parents didn’t really do anything wrong. And that should scare the crap out of all of us. I haven’t read anything to suggest that their parents were monsters in any way. Which means that they are probably a lot like you and I. Scary. That means that we could all be missing the same signs and opportunities they missed. Even scarier.

As a parent, and member of society, I am begging the parents of the world to pay attention.

Take this opportunity to teach your children about tolerance and compassion.

  • Expose them to things very different from your home and family, and teach them that it’s okay to be different.
  • Give them opportunities to help people who are in a disadvantaged or powerless position so that they can learn how strong compassion makes you.
  • Show them what happens when people let their ignorance turn into violence.
  • Emphasize the value in who they are more than what they accomplish or what they have.
  • Allow them to be in challenging situations filled with conflict, so that you can teach them peaceful resolution.
  • Put them in situations in which they fail or lose, so that you can teach them humility and perseverance.

Math, science, English and sports are all secondary to learning the lessons of basic humanity. What they learn on the playground, in the home and on TV is just as important.

Most importantly, teach them that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can really hurt us.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Sallyn permalink
    October 2, 2010 5:14 pm

    Alyssa- You have articulated much of what I think and feel on this issue. The thoughts stirred by these recent suicides regarding bullying and tolerance of homosexuality have occurred to me before but never to this blindingly tragic extent. The importance of going the extra mile as a parent BEFORE my children need to learn a lesson is even more clear and this confirms my belief that being a parent must always take precedence over my career or any other ambition.

    One thing that strikes me here is how your imaging of the parents at a party rationalizing the talents as proof to imagine that these kids could not do evil things. It reminds me of the time in college when a friend from down the hall knocked on my dorm room door to seek refuge from a boy who had drunkenly forced himself into her room and violated her. After she told me what was happening, I charged out to confront him and his defense was, “How can you think I could do this; I am a boyscout?” In my mind I could believe, all the more that he had done this BECAUSE he was a boyscout and to him, that put him above her in value and goodness.

    I try to teach my kids as you have suggested. One of the ways that I have done this is to anticipate the issues of their development even before it occurs by talking about situations they might encounter well before I am ready to believe they will encounter them. Even since it was an abstract notion, I have tried to make clear to them that I would never speculate who or what they might become in the future; How could I know those things about them even before they know themselves? This includes not having a plan for them regarding their choice to love boys or girls. And, yes, I will love them most if they follow their hearts and are gracious to let others do the same.

    Another thing I try to teach my kids is how easily anyone could become the bully as they try to find their own way… it is important to know what that means and to understand that there is no such thing as harmless teasing of someone. Often there is not way to know if a surface reaction is truly what is felt on the inside or what the resonating “take away” is. They must ask themselves often how it would feel if someone said or did these things to them.

    I could go on…but really I just support and agree with what you said.


  1. Words Can Really Hurt! » Enid Ballard

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