Saturday, March 2, 2013

Freedom of association for me but not for you

Our governor has endorsed a bill that would increase the power of schools to intervene in bullying, even if it occurs off school grounds or on social media. According to the governor’s office, the bill would define bullying to include instances, for example, in which “a group of girls shun another girl”—even, apparently, if it occurs outside of school.

Last year I wrote about how our elementary school surveyed the kids about whether they had seen or experienced bullying. Its list of what would count as bullying included the item, “left out on purpose.” The list made no attempt to distinguish between a kid who maliciously talks his or her friends into shunning another person and a kid who just wants to be able to choose whom to play with in what little free time the school day offers. Instead, the survey left the kids with the impression that they’re “bullies”—and thus can be disciplined—whenever they choose not to play with someone “on purpose.”

Don’t these examples go too far? As adults, there are many acts that we see as morally commendable—caring for elderly parents, giving to charity, reporting crimes and emergencies—but which we nonetheless choose not to legally require, and instead leave to each person’s conscience. When it comes to “leaving people out on purpose” from social interactions, we not only don’t penalize that conduct, but we have an amendment to our constitution (the First) protecting it. Just as there are certain people I enjoy associating with, there are others I prefer to avoid. I suspect everyone on the staff of our elementary school is guilty of this particular form of “bullying.” If you hold a party at your house, is there anything wrong with purposely not inviting certain people? Even outright intentional shunning, at least in the religious context, has been held to be protected by the First Amendment.

I don’t mean to minimize the very real pain of kids (or adults) who have trouble finding friends or are socially ostracized, or to say that the school should do nothing to help them. But coercion by the authorities is not the solution to every problem. As I’ve written before, I’d like to see a guidance program that got the kids imagining themselves in other people’s shoes and thinking for themselves about right and wrong, rather than one that just dictates what is or isn’t good behavior and then enforces it with rules. It’s possible to encourage kids to be kind and inclusive and still preserve some realm of personal freedom from adult scrutiny and state intervention. How can we hold our kids to standards from which we exempt ourselves?

Related post here.

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