Morality — Drawing the Line (and Erasing Part of It)

November 15, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Morality is based on the group.  Whether an act is right or wrong depends on which side of the group boundary people are on.  That’s one of the points I’ve been trying to make in class recently.  The general topic is religion, specifically Durkheim’s notion that god, belief, ritual, and other components of religion, including morality, are all about group solidarity.  

Case in point – bullying.  It’s been in the news periodically for a long while now, with stories of schoolkids who commit suicide after enduring continual bullying from their peers, both in person and now online.  And for every suicide, there are many, many more victims who never make the headlines but who suffer similar bullying. The statistics that get thrown around are questionable, but regardless of the actual scope of the problem, bullying is nasty stuff, and we’d like to have our children doing less of it.* 

Many states are passing anti-bullying laws.  That’s what we do here in America. If we don’t like something, rather than frame it as a problem and seek a solution, we take a moralistic view, especially if we are conservatives with a preference for “moral clarity.”  We declare it bad or even “evil,” we criminalize it, and we punish people who do it.

But if morality depends on group boundaries – Us and Them – what do we do when the bullies are Us, and the victims are Them?  If we’re Michigan Republicans, we give Our bullies an indulgence.
On Wednesday, the Republican-controlled state senate passed an anti-bullying bill that manages to protect school bullies instead of those they victimize. It accomplishes this impressive feat by allowing students, teachers, and other school employees to claim that “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction” justifies their harassment. [The Time article is here].
Translation: your Christian beliefs give you a free pass to bully kids you think are gay. 

See, the trouble with just a plain bullying law is that it might punish one of Us for bullying one of Them. And it’s pretty clear that Us is conservative Christians, and Them is gay kids.
Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association of Michigan, [has] referred to anti-bullying measures as “a Trojan horse for the homosexual agenda.
The legislators in Michigan, some of them, have been trying to pass an anti-bullying bill for nearly ten years. The proposed bill was called “Matt’s Safe School Law,” named for a bullying victim who committed suicide in 2002. The Republicans consistently weakened the bill’s provisions and then attached the “religious beliefs” exemption, so even Democrats voted against it. 

In that ten year period, at least ten Michigan bullying victims have committed suicide.

* Not all of us, of course.  Somewhere in my files I have a WSJ piece from a decade ago by Joseph Epstein, who was downright nostalgic about bullying as he recalled his Chicago childhood.  “If one couldn’t oneself enjoy the bullying of the larger over the smaller, there was still the simple delight of ganging up, the many against the one.”

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