As a member of a Facebook group for educators, I see an increasing number of messages from teachers, professors and other educational professionals asking for suggestions regarding ways to assist students in understanding and dealing with the stress they experience in the context of the current election season, and, in particular, the demeaning rhetoric and actions of Donald Trump. The latest message I received serves as an urgent and poignant example.
“As we get closer to the election, I’m seeing more and more of my students of marginalized identities struggle—seriously, deeply struggle—with their mental and emotional health, to the point of discussing suicide. Many of my students, for various reasons, don’t feel that the counseling services we offer are helpful.
“Does anyone here have thoughts, ideas, suggestions for what can be done to better serve students who are feeling the full oppressive weight of current events and hostile overall national climate? I’m concerned for my students’ safety as election day approaches. I suspect that I’m not alone in what I’m seeing, and that it’s happening on other campuses as well.”
I find Donald Trump’s entire candidacy disconcerting for many reasons, the most important being that his popularity seems founded not on the substance of this policy initiatives—of which he has generated very few—but, rather, on the style and tone of his arguments.
Trump has conducted a campaign of attack, innuendo, name-calling, character assassination and downright and incessant racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic and misogynistic bullying. I would not find this as troubling if he had not positively resonated with a significant segment of the electorate.
Donald Trump, arguably the more prominent of the so-called “birthers,” continually accused President Obama of illegitimacy as Commander in Chief by arguing that he was born outside the United States, even well after the President released his official birth certificate. This along with his supposed investigations into Mr. Obama’s time spent in Indonesia as a child, and inquiries into his African roots on his father’s side coexist as not-so-veiled xenophobic and racist threats.
Trump called Rosie O’Donnell “a fat pig”; attacked Megan Kelly by saying that “blood was coming out of her eyes, blood was coming out of her…whatever”; called undocumented Mexican immigrants drug dealers, criminals and rapists; renounced a U.S.-born federal judge on the basis of his ancestry; exposed his predatory attitudes and actions on women in the Access Hollywood tape; said he would impose bans on Muslims entering the U.S.
The 2016 GOP Presidential Platform validates Trump’s bigotry by referring to undocumented people as “illegal aliens” as if they were invaders from a distant planet in deep space bent on torching the country.
He excused his staff for producing a blatantly anti-Semitic poster by depicting Hillary Clinton surrounded by $100 bills and a Star of David; mocked a disabled journalist; used the f*ck word in a press conference; argued that he could randomly shoot someone in New York City without losing a voter; told a rally audience that he would pay the legal expenses of anyone who punched out a protester, advised Russia to hack Hillary’s emails.
In addition, he refers to anyone who disagrees or opposes him in demeaning terms: “lyin’ Ted,” “little Marco,” “low energy Jeb,” “crooked Hillary,” Biden’s “not a very bright guy,” Ryan’s a “weak leader,” McCain’s “not a war hero” and the bullying goes on.
Throughout elementary school, other students continually called me derisive names: “Woron the moron,” eagle beak” (referring to my nose), “little girl,” “fag,” “cry baby” and so many others. The ways Donald Trump treats people that he does not like directly equates to how my peers treated me in my early schooling.
The American Medical Association defines “bullying” as a specific type of aggression in which the behavior is meant to harm or disturb, which occurs repeatedly over time, and where there is an imbalance of power within a more powerful individual or group attacking a less powerful one. This can occur face-to-face, through gossip or innuendo, or over the media, including social media.
A 2014 National Civility Survey by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, with KRC Research, found that about 66 percent of U.S. citizens believe that we have “a major civility problem” in our country, and 70 percent believe that “civility has eroded over the past few years.”
While studying a number of bullying prevention programs, I find that, while providing good overall theoretical and conceptual foundations and strategies for prevention and reduction of incidents, some crucial components are still missing. We must also discuss and examine the social and cultural contexts where bullying attitudes and behaviors often stem. We must find ways not only to understand, but to actually engage in correcting these larger social and cultural environments.
We must not view bullying and harassment as simply youth problems and behaviors, but rather, investigate the contexts in which bullying “trickles down” from the larger society and is reproduced within the schools. Young people, through the process of social learning, often acquire bullying and harassing attitudes and behaviors, and they also often learn the socially sanctioned targets for their aggression.
The developmental and educational psychologist, Albert Bandura, proposed that young people learn primarily through observation, and that one’s culture transmits social mores and what Bandura called “complex competencies” through social modeling. As he noted, the root meaning of the word “teach” is “to show.”
Society presents many role models, from very positive and affirming to very negative, biased, aggressive and destructive. Modeling, he asserted, is composed of more than concrete actions, which he referred to as “response mimicry,” but also involves abstract concepts, “abstract modeling,” such as following rules, taking on values and beliefs and making moral and ethical judgments.
As young people observe negative role modeling in society, at home, in the media, at school and on social sites, this can result in them taking on prejudicial judgments and aggressive and violent behaviors. Youth can learn behaviors, like verbal and physical aggression, by observing and imitating others even in the absence of behavioral reinforcements.
Bandura found that young people can be highly influenced by observing adult behavior, and perceive that such behavior is acceptable, while freeing their own aggressive inhibitions. They are then more likely to behave aggressively in future situations.
Those who bully, therefore, often fulfill the social “function” of establishing and reinforcing the norms stemming from their environment. They often justify their behaviors by blaming the targets of their attacks, and emphasizing that they somehow deserve the aggression because they, in some ways, deviate from established societal standards.
So, what affect does Trump’s behavior as a so-called “leader” have on the attitudes and behaviors of other adults and on young people? Furthermore, what are we all teaching young people, and do we truly understand our own complicity in the bullying we see in our schools?
Unless and until we grapple with the ways in which we as individuals and our larger society promotes and gives justification to such bullying, we will never truly solve the problems.
Donald Trump, take note!
Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).
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