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June 20, 2016

Name-Calling on the Campaign Trail and in the Schoolyard

Boy being bullied in schoolThis is not the first presidential election where candidates have engaged in name-calling and put-downs. Throughout history,
name-calling has been used on the campaign trail to label, define and control the public’s perception of rivals.

However, this year’s campaign is widely regarded as unparalleled in the degree and regularity of the put-downs. From “Low Energy Jeb” to “Crooked Hillary,” “Crazy Bernie,” “Insecure Money Grubber,” and “Goofy Elizabeth Warren” and “Pocahontas”—mocking her Native American background—we are seeing politicians invoke name-calling and nasty teasing on a grand scale—in tweets, speeches, interviews and even on the debate stage.  These so-called nicknames are repeated over and over again until the label is cemented in people’s minds. Further, these names are often hurled at each other in place of actual political discourse and policy positions so that the public is just left with the names and little else.

Name-calling, which is the use of language to defame, demean or degrade individuals or groups—has a detrimental two-pronged impact: to the target of the name calling and to the people around that person.  In election campaigns, name-calling is intended to intimidate the person to whom the insult is directed, making them feel unsettled, distressed, on the defensive and powerless.  You can’t debate a “nickname” or a put-down.

The impact on the bystanders (the general public—in the case of the election) is to label the target and chip away at what people think about them, fortifying in people’s minds the name itself: that Jeb Bush is lackadaisical and slow, that Bernie Sanders is a “fringe” candidate or mentally ill and can’t be taken seriously or that Hillary Clinton is not someone people can trust. There may be a seed of truth in the label or it may be based on a perception of that person that already exists, but it is exaggerated and repeated over and over again in the same way that bullying uses repeated actions in order to have a lasting impact.

There are parallels to the name-calling we see in schools.

We know that the name-calling that takes place among young people can be both a precursor to bullying as well as an element of bullying. Very young children sometimes engage in name-calling before they actually begin using bullying behavior.  Older children and teens, when engaging in name-calling, teasing and bullying—often hone in on an aspect of their target’s identity (or their perceived identity) such as their religion, race, appearance gender identity or sexual orientation or a personality trait they want to exploit, and then they belittle and demean the person based on that label. Identity-based bullying can damage and erode targets’ self esteem because it goes to who they are in a fundamental way. Similar to political name-calling, in schools aggressors define their target’s identity by attempting to control how others see them. This name-calling is often done in front of others and is meant to convince others to view the person in a particular way. When the name-calling is repeated, others—including the target—begin to see the person that way and then the label becomes part of who that person is. Further, name-calling can contribute to an environment where bias is acceptable and can lead to more destructive, hateful and potentially violent behavior.

Young people are aware of the name-calling and negative political discourse that is taking place in this current election cycle. Instead of shying away from it, educators can use it as a teachable moment to think critically about the election. It is also an opportunity to help students deconstruct name-calling in general and analyze bias in the presidential election by exploring the intent and impact of the name-calling.  Educators can build empathy by having students reflect upon how the target feels and how they perceive name-calling, both in the election and in in their own daily lives.

For the teachers and other adults in students’ lives, when name-calling, bias or bullying takes place, it should be identified and stopped right away, sending a message that it is unacceptable.  But interrupting is not enough and we should not stop there. We need to teach students about bias, name-calling and bullying and create an environment where students feel empowered to be allies  in the face of bias and bullying.

For educators, it is critical to establish a learning environment and school climate where diversity is explored and celebrated, differences are acknowledged and respected, bias and identity-based bullying are confronted and empathy is promoted in small and large ways. If students feel part of this safe, respectful and inclusive learning environment, they will not use name-calling as a way to exert power and control and put others down.

We understand the profound impact that name-calling has on schools and society. If we stand up to it together, we will emerge stronger and better for it.








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June 16, 2016

Charleston Anniversary: We Mourn, We Act

One year ago, on June 17, 2015, a white supremacist murdered nine parishioners at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.   It’s terrible – and unfair – that the quiet space in time we should have had to reflect and properly mourn these murders targeting African-Americans has been literally blown apart by another tragedy – even larger in scale – involving the deliberate targeting of members of the LGBTQ community in Orlando this past weekend.

We can and must grieve for the victims of the heartless white supremacist who murdered nine people who had welcomed him into prayer,

communion, and fellowship.   We can and must mourn the victims in Orlando celebrating life during Pride Month and Latino Night.

And:  we can do more than stand in solidarity and mourn.

On this anniversary, after a weekend of bias-motivated mayhem, we should rededicate ourselves to ensuring that we, as a nation, are doing all we can to fight hate and extremism.

1)     Law enforcement authorities are now investigating what role – if any – radical interpretations of Islam played in inspiring the Orlando murderer to act — and that work is clearly justified.  But we must recognize and pay attention to extremism and hate coming from all sources – including white supremacists, like the murderer in Charleston.

2)     Charleston and Orlando are further evidence that firearms are more pop­u­lar than ever as the deadly weapons of choice for Amer­i­can extrem­ists. We must end limitations on federal research on gun violence – and make it more difficult to obtain firearms through increased waiting periods, safety restrictions, and limitations on purchases – especially of assault-style weapons.   None of these steps will certainly prevent the next gun-toting mass murderer – but, as President Obama said, “to actively do nothing is a decision as well.”

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Photo Credit: Cal Sr via Flikr

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.
Photo Credit: Cal Sr via Flikr

3)     We need more inclusive and extensive laws in place to combat violence motivated by hate and extremism.  On the state level, though 45 states and the District of Columbia have hate crime laws, a handful of states – including South Carolina – do not (the others are Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, and Wyoming).  ADL and a broad coalition of three dozen national organizations have formed #50 States Against Hate to improve the response to all hate crimes, with more effective laws, training, and policies.

And, though hate crime laws are very important, they are a blunt instrument – it’s much better to prevent these crimes in the first place.  Congress and the states should complement these laws with funding for inclusive anti-bias education, hate crime prevention, and bullying, cyberbullying, and harassment prevention training programs.

4)     And finally, let us resolve to more fiercely resist unnecessary and discriminatory laws, like North Carolina’s HB 2, that deprive individuals of the opportunity to live their lives in dignity, free from persecution because of their race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

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May 3, 2016

Labeling Behavior, Not People

language graphicWith 28% of students ages 12 – 18 years old currently reporting having been a target of bullying, concerns about bullying in schools have motivated hundreds of books to be written and a wide variety of programs to be designed and implemented with the goal of turning the tide of bullying. Many of these books and programs aim to change the behavior of “bullies.” And herein lies one of the problems that makes it so challenging to change the dynamic of bullying.

First, what is it? Bullying is the repeated actions or threats of action directed toward a person by one or more people who have or are perceived to have more power or status than their target in order to cause fear, distress or harm.

When most people picture a “bully” in their minds, they see someone who is bigger than everyone else and goes around intimidating others. Because of this perception, if you ask a room full of students if they have ever been a “bully,” chances are no one will raise their hand. Ask the same students if they have ever excluded someone, called someone a name, spread rumors or picked on someone because of the way they look, you will find that many hands – if not all – will go up.

This tells us that there is a disconnect between being labeled a “bully” and actually engaging in bullying behavior. As long as that disconnect exists and we continue to use the label “bully,” we will not be able to engage students in real conversations that challenge the social norms around bullying. By identifying bullying as a behavior rather than a label assigned to a person who exhibits the behavior, a few things happen:

  1. Students are able to self-reflect on their actions without fear of judgment;
  2. Students are able to recognize that the different behaviors that people choose play an important role when instances of bias or bullying—whether active or passive occur; and
  3. Students begin to make conscious decisions to respond in particular ways when incidents occur and ultimately, take responsibility for making sure everyone is treated with respect by becoming an ally.

We live in a society that often uses labels to stereotype and simplify people. Unfortunately, bullying is not a simple concept and it is up to educators and families to engage the young people in their lives in better understanding that bullying refers to a behavior and not a person, and that it is a behavior that all people at some time in their lives have engaged in.  Understanding this difference empowers and motivates young people to move from being a bystander to an ally.


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