In light of the subject of my post yesterday, it’s truly remarkable that I happened to click onto this NY Daily News’ story about Monday’s shooting at a school in Chardon, OH. One paragraph below a picture of the shooter, T.J. Lane being ushered into the back of a vehicle in cuffs, the author writes, “Prosecutors on Tuesday described Lane, 17, as ‘someone who’s not well,’ and rejected claims the violence stemmed from him being bullied.” Since I’d practically just gotten through criticizing the irresponsible overuse of the term “bullying,” my first reaction to that line was, naturally, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
This is two egregious applications of the same media buzzword on two consecutive days, one extraneously denied as a factor in a young girl’s death, and the other extraneously denied as a factor in a teenage boy’s commission of murder. I really hope that my having read both of these stories is coincidence, and not a result of the media being so saturated with the bullying narrative that it’s this easy to find awful examples of its misapplication.
So the prosecutors in the Lane case rejected claims of bullying? I find it interesting that the author points that out but makes no note of from whom those claims came in the first place. Was it other students? Lane himself? His parents or his teachers? Was it a contingent of the public that has no connection to the case but has heard a lot from the media about the spectacular effects of some bullying epidemic? Or did the media itself float that assertion to prosecutors so they would have reason to print the denial?
Wherever the claim came from, it points to the fact that the media obsession with the concept of bullying has led at least some segment of society to readily jump upon bullying as the easiest explanation of virtually any problem among children or teens. The obsession didn’t seem quite so endemic yesterday, but when the same buzzword is presented as the most likely cause of both victimization and victimhood, there’s a good chance that the narrative has a really pervasive influence.
The farther the term reaches in absence of evidence for the appropriateness of its use, the less meaning that term retains. If bullying was initially seen as the probable cause for a girl being killed yesterday, but today it was seen as the initial probable cause for a boy killing his classmates, it’s hard to conclude anything other than that the explanatory use of the concept is arbitrary. If it can work in either direction, why didn’t UPI say yesterday that there was no evidence that Joanna Ramos was attacked because she was bullying the other girl? Why didn’t the Daily News ask defense attorneys whether Lane had targeted the three dead students because they were the victims of his bullying?
Unless the media can explain to me some nuanced justification that they’ve applied, I’m going to assume that in one case the story was already focused on Ramos and in the other case it was already focused on Lane, and the author of each piece had to leverage the bullying buzzword in somehow.
I understand the need that many people have to make sense of tragedy, and these narratives help people to do that more quickly and easily. But the same narratives compel people to make sense of tragedy inaccurately and incompletely. The media’s enablement of the impulse to grab the most uniform explanations and the let the stories lay does no one any good. In fact, the news media has a responsibility to discourage those impulses and to provide us with information that is thorough, accurate, and relevant, even if it complicates our understanding of the world.
I suppose I should give credit to each of these articles for actually dispelling the bullying claim, but the fact remains that there was no reason to raise it in the first place. Doing so just serves to tie these and other such stories together in a very tenuous way. That just muddles our collective understanding of these events as what they are – separate, distinct, but equivalently awful tragedies.