The stories are becoming infuriatingly familiar: A distraught teenager, or even a pre-teen, reaches a state of despair so profound that he or she commits suicide. The cause of the child’s despair — relentless taunting by monstrous classmates — is reported in the media as “bullying,” a word so weak that it doesn’t even begin to accurately describe the situation.
It mostly happens to kids who don’t fit the mold. Maybe they’re socially awkward, or severely overweight, or a racial minority. Perhaps they have disabilities, or are gay. Whatever the reason, they’re singled out for horrific treatment at school, in neighborhoods and especially online. The level of callousness involved is breathtaking and goes far beyond anything I ever heard of in my own schoolyard years, the relatively tolerant 1970s and ’80s.
You might think that any effort to start chipping away at the cliquish behavior that breeds such cruelty would be a good thing. You might imagine that a national program that encourages kids simply to spend a single lunch break with classmates they don’t normally sit with would be a small but positive step in the right direction. You’d be right.
But you wouldn’t be American Family Association executive Bryan Fischer.
Yes, the same organization that went apoplectic at the sight of a semi-nude bronze sculpture at the Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens has found a new target: A nationwide anti-bullying initiative called Mix It Up at Lunch Day.
The project, and indeed all anti-bullying efforts, are “just another thinly veiled attempt to promote the homosexual agenda,” Fischer told The New York Times, adding that “anti-bullying policies become a mechanism for punishing Christian students who believe that homosexual behavior is not something that should be normalized.”
May I presume, then, that those disgusting Westboro Baptist Church picket signs would fit right in on an American Family Association-approved playground?
Fischer’s organization is encouraging parents across the country to keep their kids home from school on Oct. 30, the day that many schools nationwide will participate in the event. The boycott apparently is having an effect: As I write this, more than 200 schools reportedly have canceled plans for Mix It Up at Lunch Day.
It’s not often that stories I casually come across online cause my chest to tighten and my heart to pound. It happens when I read about a 14-year-old Pakistani girl being shot in the head by the Taliban for wanting an education. It happens when I read about children who die slow, agonizing deaths because their parents, legally allowed to do so in nearly 40 states, chose prayer over medicine. And it happens when I read about Bryan Fischer.
Notice a pattern there? Religious extremism is a threat to the health and safety of children, and not just children who are unfortunate enough to be born female in Afghanistan. It’s easy to look overseas at the more violent and outwardly repressive fundamentalist regimes and breathe a sigh of relief that you’re in America, but make no mistake: Misguided faith — though in slower and less obvious ways — kills children here, too.
Stories like these always lead to apologetics along the lines of, “But you can’t blame (name of religion). Because (name of despicably behaving person) isn’t a true (word for religion’s followers).” You won’t read that placating line here. Ever heard of the no-true-Scotsman logical fallacy? I’ll let other writers fall for it.
Meanwhile, we can be thankful that logic is still hanging on, though possibly by a very weak thread, in many school districts. As the ironically named American Family Association continues to endorse the type of thinking that leads directly to children’s suicides, I’m proudly giving a shout-out to my district — Blue Valley — which as of this writing is not buckling under to irrationality and bigotry. In fact, the district’s Pleasant Ridge Middle School was one of only 77 schools nationwide to be named a 2011-2012 Mix It Up Model School.
If there is any lesson to be gleaned from the AFA’s latest butchery of rationality, it is this: If an organization claims to be protecting us from immorality, you can almost bet that the organization itself is devoid of it. Groups like the AFA do not base their actions on compassion, humanity or morality, and like the Westboro Baptist Church clan, they are fixated on homosexuality to a pathological degree.
These people are not content to live and let live. And because of the despair that attitudes like theirs cause, more vulnerable young people will die.
Sarah Smith Nessel, a 913 freelance columnist, writes The Bubble each week.