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Friends embrace as several hundred people attend a community vigil to remember Rehtaeh Parsons at Victoria Park in Halifax on April 11, 2013. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Friends embrace as several hundred people attend a community vigil to remember Rehtaeh Parsons at Victoria Park in Halifax on April 11, 2013. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Globe editorial

It is not OK to teach empathy by showing children a suicide video Add to ...

It is not okay for a teacher to show a video featuring a young girl slashing her wrists – the act of slicing shown at some length, the blood squirting repeatedly – to a classroom of Grade 7 students who have been given no warning or preparation, and whose parents have not been advised beforehand.

That a Winnipeg teacher thought it would be okay suggests something about the moment we are living in. Bullying is evil, and the evil must be fought with any means necessary, or so some people have decided.

Thus, in Toronto, a mother concerned about the alleged bullying of her elementary-school daughter has chosen to lead her from class to class, at what cost to the child, on many levels, one hardly wishes to imagine. In Nova Scotia, a proposed law would create a cyberbullying investigative unit with powers to enter homes (with a warrant) and seize computers and cell phones.

The video Love is all you need? is a kind of shock attack, an attempt to instil empathy by placing viewers in the shoes of a young girl who is tormented and beaten because she is heterosexual, in a world in which virtually everyone, including the young girl’s parents, are gay. The violence is quite raw – an older boy punches her in the face (fully shown), and when she is on the ground a girl kicks her seemingly in the pelvic region (not fully shown). The end is a long, bloody suicide scene.

Showing this video without warning of its contents is itself an act of bullying, or would be, if the school knew its contents beforehand. The teacher reportedly did not view it first, which hardly excuses the showing; how could one determine its usefulness without seeing it first? Many adults, let alone children, would want to know before they enter a theatre that there’s a possibility of graphic violence, including a child’s suicide.

Using this video is an attempt at engineering empathy, and like most social engineering has a kind of overweening arrogance: bullying is so bad that it justifies brutalizing young viewers. It carries risks that no educator could foresee, for sensitive or anxious children who may be haunted by what they’ve seen. (One student reportedly blacked out during the viewing.) This is not akin to teaching the William Golding’s classic novel Lord of the Flies, which probes human brutality thoroughly, but without the unnecessarily graphic display of gore, as in the video suicide scene. And if such shock tactics are to be used, parents should be informed. It is not the school’s role to venture into engineering empathic children with untested approaches.

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