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Stephen Quinn
Stephen Quinn

City limits

We’re living in a ‘culture of mean’ Add to ...

I’m generally not a bandwagon guy. Okay, I tried growing a moustache earlier this month but shaved it off when it turned out more Quaker Oats pitchman Wilford Brimley than Dennis Hopper. I was going for Hopper.

I don’t wear ribbons, wristbands or team colours. I haven’t worn a pink shirt since the 80s.

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So earlier this week when the provincial government’s Twitter avatar took on a pinkish hue during the E.R.A.S.E. (Expect Respect And a Safe Education) Bullying Summit in Vancouver, I rolled my eyes.

At best, I thought, this was a group of well-meaning PTA-types coming together to tackle a problem they could (in any measurable way) do little to solve. Talking about it at length made it feel like they were doing something and therefore made them feel less helpless.

At its worst (and as some have opined), it was a desperate move by an instinctively populist premier who, six months away from an election, was willing to exploit even the tragic suicide of a teenage girl to boost her own political fortunes.

I wondered whether the pink-shirt campaign Premier Christy Clark championed as a radio talk-show host had boosted her ratings. Maybe owning the bullying file was good enough. I was, to say the least, cynical.

Then I listened to what she had to say. “Kids are swimming in a culture of mean all the time and we have to change that,” she told the summit.

“Bullying is not a rite of passage.”

Both messages have stuck with me, though neither is an original idea.

The second has become a well-worn mantra in anti-bullying circles.

The first is borrowed from one of the summit’s most prominent speakers, internationally recognized parenting guru Barbara Coloroso, who has written extensively on bullying. Ms. Coloroso submits as evidence of “the culture of mean,” television shows where humiliated contestants are shown the door to the jeers of audience members, or voted off the island, their candles snubbed. She has also called out Don Cherry and talk radio in general, though I’m assuming she means American talk radio.

I don’t need to turn on the TV or the radio to understand what she’s talking about. I can read the Comments section that accompanies the online version of this column. I can get into my car, and watch the reaction of a young driver who is dissatisfied that the car in front of him didn’t make a quick right turn – a turn which would have endangered the mother pushing a stroller through the crosswalk.

I can hear one half of the cell-phone conversation on the SkyTrain and know exactly who sucks and why. I can witness first-hand the lack of compassion and empathy on display by other shoppers when an exhausted parent tries to coax an equally tired toddler off the floor in the mall. God forbid they ever take that child onto an airplane. I can hear it in the way people speak to a cashier, a retail worker, or a waiter. The bullies are everywhere. The instinct too often is to attack and accuse, and empathy never enters the equation.

I am, by the way, guilty of being exactly that terrible person. This is not a confession to cleanse my soul but rather disclosure for the purpose of context.

Here is what I have learned from my own children: Kids aren’t born mean. They learn mean. They will learn to treat other people as less than themselves if that’s what we teach them. Left on their own, once they’re school-aged, they actually display a surprising amount of empathy. They find joy in sharing without being told to. They know that working together is better than working against each other. Bullies are the exception and not the rule.

But teaching kids to respect each other in a culture where, as Ms. Coloroso puts it, “something is amiss” isn’t easy.

Premier Clark wrapped up the summit with a statement that read, in part, “The commitment coming out of today’s meeting is to build on our momentum and work together to build a culture of kindness, caring and respect.”

I look forward to seeing that commitment in action during the upcoming election campaign.

 

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