Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Mardi Gras and the Roots of Bullying

It’s been a long seven weeks since New Year’s, and yesterday’s Family Day holiday couldn’t come soon enough for most of us. It was Presidents’ Day south of the border, a day to recognize the February birthdays of Washington and Lincoln. Ten years ago Jean Chretien mused publically about declaring a “Prime Minister’s Day” for Canadians. Lord knows we needed a mid-winter holiday. But what about one that already existed in many of the cultures surrounding us? Though Chretien and McGuinty are both Catholic, neither suggested making Mardi Gras – “Fat Tuesday” – a holiday. But that doesn’t have to keep the rest of us from whooping it up – and you don’t need to be Catholic to get in on the fun.

In Québec they’re celebrating “Carnaval.” Our word “carnival” comes from Latin words meaning “farewell to flesh” (carne vale), indicating the onset of Lent, the lean time our ancestors went through while waiting for spring and the redemption Easter brings. But how much better “Fat Tuesday” captures the spirit of hedonism and cathartic release associated with the topsy-turvy carnival of Caribbean culture, known to us North Americans mainly through the New Orleans Mardi Gras, recently popularized across the continent by the TV program Treme.

Mardi Gras isn’t just an opportunity to overindulge – it’s a chance to turn the social order and your own identity upside down and inside out. Everyone needs a vacation from themselves, and the society as a whole needs a break from its own rules. Mardi Gras masking and costuming isn’t meant to confront death and the supernatural as Hallowe’en does. It’s supposed to give your ego and superego a day off while releasing the rest of you to play the fool, indulge your libido and your whims, and take social liberties you’d be afraid to take the rest of the year. 

Big Chief say "Do Watcha Wanna"

In a world that seems to want every person compartmentalized and every system rationalized, Mardi Gras isn’t just silly fun – it’s a spiritual oasis. In breaking down social rules, we realize just how arbitrary those rules really are. In changing identities, we recognize how complex our true selves actually are, how what we show the world every day is really little more than the tip of the psychic iceberg, and how it might feel to be someone else. The result should be that our sense of self is expanded, and we see through the illusions of everyday identity construction. And that is an enlightenment of the highest moral quality. If our society really did engage in a full-scale Mardi Gras celebration, our collectively crazy behaviour might send us an important message that we are all more alike than we are different, regardless of class, gender, age, or sexual preference.

The formation of adult identity is a key function of the teenage years, and high schools are the main crucible in which it happens. Developing a sense of ourselves as sexual beings is perhaps the most important part of this, though we rarely address it head-on.

Performers are often one step ahead of the rest of us, as they’ve realized how easy it really is to put masks on and take them off again. Robert Lepage, the world-famous Québecois director, actor and writer, was painfully shy and depressed as a young teen – until he discovered the stage, a place where he could take on any character he liked. At the PCVS holiday gala, talented performer and dedicated student leader Matt Finlan, a slim, white male, confidently took on the role of “Mama” from the musical Chicago, played on screen by Queen Latifah – a big, black female –  for a group dance production number. And he pulled it off, tongue figuratively in cheek. Why wait for Mardi Gras to challenge expectations?

Matt Finlan does Queen Latifah -
photo by Scott Walling

What does all this have to do with bullying and sexuality? As older children turn into young adults, high school becomes the place where they seek people who are like themselves. Athletes find teams, musicians find bands, rebels find rebels to smoke and spray with, and pretty girls find other pretty girls to do their makeup. Very quickly, personal preferences of one’s own become markers of identity within a group that defines itself against other groups. Cliques form with astonishing rapidity, and before you know it football players won’t hang out with pot-smokers, who won’t hang out with nerds, who won’t hang out with student-council types, who won’t hang out with Goth-girls, who won’t hang out with actors . . . and around it goes.

Students in such a divisive social climate learn to put down groups of people who aren’t like them. Throw sexual dynamics into the clashing subcultures and you ratchet up the tension further. Throw same-sex attraction into the cauldron and you’ve got a recipe for potential disaster.

The phenomenon of students bullying other students continues to be a problem at all levels in the public school system. It reaches great tragic depths with teen suicides like the ones in Minnesota, Ottawa and Quebec discussed in the previous post – or with the death of TASSS student Aaron Montgomery right here in Peterborough not so long ago. But repeated efforts to intimidate and belittle other students can have powerful, long-lasting negative effects on growing personalities even when they don’t push them to the extremes of despair.

The Rolling Stone article on the Minnesota suicides as posted on the Reader Supported News site is well worth a close study, if you can stomach it. The role of school teachers and administrators in the tragedy is a key one, even though the impetus for the poisoned atmosphere in the schools lay with hard-line church pressure groups and ineffective trustees. One of the aspects of the Minnesota case that relates to our situation in Peterborough is the urban-rural divide on same-sex love.

For untold centuries, homosexually-inclined people have left small towns and rural areas for the city in hopes of finding a community of companions and escaping public censure of themselves and their families. PCVS, the only school in the core of the only city within KPR’s jurisdiction, is currently facing discrimination by decision-makers from outside the city who can still pretend that homosexuality doesn’t exist, or shouldn’t exist, and that therefore “gay-bashing” in high school doesn’t exist, and that therefore an urban school like PCVS with a reputation for accommodating sexual difference doesn’t need to exist either. 

Joan Green, the facilitator appointed by the Ministry of Education to review KPR’s abuse of procedure in the attempt to close PCVS, was a founding Board member of a small but influential organization called Roots of Empathy which aims to stop aggressive behaviour by students before it starts. Have a look at their website, and read more about Ms. Green in the post “Joan Green Comes to Town,” (Saturday January 14). Roots of Empathy is a program which brings a neighbourhood infant and parent into elementary classrooms to teach children “emotional literacy” – how to recognize and process emotional cues, states, and interactions. The program’s founder, Mary Gordon, hoped to find ways to break cycles of emotional and physical abuse and poor parenting in families by direct role modeling and instruction in the classroom, and by all accounts she has developed some successful techniques. You can read Catherine Porter’s article about the program in the Toronto Star if you like. 

We can hope that Gordon’s techniques become popular and that there is a palpable long-term impact reducing aggressive and anti-social behaviour among children and teens. But we might note that the program doesn’t specifically address the problem of bullying over sexuality in high school.

In most cases, childhood bullying is the equivalent of what we adults would call a “power-trip.” All children feel a deficit of power over their own circumstances, even if they’re well cared-for by loving parents and attentive teachers. Many of the petty conflicts, jealousies and dishonesties between students in the classroom and on the playground are simply the result of students trying to establish a sense of power and control in any way they can, and leveraging their few opportunities to the max. It’s always tempting to elevate one’s self-esteem at the expense of others – and usually easier and faster than building it via one’s own accomplishments.

So what happens in adolescence, when suddenly “fag” and “lesbo” are no longer just two more terms in the grab-bag of insults?

The natural competitiveness of children takes a quantum leap at the onset of puberty. Now the stakes aren’t just gold stars, trophies, and cool friends. Now you’re feeling desire to be near and to touch other people’s bodies – and for them to touch yours. This is scary. And challenging. You need to impress them – to appear intriguing, exciting, funny, cute, or high-status in their eyes, so that they won’t reject your advances, and might even succumb to your seduction and make advances on you. In this situation, your peers and your rivals for affection are one and the same.

The dynamics of this are different among groups of girls and groups of boys because of the basic roles of males as “hunters” and females as the objects of their desire. This essential difference has important ramifications for the way same-sex attraction is treated by male and female high school students.

If we want to do something to improve the climate around sexuality in our schools, we had better make an effort to understand it. So let’s take the opportunity this Carnival season to step out of our carefully manicured identities and imagine ourselves in a variety of different subject positions.

In the next post we’ll start by considering male homosexuality from the perspective of a typical heterosexual teenage male.

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