Monday, January 9, 2012

Freedom of Speech vs. Anti-Bullying laws

The other day, I got into a debate with someone on Facebook about whether anti-bullying laws are a violation of the First Amendment.  I thought that I had argued the point rather well, and apparently, I did, as the other person conceded.  This somewhat redeems humanity, in my mind, as it's not often that you can reason with someone, and they will be actually willing to change their mind.  So, I thought I would share the debate here:

(This was in response to this article)

Debate partner: This is gonna get a lot sadder if this poor kid becomes the poster child for censorship.

<insert conversation between my debate partner, and someone else>

Debate partner: What, about the censorship? Pretty straightforward, I'd think.
To write the article as nothing more than a human interest piece would be grotesque, right? "Hey, guess what? This kid stepped in front of a bus!"
Nor do I imagine it to be a set-up to an invitation to the funeral.
Closest alternate guess would be that the writer's urging us all to simply grow up, not be such bullies, and hopefully raise our *kids* to not be such bullies.
But that's not how humans work. Already there are censorship laws in place, with cases like this as their meat. There will be more, and we know it. Bullying... it's the new flag, the new cause whereby we oppress each other in the ironic name of ending oppression.
Please don't get me wrong... despite having never met the kid, sure, I feel bad for her too. But I also feel a little worse that she can't rest in peace. She was driven to suicide, and now she's being used as a tool to make you and me more supportive of "STFU if your speech isn't correct" laws.

Me Emotional pain has the same affect on the brain that physical pain does. That is, the same areas of the brain are stimulated in the same way, and people have the same chemical reactions to this pain. When a person is subjected to severe emotional trauma, they are dealing with the same chemical wash that comes with physical trauma, and, psychologically speaking, it's very much the same thing. However, since there are no visible effects, eg bruising, bleeding, etc, society tells us that this pain is not "real", even though brain imaging quite clearly tells us it is real.

So, a person subjected to severe emotional trauma is under the same amount of duress as say, a person with a long, ongoing terminal disease. This is an especially appropriate analogue in the cases of bullying, given that bullying does not generally cease, or at least, it does not quickly or easily. (Thus the point of the "It Gets Better" campaign.) So, when dealing with physically illness, we debate the merits of assisted suicide, but for those who are in constant emotional pain, we tell them either to get over it, or to wait it out, as it will eventually gets better.

As someone who has suffered from Major Depressive Disorder for the last twenty-seven years, and which in part stemmed from childhood bullying, and as someone who has multiple suicide attempts under her belt, I can tell you now, that being told to get over it doesn't help (no one ever tells you HOW to get over it), and being told it gets better never seems very realistic to someone in the midst of a depressive episode. In addition, this puts the onus of resolving the issue on the victim of the emotional abuse, rather than on those who are causing it.

Now while I can see how identifying emotional abuse as being the same as physical abuse (legally speaking, since it's already been demonstrated to be the same neurologically speaking) can have some issues. That is, in a debate, someone might simply claim that they're being bullied, which may put a stop to the debate. However, if we actually look at anti-bullying laws, they are pretty narrowly defined, and specifically target people who are emotionally abusing children. Children, btw, do not have the cognitive abilities that adults do, and so may find it incredibly difficult to shrug off bullying or look for that light at the end of the tunnel. They simply have not reached that stage of brain development. (This cuts both ways, as bullies do not often have the executive thinking abilities that would allow them to see the consequences of their actions.)

In addition, you are looking at the first amendment outside of the context in which it was drafted. The Bill of Rights was formed specifically in reaction to the war with England. The first amendment protection of free speech was to ensure that citizens could criticize their government without fear of oppression. As a libertarian, I am all for supporting the bill of rights, regardless of the context of the times. However, I don't believe that allowing a group of people to oppress an individual is in the spirit or the letter of this law, or the liberty that it seeks to protect. You are, in essence, telling a group of people that it's okay to emotionally torture someone, in order to express their freedom of speech.

If anti-bullying laws extended more protections than they did, I might agree with you, but they don't. In some jurisdictions, they even allow someone to say that they were morally outraged by someone's behavior, and that they are therefore justified in emotionally abusing someone. I don't think that protecting our most fragile of populations, during their developmental years is an affront to the laws of this land, or the principles of freedom of speech.

(Here's one of the sources regarding emotional pain having the same consequences on the brain.  Just google "Emotional Pain is the same as physical pain" if you want to find some more.) 

Debate partner: Yeah, I've been bullied in school. Most of us have. And yes, it hurts. Aaaaaand yes, I share your desire to see such activity stamped out.

Where we depart is in our relative optimism / pessimism regarding any related law's ability to do more good than harm.

I remember how the bullies got past the rules that were in place in my own time. It was pretty easy, I think... they just waited 'til they had you alone. Until we finally achieve Orwell's world, I don't see that changing.

Yet there those laws will be, looking for *someone* to control. And there those agenda-mongers will also be, the extremists on both sides, with good precedents now in place on behavior controls beyond the "thou shalt not bring a gun to school and start blasting" standard.

You think this will end well. I applaud your optimism, and feel a mild temptation to even envy it. May you somehow be right. It would delight me, ten years from now, to have to say "my bad" on this one. My grin would likely split my head open.

Me: What you're missing is what legislation can accomplish in the bigger picture. When integration started happening in schools, was racism magically wiped out? No, it wasn't. But, as time has gone on since then, racism has become less acceptable. Is racism gone? No, we must continue the struggle. It's a step-by-step process. However, what integration, affirmative action, anti-discrimination laws taught was that racism was no longer acceptable by the majority of the citizens.

The anti-bullying laws aren't meant to stop one bully. They are meant to send a message. I've actually had people tell me that bullying prepares you to have a thicker skin for adulthood. This is actually the exact opposite of what happens, psychologically to people who've been continuously bullied. They develop disorders, and in some cases, brain damage*. Despite this being known, it's still socially acceptable to pass off bullying as something that everyone goes through, and makes people stronger. Anti-bullying laws are meant to address that. It's meant, not for this generation, but for the next. Laws indicate the mores of our society, and send a pretty deep message to those who can't simply take scientific fact.

While this may not help kids now, their children will be raised by a generation of people who were told that bullying is an unlawful act. This should only have a positive affect on how those children will interact. Perfect? No. A good outcome? Socially progressive laws seem to be working so far, but we'll see.

Debate partner: ‎...okay, those are good points. My pessimism decreases, and my taste for truth is forcing me to admit that the counter-arguments I was *about* to post would've been the product of simple distrust toward my own species, as opposed to any serious reasoning.

Well. Again, may you be right. May this help. I do remain pessimistic, but at least not quite as *much* so. So thanks for that.


*Let me clarify the brain damage statement, because it was an over-simplification of a very real issue.  When someone is subjected to emotional abuse, or some other action which causes depression, the brain tends to "learn" your constantly dark moods.  Thus, when the source of the mood has been removed (bullying, abusive relationship, etc), your brain has already learned what the "normal" state of things are, and will remain that way.  I referred to the changes emotional abuse can cause as "brain damage" because this actually has some influence on brain structures.  Various therapies can "fix" this damage, including drug therapy, talk therapy, etc.  These also influence brain structures.  (I remembered someone posted something recently on Facebook about how anti-depressants cause permanent changes to the brain, and how alarmed they were about that.  I was like, "Uh, yeah, that's why they work.  There are a LOT of things that can make permanent or semi-permanent changes to brain structure.)


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