Dear Mr. President,
As tragic stories of youth suicide continue to dominate headlines and conversations, I am hearing more and more questions about the extent of our responsibility for another person's actions. Can an individual be bullied to death, and, if so, can the bullies be held responsible? I don't think that suicide is an act that generally occurs as a response to an isolated event or individual. The smaller problems that pile up and eventually overwhelm a person may never be cited as a reason for suicide but can play an equally significant role. So while Carl Paladino's very public and very bigoted remarks may not, on their own, drive any gay youths to take their own lives, he, and others like him, play a role in creating the hostile environment that feeds bullies and overwhelms struggling teens. (That he made his remarks in the wake of a series of brutal hate crimes against gay men in New York City makes his ignorance even more appalling.)
Back in January of this year I wrote to you about a friend who had taken his own life as a high schooler. It's been more than 8 years and I still find myself questioning the way I treated him, the way I spoke to him, and how much responsibility I bear for his death. It's the kind of haunting doubts that no amount of reassurance will ever relieve. This recent national conversation about teen suicide and bullying has brought all of these old feelings to the surface once again. I feel like my life since I turned 16 has been an ongoing struggle to use my guilt toward better, more compassionate and more useful ends. My inclination toward wallowing helps no one, unless I apply that grief toward improving the way I treat others.
Similarly, our national reaction to these recent suicides is equally meaningless if we don't allow these feelings to lead to anything more helpful than shock, grief and outrage. It is easy to lay blame for these deaths on those who failed in their obligations to these young people as individuals. We do have a responsibility for the way we treat the people, which is obvious enough with those we encounter directly. But we seem to neglect that obligation when it comes to those we don't. For me, this is where the political becomes personal. Our values, our policies, our acceptance of or indifference to discrimination and bigotry all contribute to the very personal tragedies of those dead children. Paladino can spew his hateful remarks at a concept ("homosexuality" or "the homosexual lifestyle") and, because he isn't speaking about individuals, it becomes socially acceptable. (He has since even laughably tried to insist he isn't homophobic, and assertion he'll be allowed to make because people believe he attacked a concept and not a person or people.) But no matter how any one spins it, what Paladino said is just as hateful, just as damaging, and just as unfit for American political discourse as the words of the bullies who pick on an individual child for being gay. The words have the same source and the same consequence, the only difference being that one is taken, at worst, as a political misstep, while the other is potential grounds for legal action. This disconnect is not reserved for gay rights issues; children are bullied for looking, talking, or acting different, for being poor, for being immigrants or the children of immigrants. In a country where being an ethnic or religious minority, an immigrant, or dependent upon social services for survival are constantly vilified or shamed in political discourse, I don't think it's a stretch to say that our children are learning their bullying behaviors from accepted national prejudices.
I've been lucky, for the most part, in that my life has been helped along by a number of caring and compassionate strangers. People who have treated me with kindness and compassion far outnumber the ones who have been hurtful or sexist or willfully cruel. I think that while bullying and cruelty may be inevitable facts of human nature, we generally want to be responsible in the way we treat one another. We want to be kind to their neighbors and the people they encounter in daily life. Which is why, for example, opponents of gay rights often cite their own gay friends/relatives/employees/acquaintances as evidence that they don't hate gay people, they're just talking politics. We have a much easier time discriminating against concepts or groups than individuals. But I don't think this relieves us from the obligations we have to other people, even if we never meet them, even if we never know their names. While I'm not saying that any one opposing gay marriage should be held accountable for the deaths of gay teens, I do feel that they shouldn't be allowed to avoid an appreciation for the real implications of their positions. They aren't just taking a side in a political debate; they are advocating a legal and social bias against people, against the very same friends and relatives they ostensibly treat with compassion and kindness.
So while we continue to grapple with the question of how much responsibility a bully bears for the actions of the bullied, I think we all ought to examine our own words and actions and the role they play in the long-standing and ongoing struggle faced by children and young people who are different. We have to keep our political positions in perspective, to reflect on the way the abstract translates to the tangible, individual, personal consequences. Because I believe that we can all do a better job of tending to one another, of making the already difficult undertaking of growing up just a little bit easier on every one.