Regardless, I just don’t believe that schools have become less tolerant since Columbine. I don’t think bullying has increased. If anything, I think the opposite is true. “Antibullyism,” Izzy Kalman writes at Psychology Today, “unofficially launched in response to the Columbine massacre of 1999, has become the most popular social movement in history.” Even you think—as I do—that that’s probably an overstatement, the point remains. Over the last two decades schools have leapt into the anti-bullying cause. I am sure there is less bullying in my high school today than there was when I attended.
So if these horrors are increasing, it is not obvious to me that doubling down on anti-bullying will suddenly reverse the trend. I think it’s at least plausible it could make things worse, at least if we maintain the current form of anti-bullying. I am not arguing in favor of bullying—I hate bullies— but as Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue in The Coddling of the American Mind, safetyism—the larger mindset and policy approach—doesn’t lead to kids feeling safer. Rather, it creates an environment where young people, at least many of them, are more likely to feel unsafe more easily. We see this all around us, as teen anxiety is through the roof.
In the last two decades, many institutions have rejected “sticks and stones may break my bones …” in favor of “words are violence.” And some people have gone even further, arguing in effect not only that speech can be violence, but that violence can be speech. In other words, maybe when we blur the lines between speech and violence we may—or may not—get less “violent” speech but we also get more violence as a substitute for speech? Again, not for everybody, but for people at the margins. Perhaps if any bullying remark is enough to make someone feel physically threatened, or even attacked, then resorting to actual violence may seem more justifiable. If speech is violence and violence is speech, by what logic is it illogical to respond to “violent” language with the language of physical violence?