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Why not anti-bully clubs?

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I favour anti-bullying legislation, but I think the Selinger government's Bill 18 is deeply problematic -- and needs revisions, including the creation of inclusive ABCs, anti-bullying clubs.

Here is my summary of the problems with Bill 18.

-- Bill 18 neglects the huge majority of at-risk children who have the characteristics actually targeted by bullies: body shape, school grades, cultural background, language, religion, and income. (For substantiation, see the 2006 study by Yau and O'Reilly of 105,000 Toronto students.) These children are important, too -- and should be explicitly included in Bill 18.

-- Bill 18 labels as "bully" anyone who makes an off-the-cuff remark that causes distress or hurt feelings. This threatens to turn innocent, harmless comments into the equivalent of serious offences. Steinbach MLA Kelvin Goertzen asks (rhetorically), "If you were to tell (my six-year-old son) that the Winnipeg Jets weren't a very good hockey team, his feelings would be hurt... but is that really bullying?" No.

-- By elevating the seriousness of innocent, harmless comments (or even minor albeit unintentionally hurtful remarks) to the same level as deliberate and truly serious offences (clear and obviously dangerous bullying), Bill 18 also threatens to trivialize the truly serious offences. Bill 18 doesn't just lift up as serious what isn't serious; it may pull down as not serious what is serious.

-- Bill 18 promotes a pro-gay ideology or moral philosophy at the expense of those who hold moral or religious principles to the contrary. In effect, because moral or religious principles critical of same-sex sexual behaviour may cause distress or hurt feelings, Bill 18 renders illegal the expression of a moral-religious position that views same-sex sexual behaviour as sinful or wrong -- and in effect Bill 18 defines as bullies those who hold this view. But, surely, it's false that all people who argue that same-sex sex is sin or wrong are bullies. Surely, too, it's unfair to arbitrate a moral-philosophical debate via legislative fiat instead of moral-philosophical argument.

-- Bill 18 will require schools to allow students to form "gay-straight alliance" clubs that will endorse as good those behaviours that contradict some private schools' charter statements of moral principles or religious doctrines. This will serve to undermine the exercise of religious freedom of those schools. In other words, via Bill 18 religious schools are legally forced by the state to allow on the school's campus the flourishing of an organization that promotes what the school believes should not be promoted.

Principal Bryan Schroeder, of Brandon's Christian Heritage School, puts the matter this way: "(Bill 18) really takes the power away from (religious) parents and (religious) school communities to raise up children according to the values that they want to see them raised up in." Surely, this is an encroachment by the state onto the religious freedom of its citizens -- a violation of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Please note: Religious freedom isn't merely the freedom to worship at the church of one's choice; it's also the freedom to establish communities and schools which actively abide by the religious adherents' deeply held moral principles.

Please note, too: According to psychologist Mark Yarhouse, in his book Homosexuality and the Christian, a person's self-identity need not be constructed in terms of what Yarhouse calls the "gay script" -- the contemporary socio-cultural expectation that if one has same-sex attractions then the attractions constitute the core of one's personhood and thus engaging in same-sex behaviour is crucial for self-actualization. Significantly, according to Yarhouse, there are alternate scripts that don't make sexual attractions central to one's identity as a person. This means that Bill 18 would render illegal a religious school's advocacy of these alternate scripts, and thereby Bill 18 would "cause fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress" -- i.e., bully -- same-sex attracted students who wish to reject the "gay script."

At this juncture, one might suggest that reverse bullying against religious schools and persons who disagree morally with same-sex sex is socially just (or at least the lesser-of-two-evils) so students with same-sex attractions don't end up dead or otherwise abused because of the absence of a supportive gay-straight alliance club.

In reply, it should be acknowledged that the abuse or death of any student is a tragedy and thus we should make every reasonable effort to protect the vulnerable, including those who have same-sex attractions.

In reply, too, it should also be observed that the suggestion of a gay-straight alliance club assumes that all other reasonable means to stop bullies and assist the bullied have been exhausted. But what about the establishment of, say, an anti-bullying club?

That is, what about establishing a student organization wherein all vulnerable children are protected and the stronger children are encouraged to show leadership in the protection and nurturing of the vulnerable?

And why can't this anti-bullying club operate within the moral boundaries of the religious school?

Anti-bullying clubs -- ABCs -- surely every school should promote these!

In conclusion, all forms of bullying are wrong. Therefore, we should encourage our government to craft anti-bullying legislation that protects not just some victims of bullying but all victims of bullying -- without creating new victims.


Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, lives in Steinbach and teaches philosophy at Providence University College. This comment was first published in the Steinbach Carillon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2013 A15

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