Your son is a high school student. One day he posts online an anime where he superimposes his face onto a character killing a classmate, one he has had clashes with, as well as his teacher, who reprimanded him for not handing in homework. When school administrators are sent the cartoon, you, your partner, and your son are called in for a conference. Your son is suspended, something that will go on his record. Even though he’s the star of the soccer team, the coach benches him during an important game when scouts from colleges will be in the stands. You are humiliated, enduring frowns and snubs by fellow parents. You know what they are thinking. If your son acts this way, maybe he’s picking up this behavior from you.
Or how about this:
Your daughter is angry at one of the girls in her class for not inviting her to a birthday party. Rather than approach her friend to ask why she was not included, your daughter picks up her phone and begins making threatening phone calls to her classmate. “I hope your family dies in front of you,” your daughter says when her friend answers. The calls continue for several days. The friend, upset, tells her mother, who calls you to report what happened. You try to apologize, but the other mother, who was once your friend, says she’s reporting your daughter to the school.
Once upon a time, children had role models. Besides their parents, other adults around them as well as public officials and celebrities like sports stars, whose behavior was inspiring. And when someone came along whose performance encouraged young people to emulate their bad acts, reaction was swift. Not only did those around that person speak out and condemn that behavior, but many parents sat their children down and explained why such destructive words and deeds are not acceptable in a civil society.
We have ventured far from such civility. The two examples above are not fiction: they happened. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AR), posted that anime online showing himself killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and swinging two swords at President Joe Biden. Rather than being called to the principal’s office, or, in this case, the office of Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the minority leader, all Republicans were silent. (McCarthy, of course, has said that when he becomes speaker he’s going to hit Nancy Pelosi over the head with a gavel.) No one spoke out condemning this online violence. One wonders how many young people now feel it’s OK to create similar anime to target a classmate they don’t like.
The second example is a quote from a voicemail received by Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat. As reported by the New York Times, the entire voicemail said: “I hope your family dies in front of you. I pray to God that if you’ve got any children, they die in your face.” How many Queen bees or wannabes will now make that their modus operandi to spook someone they don’t like?
Republican leaders are content to sit back and do nothing. They are fearful of losing support from the base still following an ex-president who made violence his calling card. As the Times reported: “[Trump} encouraged attendees at his rallies to `knock the hell’ out of protesters, praised a lawmaker who body-slammed a reporter, and in a recent interview defended rioters who clamored to `hang Mike Pence.’”
Your children and your grandchildren are online. They are watching and listening to this coarsening climate where respect for others is fast becoming a thing of the past. Ask yourself: is this the behavior you hope the young people in your life will imitate? Is this the type of country you want to live in? Because once the boundaries of civility are broken we are all vulnerable. Even you.
Have no doubt: this is bullying behavior by people who believe they have the right to menace and threaten others without any consequences. They may escape, but do you want to be on the receiving end of a phone call from a friend or school administrator reporting the child that you love for such unacceptable acts? If the answer is no (and I hope it is), then now is the perfect time to have a discussion about respect for others. Make it clear that menacing or threatening another person is a step over the line and there will be repercussions.
Don’t stop there. Speak out! Call out public officials when they resort to deplorable tactics. We can disagree without stooping to language that invites violence.
Yes, we need climate change to save our planet. But we also need a change of the political climate to save our country.
Charlene Giannetti is the co-author with Margaret Sagarese of eight books for parents of young adolescents, including The Roller-Coaster Years and Cliques.
Top photo: Bigstock