Elementary and junior high school kids have been back at school for almost a month now. The first week back coincided with a Ministry of Education anti-bullying initiative called “Friendly School Campus Week.” Although the initiative ended on the last day of that first week, the image of the Taipei mayor clad in pink teaching staff and students as part of the promotion burned into my memory.
A “Bullying Stops Here” event was announced at precisely -08:08am — a clever little marketing symbolism born of the fact that, in Chinese, that time sounds the same as the Chinese for “zero bullying,” or at least the “new” word for it currently in vogue in Taiwan. The question is, was this just for show, or does it come from a sincere resolve to end bullying?
Brightly colored logos and flowery sounding slogans do indeed succeed in drawing people’s attention to an issue. This is not the first time specific meanings or import have been associated with particular colors or symbols in the interests of advocating a given standpoint or idea.
When celebrities appear in public wearing pink or red ribbons, you know that a new campaign to fight breast cancer or AIDS is underway. Then there are the rainbow flags, ubiquitous at gay pride marches, keeping alive the idea that the six colors, linked to the tragic assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and the openly gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, have come to be associated with gay pride.
Neither did the idea of the pink theme spring fully-formed from the brain of a Taipei City government official. It was inspired by Pink Shirt Day events, similarly aimed at stamping out bullying, initiated in Canada. The idea started when a Canadian student was picked on for wearing a pink shirt. Two fellow students decided to do something about it, buying 50 pink tank-tops and distributing them at school the next day. They got other students to wear the tank tops to show their solidarity with the bullied child, and it worked: The bullies realized what they were up against and melted into the background.
This success inspired other countries, the UK and New Zealand included, to follow suit, and the association of the pink shirt with the condemnation of bullying was established. We know from past experience that males who do not conform to the gender stereotype — those who wear pink or act in ways considered to be effeminate — have often been singled out as legitimate targets for prejudice or intimidation. Seen in this light the anti-bullying campaign does have ideological and educational value, and the fact that the government is leading the way, and that celebrities are getting involved, may well go some way to creating a more pleasant social environment.
We should note, however, that if we are to adopt wholesale the chosen color and associations of an anti-bullying movement from other countries, we have to do more than simply establish a link between the two, or directly equate the color pink with the fight against bullying. This somewhat reductionist approach retards the development of the more sophisticated narrative needed for us to deal with the problem of bullying in the context of our own schools.
The underlying reasons for the problem are both complex and diverse. An educational system which focuses on academic achievement and embraces the dichotomy of individuals as either “good” or “bad” students, unjust prejudices based on a student’s social class or how wealthy their parents are, and the sight of adults failing to stand up for what is right, and thereby providing poor role models for the young, are all contributing factors, however unrelated they may at first seem. They all need to be addressed.
There are no guarantees that the bully won’t become the bullied, or vice versa, and neither should we be tempted to establish hard and fast truths about the nature of one or the other. It is important not to be too rigid in profiling potential victims, as this risks allowing the more atypical cases to fall under the radar. Furthermore, if we say “a potential bullying victim is most likely to be such-and-such a type of person,” we run the risk of laying the responsibility for being bullied on the shoulders of the victims themselves.
So, yes, a declaration of intent is important, but is in itself not enough. The road ahead, from policy development to the education of teaching staff, students and members of the public, promises to be long and we have to be prepared for hesitant progress.
Nevertheless, it is a road we have to take. There must be some form of guiding mechanism within schools and in wider society beyond the school gates; We should be careful not to allow our society to become one that condones the law of the jungle, where survival of the fittest reigns and the strong oppressing the weak is seen as the natural order of things.
As to the short term, holding the bullies to account while continuing to debate the various aspects of the problem will help us better clarify the true nature of bullying.
We need to take this problem seriously, think more along the lines of long-term solutions and be more considered in our approach. If efforts stop at merely declaring good intentions on the first day of school, or announcing initiatives such as Friendly School Campus Week, we are just blowing in the wind. It might even lead people to doubt that such resolve ever really existed in the first place.
Huang Tsung-huei is a professor in the foreign languages and literatures department at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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