On Thursday, the Louisiana legislature rejected HB 112, the “Safe Schools Act,” which clarified existing law requiring schools to protect kids from bullying. How could this be?
Bullying can be easily overlooked, because it includes hurtful talk. The bill named specific characteristics that make kids vulnerable: race, color, religion, ancestry, disability, political persuasion, and gender identity. It was the last one that evoked drama in the legislature.
Two advocacy groups had offered strong objections. Dr John Yeats, of the Louisiana Southern Baptist Coalition, has stated that “homosexual activists are hijacking the bullying statutes to promote homosexuality”. The Rev. Gene Mills of the conservative Family Forum has dubbed it the “Homosexual Bullying Bill,” and stated it “creates winners and losers … and introduces sexual politics into the classroom”. Rep. Alan Seabaugh (R-Shreveport) added, “the bill was intended to promote an agenda and force teaching alternative lifestyles to our children … straight out of the lesbian, gay, transgender playbook”. The bill was defeated, 43-54.
Anxiety is in the air, and these assertions call for calm reflection. The mental health perspective seeks to sort out where our judgments come from, when their logic is not immediately clear.
The bill has moral overtones, and the critics’ moral outlook is deeply relevant. Lawrence Kohlberg wrote about moral development, and how our views form. Our developmental journey has three stages: Level 1 “preconventional” thinking involves making decisions based on “what’s in it for me” or “what can I get away with”. Kids begin life thinking this way. Level 2 “conventional” thinking involves conforming to authority, or social or religious norms. Level 3 “post-conventional” thinking, which comes later in life, if at all, involves larger principles of justice that may sometimes require us to challenge those norms.
If gay kids are explicitly protected from bullying, what are the worries? Homosexuality is promoted, says Yates. There would be winners and losers, says Mills. (Who would lose? Lose what?) A gay agenda would be served, says Seabaugh, and kids would have to learn about gays. (Actually not. Read the bill). These critics of the bill seem concerned that gays would gain an advantage, by being recognized as a group in need of protection, and deserving it. Somewhere an untested assumption creeps in, that when somebody gains status, others lose it. This is Level 1 thinking. Another group’s gain might create resentment, unless you think that justice and fairness are more important. This is Level 2 thinking. Protecting kids is the right thing to do, even if you disapprove of their lifestyles. This is Level 3 thinking.
Some critics of the anti-bullying bill seem concerned that if gay kids are protected from hurtful talk, the critics lose the freedom to make negative judgments of their lifestyle. In fact, the bill would have only forced bullies to consider the impact of their words and actions on others (Level 2 thinking), taking priority over the satisfaction of verbalizing their beliefs (Level 1 thinking). Their judgments are irrelevant. Bullying is intolerable. Period.
The defeat of the bill brings to light some issues related to the moral maturity of its critics. Fortunately, personal growth is ongoing, if people challenge one another in healthy ways. Critics of the anti-bullying bill seem to worry about consequences for their community, from society’s increasing tolerance toward gays. But really, even those who think being gay comes from culture more than genes, don’t seem to worry that acquainting their kids with sushi might make them Japanese. Therapists invite people to explore where their judgments come from, and to test them. People who are certain of their views, however, tend to not look at themselves in this mirror, until their loved ones insist.
Let us insist.