The most widely viewed, discussed and controversial of all productions about bullying is 13 Reasons Why, the Netflix mega-hit series whose second season has recently been released. I greatly enjoyed the first season, have so far watched the first two episodes of the recently released second, and eagerly anticipate the rest.
Why am I so excited about a melodramatic series about teen angst? It is because it provides an intensive and extensive examination of an issue of crucial importance that no one else is noticing. This issue is contributing big time to the tragic and growing trend of violence by youth against themselves and others, and must be recognized if we are to put a stop to the superfluous pain and bloodshed it’s causing. It’s an issue that I’ve been raising for a decade-and-a-half while facing considerable resistance: the destructiveness of school anti-bullying laws. Finally, along comes a series called 13 Reasons Way that makes the best argument for their abolition.
Viewers and reviewers believe the series is about, as the Netflix discussion guide informs us, “sexual assault, substance abuse, bullying, suicide, gun violence and more.” But these themes don’t make the show special. They have been the elements of drama forever. After all, who enjoys stories in which nothing bad happens to anyone? Furthermore, these problems have been dealt with intensively by mental health and educational organizations for years. Discussing them within the context of 13 Reasons Why adds nothing new.
So if sexual assault, substance abuse, bullying, suicide, gun violence, etc., are merely details, what is the story really about?
Pay attention. It’s the detailed account of what happens to a community when parents file a bullying lawsuit against their child’s school. And it’s a story that would have been impossible prior to the new millennium, because anti-bullying laws didn't exist. Every character is powerfully motivated by the lawsuit. That’s what makes it unique among all the works portraying the hazards of teen life. Do an online search and you will discover that as of today, 13 Reasons Why is the only show out there, fictional or otherwise, about a school being a defendant in a bullying lawsuit. That’s right. The only one.
Not one published review of 13 Reasons Why, not one of the psychological or educational organizations that have addressed the series, has remarked that the show is about the effects of a bullying lawsuit even though it is staring us in the face.
I suspect that not even the writers and producers of the show are aware of their groundbreaking work because they never mention anti-bullying laws as an issue. Like the fictional mother of Hannah Baker, the teen whose suicide is the centerpiece of the story, they have come to take for granted that the thing to do when students experience bullying is to sue the school. The idea of anti-bullying laws sounds so obviously virtuous that hardly anyone bothers to question them.
But these laws are not virtuous, nor are they merely benign. They have been intensifying the bullying problem while increasing the misery of everyone touched by them (with the exception of lawyers and the purveyors of anti-bullying programs).
Critics of the series are concerned that the show might cause an increase in suicide. None of them notice the glaring message of 13 Reasons Why—that bullying lawsuits against schools result in an increase not only in suicide but in a whole slew of emotional, relational and physical problems including, but not limited to, divorce, ostracism, character defamation, assault and battery, vandalism, sexual dysfunction, mental distraction, depression, paranoia and attempted murder. Rather than worrying about the possible negative effects of watching the show, the experts should be worrying about definite negative effects of anti-bullying laws.
No, the bullying lawsuit against the school is not merely a detail of 13 Reasons Why, but its essence. It’s what makes each of the characters' stories so important and so interesting. It’s what magnifies their fears, their suspicions, their anger, their hatreds, their preoccupations, their collusions, their guilt feelings, their self-doubts, their self-justifications, their need to protect their privacy and reputation, their threats, their lies and deceptions, their violence against themselves and others. The specter of the trial is what makes them struggle throughout the series with deciding whether to go the route of truth and revelation or secrecy and deception. Every character is worried about taking the stand and having their secrets made public, and, perhaps even more serious, testifying against their peers. Even Hannah’s mother discovers that the trial drags her daughter’s pristine image through the mud and raises questions about her own (the mother's) responsibility for the suicide.
And the reason should be obvious. No one wants to be found guilty of serious crime. Furthermore, like many bullying lawsuits, this one is not merely about insults, it’s about suicide. This elevates the bullying lawsuit into a murder trial. The higher the stakes, the more viciously people are willing to fight to protect themselves.
The time to question of the wisdom of anti-bullying laws is long overdue
The war to end bullying is about two decades old. The most powerful weapon in its arsenal is the anti-bullying law, which holds schools responsible for bullying among their students.
The major force behind the laws has been the steadfast, heart wrenching lobbying and publicity by grieving parents of children who committed suicide. Many state anti-bullying laws are named after these children. (How ironic that parents can’t get their own couple of kids to stop bullying each other at home, yet they expect schools to stop the bullying among hundreds or even thousands of kids!)
Whenever it’s discovered that the laws aren’t working and the problem is intensifying, the demand for tougher anti-bullying laws intensifies as well. As a result, we are seeing a cycle of intensified laws and intensified bullying.
Bullying has thus become an ever-present, perplexing, and growing epidemic, and the suicide rate of school-age children has skyrocketed, especially among girls. And I don’t need to tell you about school shootings.
I have the dubious distinction of being the world’s most ardent and persistent critic of antibullyism in general and of school anti-bullying laws in particular. Ever since such laws were proposed, I have been warning that they are counterproductive and will cause immense harm (see my 2005 article, Why Anti-Bullying Laws are Doomed to Fail) – that they will not make bullying magically disappear from schools, but will make it easy for parents to sue schools for failing to make the bullying magically disappear.
It is astounding that so few psychological professionals in the world have come out against anti-bullying laws, and not one single organization has done so. It is not rocket science to foresee their negative consequences. The writers of 13 Reasons Why have figured it out, even if they are not cognizant of their accomplishment.
My 2005 article mentioned above predicted, “Instead of creating Heaven on Earth, anti-bullying laws would turn society into a Living Hell.”
And that is exactly what happens in the second season of 13 Reasons Why. Things were bad enough in Season One, before the trial. In Season Two, when the trial begins, the gates of hell swing open. Even the school counselor, who considers protection of students as his sacred mission, engages in physical assault and battery against a student.
Caveat: The situations in which most school communities find themselves when anti-bullying lawsuits are conducted are not quite as vicious and pervasive as they are in 13 Reasons Why. That’s because the story contains an implausible element that injects a wealth of fodder for the series: Hannah Baker prepared a series of detailed tapes directed at 13 people whom she implicates in her decision to end her life. However, the differences between the chaos caused by actual lawsuits and that of 13 Reasons Why are of degree and scope, not of kind. The unavoidable reality is that anti-bullying lawsuits cause lots of pain to lots of people, and enflame passions and hostilities.
The questions we should be asking
The study guide for 13 Reasons Why, as well as those put out by various mental health organizations, propose questions for discussion relating to the show.
However, there are more urgent questions that need to be addressed if we are to reverse the current destructive trends of bullying, suicide and violence. The following is only a partial list of questions. I can easily come up with more by watching an episode of 13 Reasons Why.
1. Is it reasonable to expect a student body to be free of jealousies, dominance struggles, hostilities, fights, prejudices, rumour-mongering, teasing and taunting, sexual pressures, and the myriad of other negative or difficult emotions and actions that are part of social life?
2. Is it logically possible to grant children the right to go to school without anyone interfering in their ability to learn?
3. Is it helpful to use the term “bullying” to describe all types of mean behavior, as the educational and psychological establishments are doing today, and as reflected in 13 Reasons Why?
4. Can the power of the law make groups of people all get along with each other?
5. Is it moral to hold schools legally responsible for the social lives of their students?
6. Can we expect school counselors to successfully help everyone experiencing social trouble?
7. Do bullying lawsuits reduce hostilities towards the plaintiffs?
8. Is it wise to encourage students to inform the school authorities when they are experiencing social problems?
9. Is it ethical to publicly besmirch the reputation of school personnel for failing to make bullying stop?
10. If schools should be sued for failing to stop the hostility among students in school, should parents be sued for failing to stop the hostility among their children at home?
When you watch 13 Reasons Why, don’t pay attention only to the dramas of the characters involved. Look at the larger picture of the story, the story of a school being sued for bullying. Consider how it affects everyone, and whether it helps or hurts them.
If you do so with an open mind, you will never see school anti-bullying laws the same way again. And you will appreciation for 13 Reasons Why will grow.
Izzy Kalman has been a school psychologist specializing in bullying for four decades, and authors a Psychology Today blog: Resilience to Bullying.
Addendum: This article is specifically about what doesn't work for reducing bullying, namely anti-bullying laws that enable parents to sue schools for failing to make bullying stop. Some readers believe I advocate for doing nothing and leaving children “to the wolves.” The truth is that doing nothing is better than doing things that make the problem worse. Fortunately, there is a better option than doing nothing. The best approach for reducing bullying is to teach children how to deal with it on their own, and only to actively help those who are truly incapable of learning to help themselves. I have written well over a hundred articles on this blog over the past nine years and many of them teach specific solutions for a variety of bullying populations. But the reason I write so much about the failure of the anti-bullying movement is that it is causing far more harm than good and someone needs to be explaining why. Since no one else is doing it, I have taken it upon myself.
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