A Social Mandate for Morality?

What a week has passed!  I had the honor of presenting Everyday Ambassador to several new communities in the past week, as a keynote speaker at the NYU Civic Team annual conference and as a panelist at a meeting with Ashoka and NYU Wagner’s Bridge student group for social innovation.  I met brilliant students and professors alike involved in highly meaningful service work, and some wheels are rolling on future collaborations to put Everyday Ambassador principles into practice.

But with all that forward thinking I also experienced a major flashback.

Over the weekend I stopped home in Cumberland, Rhode Island to participate in a concert celebrating 50 years of performances by our school choir (don’t worry, CDs will be available :) ).   I was delighted to spend long overdue time with old friends and cherished teachers who fostered my own growth during those pivotal years.  At the same time, seeing my chorus friends as more fully developed adults reminded me that life was not always so rosy for my peers.

I thought in particular about my gay friends, who waited until after high school to come out, probably anticipating the discrimination they would have faced in our hallways.  In our relatively conservative environment it was (and maybe still is?) common parlance for kids to identify something as bad or negative by calling it, “so gay!”, and parents taught (and maybe still teach?) their children that homosexuality is unnatural.


As if on cue, my grandmother spoke up over breakfast the next morning about the “Bully” documentary (though she uses no social media, my grandmother is always more up to date on current events than I).  I had not, and immediately logged online to check out the trailer, which demonstrated the palpable courage of filmmakers and participants trying to bring awareness to the ‘epidemic’ of bullying in America’s schools: Seeing anti-bullying posters up in the classroom where alumni gathered, I wondered: if Everyday Ambassador had been required reading back then, would I have been brave enough to implement the principle of respecting diversity, and stand up for what was clearly an injustice?

In some ways this documentary tells the same old story, which offers little sympathy to the bullied: kids will be kids and taunt each other; kids need to be tough and defend themselves.

But my sister, who works to defend civil rights within school systems, brought up an interesting point – that in the 21st century we face a brand new world of bullying.  No longer can kids return home to a refuge from school, because their assaulters are waiting for them to sign online as well – to post words and pictures that inflict  psychological damage just as painful as physical abuse.

Online atmospheres can drive the bullying ‘epidemic’ in other ways as well,  such as the very cultural conditioning of online interactions in whihc we are not accountable for our actions, we can tease anonymously without consequence, and we can “x” out of conversations if they become unmanageable, without regard for the human on the other end.  We are less likely to confront diversity in the online shelters we create for ourselves, and we can inflict virtual violence without fear of punishment.

These tendencies do not translate well, of course, into real life.  And our technology tools thus can become an engine for mistreating others – and not only those with different sexual identities, but also to those who simply look or speak or act different than the mainstream.

So what might be a solution?

It would be nice to think we could enact legislation to disincentivize immoral behavior, but as a compelling (even if troubling) Sunday NYT Op-Ed argues, it could be unlawful to punish people for prejudiced mindsets:

“One can choose not to pull the trigger….[but] ‘You can’t choose not to be prejudiced or biased’….We pass moral judgments all the time against bigots and chauvinists and homophobes and so forth. But this is a question not of what we should morally blame people for, but of what we should deprive them of liberty for.”

Assuming then that we cannot count on the law to mandate daily decency, what can you and I do to promote it?

Many will surely suggest, as this film gains momentum, a series of online actions we can take to ‘raise awareness’ and ‘spread the word’.  For example, you can add your name to the 500,000 signatures gathered so far to demand the film’s R-rating is changed to PG-13 so it’s more accessible to its target audience of teenagers.  But at the same time we should take heed that the online tools were just as easily manipulated by Dharun Ravi to create a hostile enough environment that his roommate Tyler Clementi saw no choice but to commit suicide.  The social media that will make the “Bully” movie and movement successful is the same technology used to perpetuate hateful, hurtful behavior.

One solution then might be putting ‘ambassadorship’ into action – not as a force uniting people across countries, but as a power pushing us to cross comfort zones.  That means, practically, creating opportunities for students in middle and high schools – and their parents! – to step outside their comfort zones by thoughtfully presenting different viewpoints.  The more we expose young people to diversity of lifestyles at younger ages, accompanied by ambassadorial training in how to navigate that space with respect, the less likely, I think, we are to witness bullying, and the emotional trauma and at times suicide that results.

My mother and brother and sister-in-law are all public school educators who I know would be the first to tell me, ‘it’s not that easy!’ as I encourage this expanding and overlapping of comfort zones.  It requires logistics and coordination that may be out of the hands of an educator to implement.

But we’ve got to start somewhere, to move from ‘awareness’ to ‘ambassadorship’.

In my meeting at Ashoka last week, our roomful of participants introduced each other by stating our name and the problem that ‘keeps us up at night.’  One woman responded that she ponders how to make positive change mainstream, how to make it a ‘social mandate.’

I believe that “Bully” presents an opportune moment to consider how such a social mandate on morality could be achieved our digital generation.

I welcome your comments and encourage suggestions on any effective exercises or programs readers have been involved with that they can share with our community.

Image Credit: Thebullyproject.com


  • Kate, great post – and thanks for sharing Sherry Turkle’s talk too. Her message is all-important today. I wonder if you’ve ever heard this 2006 This American Life broadcast. It speaks right to the heart of very personal encounters a Muslim family had with being “different”, the dangerous outsider in an otherwise loving, innocent environment. WELL WORTH your listen next time you have a free 45 min to listen closely to it: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/322/shouting-across-the-divide

    • kateotto

      hey Mark!! Thank you so much for the comment and I have not yet heard this broadcast, will listen this weekend – thank you for sharing with the EA community!!! you’re so wonderful and a true EA yourself. xo

  • Elena K

    Just read your new post…interesting! It’s not easy to make people more tolerant or understanding except by setting the example, I think. We still have to try though& encourage schools to promote tolerance& acceptance.

  • Great post Kate! The topic of bullying is one that is very sensitive not just because of the repurcussions it has, but also because of the difficulty to “solve” the problem. Bullying, in my opinion and as you somewhat mention, is the action of prejudicial thinking. To tackle the issue of bullying one must tackle the issue of prejudice. As you mentioned, you can’t put into effect a law that prohibits people from forming such thoughts or opinions. I agree with you in that exposure at early ages to diversity is extremely important. It teaches respect of oppossing values, beliefs, cultures, and lifestyles. Though many of us will not agree with certain things, it is our moral duty as human beings to respect each other. To me respect is what it boils down to.

  • Great blog post as always Kate! However, I think that Bully was reclassified as an “Unrated” movie based on the reaction to the petition you mentioned.

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