No Name Calling Week Revisited

Recently I wrote a column criticizing an event known as “No Name Calling Week.” NNCW is an event created by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Educators Network to address name calling and gay public policy objectives all at once. Since the publication of the column, an Associated Press story on the event by David Crary quoting my objections has been widely circulated. As I write this column, we are in the midst of the NNCW in many middle schools. However, many of those who have responded to my thoughts apparently are not celebrating NNCW. They must have things confused. I think they must think this week is “Call People You Disagree With As Many Names As You Can Include In An Email Week.” A short hand for this alternative observance might be: “Call Throckmorton A Nazi Week.”

No matter, I have a thick skin. I won’t react with cries of Throckaphobia or some other slur. But I think I will give this another try.

It may surprise some that I originally considered endorsing NNCW when I first learned about it last school year. Furthermore, I have spoken in schools and youth groups against name calling and harassment and believe it or not, specifically speaking against the use of the insult “fag” and derogatory use of the term “gay.”

However, after I explored the NNCW website and read The Misfits, the book on which the week is based, I decided against an endorsement. Essentially, I decided that this intervention served ideological ends much more so than educational ones. Moreover and perhaps more importantly, I believe this intervention is likely to hamper efforts that could be much more effective.

The ideological purpose is to change beliefs about homosexuality. The author of The Misfits, James Howe made this end clear when he said in a interview concerning Joe, a gay 7th grader featured in the book: “I wanted him to be a kid who sees himself as cool, who sees nothing wrong with being attracted to the boy who sits next to him in art class as opposed to the girl on the other side of him. He understands, as do the other “misfits” in this story, that the problem isn’t with himself, it’s with the attitudes and ignorance of others.” If you disagree, you’re ignorant. Indeed, the book paints a we-they mentality that does not seem to be about tolerance but as the author said, exposing “ignorance.”

Associating an attempt to change beliefs with an anti-name calling campaign reveals an interesting but I submit fallacious assumption.

Let me frame this assumption via two questions. Do bullies harass gay kids primarily because bullies believe homosexuality is wrong? If we convince everybody that homosexuality is of no moral or practical consequence, then will the bullying cease? The basic premise of school based efforts to change beliefs concerning homosexuality is that bad beliefs are the primary causes of maltreatment of kids who identify as gay. So, the thinking goes, if schools get students to see the GLSEN light then all the bullying will stop. I believe this approach is misguided and insulting to those who have traditional views of sexuality.

My research suggests that beliefs about homosexuality have no necessary relationship with likelihood of young people to harass those who appear to be or identify as gay. So attempting to “re-educate” students concerning homosexuality may confuse and stigmatize traditional teachers, parents and kids, but it will do little if anything to prevent bullies from finding kids who appear weak and vulnerable. Do we really think that the reason bullies attack kids with large ears or smart kids or obese kids is because bullies believe the wrong things about ear size, intelligence or obesity?

Remarkably, research has shown that many people who harass gays do not have negative beliefs toward homosexuality. Of course some bullies do have such attitudes, but for the most part, bullies bully because they can. Kids who harass other kids are primarily looking for a weak link in the social chain. Thus, NNCW may change the beliefs of some toward homosexuality but this alone will not prevent bullying.

Amazingly, the prime sponsor of the NNCW and similar events such as the Day of Silence, GLSEN, is aware that there is no evidence that such efforts work. I have asked GLSEN for the research backing for these belief change programs and they have had the integrity to admit that there is none.

The prime problem with NNCW is that the effort to change the beliefs of the masses moves the focus away from where research shows it should be – on the perpetrator. Victims need assistance and support to be sure but the key to solve the harassment problem in schools is to intervene with the bully.