“a friend you haven’t made yet.”

With the 2012 election right around the corner, our televisions and websites have been inundated with lofty promises, public endorsements, and snarky sound bites. Furthermore, everyone (admittedly, myself included) appears to have something to say about each of the candidates, their platforms, and the “correct” vision for our nation’s future.

It’s easy to get swept up in the rhetoric, especially as many of these issues are highly polarized (and thus highly emotional). From social issues like gay marriage and abortion rights and rape to the national deficit and job creation, we are shown candidates that seemingly disagree on all topics—which in turn means that each group of partisan supporters must disagree on all topics.

Add name-calling and bullying to the mix, and the situation quickly becomes volatile.
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There’s already been a great deal of discussion surrounding hatemonger “conservative political pundit” Ann Coulter, for her incendiary and classless use of the term “retard” in reference to President Obama. I refuse to fuel the fire by engaging Coulter on this topic: her desperate words do not interest me.

What does matter, however, is the vast outpouring of support for those disparaged by her offensive remarks and the public outcry against this hateful rhetoric. But in our denunciation of her bad behavior, we must be careful: all too often, we elect to “fight fire with fire” and—although it may provide a temporary feeling of vindication—this approach offers nothing conducive to effecting change.

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It is in recognition of this fact that John Franklin Stephens’ “Open Letter to Ann Coulter” has made such a positive impact on so many people in the past few days. Where there is bitterness and division, Stephens counters with acceptance and kindness. He reminds us that “being compared to people like [him] should be considered a badge of honor” because “no one overcomes more than [they] do and still loves life so much.”

Stephens’ first op-ed piece, “Using the word ‘retard’ to describe me hurts,” is even more poignant as those of us fortunate enough to “fit in” are reminded of our blessing:

“The hardest thing about having an intellectual disability is the loneliness. We process information slower than everyone else. So even normal conversation is a constant battle for us not to lose touch with what the rest of you are saying. Most of the time the words and thoughts just go too fast for us to keep up, and when we finally say something it seems out of place.

So, what’s wrong with “retard”? I can only tell you what it means to me and people like me when we hear it. It means that the rest of you are excluding us from your group. We are something that is not like you and something that none of you would ever want to be. We are something outside the “in” group. We are someone that is not your kind.”

This is the sort of essay that needs to be present in our schools, our offices, and in our homes. The distinction between casually and callously throwing around a disparaging term (simply for the sake of being disparaging) and Stephens’ thoughtful and sensitive response is overwhelming.

As I read his words, I am filled with admiration and pride that there are still people fighting for kindness and promoting tolerance. I am persuaded, I am energized, and I am prepared to support fellowship by eliminating hatred.

bullied by the mpaa.

Lee Hirsch's "Bully" is a heart-breaking look at how five families are affected by the institutional and societal shortcomings in our management of bullying behavior.

“Bully” isn’t set to hit theaters until March 30, but already there is a significant debate surrounding Lee Hirsch’s latest documentary, and—specifically—the “R” rating it received from the MPAA as a result of the film’s “language.” What is frustrating in the MPAA’s decision is that this is not an issue of some fictional account glorifying bad behavior, but is instead a reflection of things as they are for many students already. Essentially, the MPAA is attempting to “protect” children from something they already experience on a daily basis just within their own school hallways and lunch tables.

In addition to the sheer illogicality of seeking to curb a student’s access to a film discussing an issue most of them must deal with in some way or another every day, there is the issue of weighing which of these aims will provide more benefit to our youth. Better yet, which of these issues would provide more damage if ignored?

While it may seem honorable to attempt to shield children from profanity, it is a misguided endeavor, especially considering how prevalent profanity is within our media—including cable television. Instead, what suffers is the message that Hirsch is seeking to deliver, as children who may want to better understand the emotional toll bullying has or who may be bullied themselves and are simply looking for a way to know they’re neither alone nor powerless. Linda Holmes says it best in her review of the MPAA’s decision:

“There’s a grotesque irony in declaring that what is portrayed in Bully should be softened, or bleeped — should be hidden, really, because it’s too much for kids to see. Of course it’s too much for kids to see. It’s also too much for kids to live through, walk through, ride the bus with, and go to school with. That’s why they made the movie. The entire point of this film is that kids do not live with the protection we often believe they do — many of them live in a terrifying, isolating war zone, and if you hide what it’s like, if you lie about what they’re experiencing, you destroy what is there to be learned.”

Many of us who have safely made our way out of the middle- and high-school battles zones already have some idea of what it feels like to be picked on by our peers. Even more of us can—at the very least—empathize with feeling insecure and awkward during those years. While this film highlights just how much more brutal youth culture can be today in comparison to our own experiences, “Bully” is not necessarily for us. It is to give the children navigating a hostile school environment a voice that they are all too often robbed of. To silence them further by rating their stories “R” or watering these stories down by censoring the language continues to bully them. If we don’t respect these children enough to give them a voice at the institutional level, how can we expect them to have any hope of successfully overcoming what they face from their peers?

It may be a small gesture, but please consider signing the petition. At the very least, give our students a chance to be heard.

Alex is just one of the five students featured in "Bully" whose story is restricted as a result of the MPAA rating.

UPDATE 4/6/2012: We won! The MPAA has changed Bully’s rating from R to PG-13 as a direct result of public pressure. Thank you so much for your help, and please make sure you (and all of your adolescent acquaintances!) see this documentary.