Why do people have to die for social problems to be taken seriously?

I’ve noticed this pattern happening quite a lot in our society. Bullying in schools was not considered a problem until the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999. Terrorism was not an American problem until September 11th, 2001. And with the January 2011 shooting in Tucson, Arizona came a wave of reaching across the aisle politically that would have never happened had people not been killed. It seems that whatever the social problem we suffer, it takes a death for us to be shocked into doing something about it, whether it be bullying, terrorism, or overly partisan politics.

Have we become that desensitized to other people’s suffering? Are we that indifferent to another’s pain, that only death makes us sit up and take notice of the problem that caused it?

Example: The Columbine High School Shootings and Bullying Awareness

I have personal experience with the bullying issue–from 1990 to at least 1998, I was heavily bullied in school. I got physical and verbal abuse, I was ostracized by the other students, and I had absolutely no friends, no people who would stand with me until 8th grade. The teachers and administrators all told me that I was “too sensitive,” that I needed to “suck it up” because “kids were going to be kids.” Personally, I don’t think being held against the wall by a big guy while his little girlfriend jiggles and pinches your thighs till they bruise was something I needed to “suck up” and “live with.” But I was routinely sent to the office for complaining too loudly about the abuse I was getting in school.

I endured this until 8th grade, when apparently everybody else’s “maturity gene” kicked in and I finally got a few fairly good friends. Then the Columbine High School shootings happened.

I didn’t expect something that had happened over a thousand miles away to affect my life, but it did. Suddenly, I got a call to go to the counselor’s office–the same counselor’s office I had run to in sixth and seventh grades when I was being physically and verbally abused by other students, and in which I had been told that I needed to become “more grownup” and “less sensitive.” Suddenly, there were five adults waiting on me in there–one of the vice principals, all three of the school counselors, and the on-site police officer. They wanted to know, “Is there anybody who’s been, um, bothering you lately, you know, that we can help get you away from? Or is there anybody who’s been mean to you and you’d like us to stop that for you?” All of them spoke as if I was a ticking bomb.

I quite calmly explained that I wasn’t really having any problems at the moment, all the while thinking “Where were you two years ago, when I came to you for help and you told me I was just being too sensitive?” After they asked me if they could help for about the sixteenth time, I finally just said, “I really think it’s sad that kids had to die before you paid attention to the problem of bullying in schools.” The looks of chastised shock I got in response let me know I had hit home with my words at last.

The Aftermath: Anti-Bullying Programs EVERYWHERE…

Nowadays, of course, there’s all these anti-bullying campaigns present all over the nation, and perhaps all over the world. Teachers get trained in how to stop bullies, in ways that I never saw any teacher step up for me when I was getting hurt. Bullying awareness programs and victim support groups have popped up in classrooms, communities, and even churches; the very same people who told me I should just “suck it up and grow up” are now counseling bullying victims properly, acknowledging that they have been victims of social violence rather than just “kids being kids.”

But most of this started after 1999, after 30 students were shot by two guys who had been bullied in much the same ways as I had been. Better late than never, I guess, but it doesn’t make up for the young people who were killed because no one paid attention to the burgeoning problem of bullying. (Note: I do not excuse the two boys for their actions; I am only saying that bullying likely pushed them much closer to making the terrible choice they made, and if preventative action had been taken earlier, they may not have resorted to such deadly, horrific violence.)

Moving Forward: Let’s Pay Attention to the Warning Signs!

My point is that we should start paying attention to critical social problems when they are first raised to our attention, and not just when someone dies from them.

For instance, the 2011 shooting in Tucson shows how negatively charged our current political situation is, that someone would think that opening fire on a public official and the surrounding crowd was a good idea. But there’s been lots of evidence before now, evidence that has been pushed to the side by both parties. Inflammatory comments, highly biased reports, unfair sound bites–and yet all of that has been shoved aside by people who don’t want to even listen to what the other side has to say.

Now, of course, there’s a big push to try to reunite this broken nation in the veils of mourning. My question is: why do we have to witness and mourn death before we drop the “US VS. THEM” banners? Why do we have to wait for a tragedy to remember we’re all humans?

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