I’m a glasses-wearing college professor, so no one is surprised when I tell them I was a nerdy kid. Like a lot of nerdy kids, I got bullied in school sometimes. Whenever it happened, some adults and other kids would either look away and act like they didn’t notice, or else they’d give me the bad advice of relying on teachers to fix the situation. That advice amounted to saying two things: “trust the institution of the school to take care of you” and “behave as you’re supposed to according to the institution’s rules.” In my experience, this simply never worked. Bullies in my life only ever stopped when I responded to the bully by breaking the rules myself. Sometimes that had hard consequences — I was really scared when I had to tell my parents I got suspended! — but in the end it worked out for the best for me.
I say this because we have a bully problem here in Iowa, specifically in the state legislature, which has passed laws that promote discrimination against children — children! — simply because they’re queer and trans. People of conscience in Iowa need to be very clear that the bullies will never stop until they are made to stop.
Urbandale schools recently pulled 400 books from their libraries in response to legislative bullying, including such moving classes like Catcher in the Rye and the politically informative 1984. This is not the most important part of these terrible events, but I felt really sad reading that because for me as a kid the library and books were such a wonderful part of my life, expanding my horizons, helping me understand the world and myself better, providing a sense of connection at times when I felt isolated. And the kids targeted by legislative bullying definitely feel more isolated as a result; that’s what bullying and bigotry do. This is less important but I also worry, as someone who teaches at the college level, that kids who grow up in the restrictive intellectual environments imposed by the legislative bullies will be less prepared to succeed in college and other post-graduation areas of life.
An Urbandale school board member speaking on book banning said that “school districts are fearful” right now in the face of legislation trying to restrict what books kids can access in schools. That makes sense. Bullies are scary. But responding by giving the bullies what they want just makes the bullies stronger and helps them do the harms they’re choosing to do.
School boards should refuse to enforce book bans and similar laws that harm children. Iowa Democrats should call on school boards to do so. They should use their resources to limit the consequences of school boards who do so, to defend school boards who do face consequences, and to encourage protest. I know some of my liberal friends think that if school boards refuse these laws then that would make things worse. This line of thinking goes, “we can’t break the rules because that will justify the other side’s rulebreaking.” This is an understandable view, but a mistaken one, and one that grievously misunderstands the bullies. The kid who hits back at the bully does not justify the bullying, and no bully has ever paused and said “you know what, taking this kid’s lunch money would be unfair so I won’t do it.”
Liberal friends will reply that what we really need to do is vote out the legislative bullies and replace them with actual public servants. The problem is the legislative bullies control the official channels of politics right now, and those channels move too slowly to deal with the urgent issues in front of us. And remember, we’re talking about children. A long time is especially long for a kid. For, say, a ten year old, a year is a full ten percent of their life. Plus kids are having formative experiences right now. Bad things that happen to them — bad things that some adults choose to make happen to them in order to score political points and bring in donations, bad things that some other adults let happen to them because they’re afraid — will reverberate in those children’s lives for many years, often into their adult lives. If we respond to legislative bullying by saying “trust the institutions” and “behave according to the institution’s rules,” we will continue to fail children in long-lasting ways. The ordinary rules of our institutions won’t stop the bullies. This means anyone whose response to bullying consists only of behaving in line with institutional rules is at best mistaken about the problem before us.
I’ve used bullies as a metaphor here (though I do think many of our state politicians and their allies around the country really are bullies), but I will add that the historical record is very clear on these matters. There is a long and ugly history of oppression and injustice — of institutionally protected and perpetrated bullying — inflicted on groups like workers, people of color, women, disabled people, queer people. Historically those groups have never gained significant rights, and have only rarely kept their rights, except by collectively standing up to the bullies in ways that break the rules and create consequences for powerful actors. We are in another moment in that long and ugly history, and it will not get better if people of conscience only play by the rules.
Nate Holdren teaches in the Program in Law, Politics, and Society at Drake University. He is the author of the book Injury Impoverished. His other writing has appeared in publications including Time Magazine, Bill of Health, and the Des Moines Register.