This blog is going up late because for the past week and a half I’ve been traveling around the more rural parts of South Africa, seeing parts of this country that are more exotic to my western eye: sugar cane fields ripe for harvest, cows and goats wandering the streets, zebras and giraffes in their natural habitat, economies based on frantic informal buying and selling everything on the side of the road, black children in school uniforms flooding the dirt paths through villages together with their livestock, women cutting marsh reeds for making wicker items, mothers of all ages with babies strapped to their backs and large parcels balanced on their heads…
It would be too easy under these circumstances to associate the international headlines coming out of rural South Africa at the beginning of this month with this same sense of things here being radically exotic and non-western: Over the May Day holiday weekend among the younger high school boys of this province there was a particularly nasty gang rape of a retarded girl, that one boy shot a cell phone video of that started getting passed around on line; and then on the eve of May Day, in the same sugar cane fields I drove past a few days later, a teenage boy brutally raped a girl just more than half his age, attempting to strangle her and gouge her eyes out in the process. In the latter case the girl survived –– barely –– blindly crawling out of the sugar cane fields in what remained of her school uniform, so badly mutilated that her family didn’t recognize her. The prognosis is that she will eventually regain sight in one eye, but beyond that hope for a normal life for her is fairly limited.
It feels natural to try and distance ourselves from such atrocities. We can’t be talking about normal teenage boys here! There must be something profoundly messed up in the culture which leads to these sorts of inhuman actions among those who are still effectively children.
From enough of a distance it may seem that this is part of childhood being stolen from African children by guerilla fighters and underground armies and the like. People like Kony are making children into monsters that do horrible things to each other. But in these cases civil tensions really have nothing to do with the situation. South Africans regularly march in protest about their poor and risky lives, but there is no risk of civil war here. So far the most radical left wing politicians here have just been big mouthed clowns who talk about state takeover of larger businesses; but their campaigns remain purely democratic at this point, and their conspicuous incompetence is seriously limiting their potential impact in that arena even. (For further perspective on this see my Julius and Rick blog from a couple months ago.) Children in South Africa are not being trained to commit atrocities, especially against other children.
How then can we explain the messed up motivations behind these particularly heinous and obscene crimes, committed by those who aren’t even men yet? One journalistic analysis of the eye gouging rapist has brought out two factors that might explain matters somewhat: The boy was being raised by his grandmother, with little by way of masculine role models in his life; and he was being bullied at school in the typical way that other boys jokingly accused him of being gay. This makes the problem a distinctly African one in some senses, but not so exotic or different from Western culture any more.
A lack of positive male influence in life is a tragic problem in many parts of the world. Men have been isolated from families by the economic demands of industrialized working life, and where they have not been able to find work outside of the home their value as men has been severely marginalized. Thus to prove that they are “real men” many fathers resort to drinking, violence and other testosterone boosting activities that destroy what little chance they might have of building a relationship with their children. This leads to a matriarchal network of young mothers and intense grandmothers doing the child rearing, and boys having little idea about how their masculinity is supposed to (or allowed to) work. If all forms of masculinity –– other than “providing for the family” and other than that staying out of the way –– are just as thoroughly disrespected within a boy’s childhood home, it is little wonder if he starts to express his own masculinity in highly anti-social ways.
This problem is particularly acute in Africa, but it is a well known dynamic in all industrialized nations really. Across the world school boy cultures are increasingly polarized between the “tough guys” who make no apologies for their anti-social masculinity, and “wimps” and “faggots” who do what women tell them to and are thus accused of acting like women themselves. Not that there’s anything wrong with women, per se; it’s just that no self-respecting young man wants to be one. If someone finds a functional solution for this problem they should be given the Nobel Peace Prize for the century.
Bullying is something we all know about from personal experience of being bullied, or taking part in bullying others before we knew any better, or from watching it happen and not really daring to do anything about it. It’s a near universal form of competition for dominance within a group, particularly among more immature individuals: bullies trying to win social acceptance by proving to others that they would be more valuable allies than the “oddballs” they have singled out for torture. This can be particularly brutal at times, and sadly many of the other evils we find in society trace back to the emotional scars left by school bullying, sometimes generations ago even. This can be the first link in a chain of violence that escalates and becomes cyclical, leading to all sorts of other evils.
Kids get teased for any number of reasons at school: for being fat, for being foreign, for having weak hand-eye coordination, for being physically or intellectually under developed or over developed for their age group, for having speech impediments, for having unusual coloring… or for having the wrong sort of emerging sexuality. This last one is particularly nasty because it is so indefinite, especially in the years immediately following puberty. You can pretty easily tell when a kid is unusually tall, or clumsy, or of conspicuously different ancestry from the rest of the group; you really can’t tell when a kid will turn out to be more sexually attracted to his or her own gender than to those using the bathroom on the other end of the hall. If suspicion of this is grounds for social rejection, isolation, public humiliation and physical abuse –– if neither the tormentors nor the tormented can be entirely sure about whether the assumed grounds for this nastiness is real or not –– that makes the seditious evil of the bullying all the more destructive.
If a kid is bullied for being of the wrong “race” he can usually figure out what it is about him that the idiots tormenting him have used as a basis for singling him out for torture, that it’s not something he can change, that it’s not something he did anything to deserve and that it’s actually a not a flaw. From there the emotional adjustment process is a lot easier. Such kids still have to deal with the brutality of the attacks they are subjected to but they know they are on higher moral ground than their attackers, and with the sense of confidence this gives them they can fight back or ignore the abuse far more effectively. But when a kid is bullied for “acting gay”, it’s actually not always clear where such an idea comes from, whether or not he’s voluntarily doing anything socially unacceptable, whether it’s a matter of simply learning to act more “normal”, whether he actually is more sexually attracted to members of his own sex and whether that would be something horrible if he is. A young victim of homophobic bullying cannot be sure whether he should lash out against his tormentors or against himself, or against someone else entirely.
Other grounds for teasing are things kids outgrow in one way or another. Size differences even out considerably when young people are finally full grown. Those who are less coordinated either develop the necessary coordination as they get older or they learn to compensate for it in other ways. Those who are too bright for their peer group either dumb themselves down or find new circles of friends that can relate to them better. Immigrant kids learn the new language and culture and find ways to fit in, and others come to see the variety that outsiders bring as a cool thing. Kids with who have been marginalized because of doubts about their sexuality have it much worse. If they are in fact homosexual by inclination in most parts of the world they will suffer lasting social stigma and moral condemnation for who they are. If they are in fact heterosexual by inclination, having suffered such abuse can seriously damage their chances of finding a desirable partner, and of building a stable relationship –– sexuality is always a matter of proving something, not of enjoying the depth of personal inter-connection it can bring.
If I relate this all to my own personal experience, I was teased in school for being different, but not for any serious suspicion that I was gay. I’ve had friends among fellow bullying victims who were gay, some of whom may have had a crush on me even, but it never occurred to me to have any sort of romantic interest in another guy. In retrospect I wish I could have been a better and more supportive friend to some of them, but of course there were things I just didn’t understand back then. At first I saw gay men as just clowns, in a tradition running from the Scarlet Pimpernel to Gomer Pyle. They were nothing more to me than a silly joke. When I came to know a few gay fellows of my own age at first I was almost always the last one to believe that it really was the case; labeling someone as gay was something that left a very bad taste in my mouth. When it became clear that someone really was gay my immediate reaction was a mix of nervousness and pity.
It took quite a while before I could start to relate to openly gay acquaintances as friends without really worrying about their sexuality. For me a lot of it had to do with my time in the restaurant business: in all types of food service establishments I encountered a continuous stream of both fellow workers and customers of that persuasion, and learning to relate to them in a friendly, cooperative and unreserved manner was a functional necessity. Sometimes their ways of expressing their identities still came out as a bad joke but more and more it became clear that they were just people like all others: trying to do good to others in hopes of receiving good in return, defensive regarding things over which they’ve been attacked in the past, looking for acceptance wherever they can find it, hoping to find love of many different sorts as life goes on.
I’ve come to realize quite thoroughly that a fear of homosexuality is a far more dangerous thing than homosexuality itself. Sexuality of any sort has its own beauties and dangers to it, and we all have to find a balance between enjoying our drives and restricting our urges. This applies quite equally to both women and men, both gay and straight. The fact that we tend to more easily accuse those who are different from ourselves does not give any of us the higher moral ground in these matters. Yes, the majority of the human race will continue to be heterosexual and sexuality will continue to be a source of strife within the human race for as long as we succeed in avoiding extinction. That doesn’t mean that any of us are justified in issuing blanket condemnations towards others’ sexuality. The most important thing is to stop kids from bullying each other on such a basis, and to keep them from doing horrible things to themselves and each other to prove something about their sexuality.