In search of understanding: response to Rehtaeh Parsons’ death

There is something about the story of Rehtaeh Parsons’ death that has gotten under my skin. The end result is just as tragic the bullying leading to suicide reports that came before her. Maybe, it is the sheer number of girls and women who are victims of sexual assaults and the slut shaming that accompanies their trauma. Maybe, it is because looking at the numbers, I’m not surprised. Thinking of the women I know personally, the number that have been a victim of a sexual assault is too large.

There are two questions I keep coming to. Why do we as a society get such joy out of bullying and shaming others? And what is wrong with our society that we think it is okay to torment victims?

I will attempt to tackle the issue of bullying first. Let’s look at the most obvious grown-up version of school – Hollywood tabloids. It’s the story of the hierarchy of cool. Just stand in line at the grocery store and look at the parade of headlines; who’s hotter, who is more shameful, who gained weight, who cheated on whom, who wore the wrong thing and who committed the greatest faux pas in the public eye. And this is all presented to us as “entertainment”. But it isn’t scripted drama; these are real people – despite what the fourth wall encourages us to believe. If you turned that camera around on you and your neighbourhood, you would call it bullying too.

It’s not just in the “entertainment” industry; adults are bullies too. Go to a kid’s hockey game and look at the parents fight with each other over a coach’s call or because another kid is better on that day in that moment than their kid. They argue and fight and… Well, set a stellar example for their kids.

Recently, at my workplace we invited some kids from a local basketball team to come for an activity night. My co-worker was instructing the kids. Her biggest complaint: the parents. The children were listening to instructions, participating and cooperating with each other; but several times she had to call the parents out for talking through presentations. And more alarmingly, the parents began making fun of one of the groups during their presentation. These are the parents, not the peers discriminating against the other kids.  So adults; hold yourselves accountable and check your own behaviour too. Your children see your behaviour and mirror it. You are not immune to it.

As for my second question – I don’t know why it has been deemed okay to shame victims of assault. Is it an extension of the joy of bullying, the entertainment factor? In part, yes. But what about our humanity and compassion. How do you look at a woman, a girl, a friend who has been victimized and not feel sympathy for them? I cannot begin to fathom why someone would delight in hurting another person so deeply. Maybe I just don’t understand the culture of men. But if it is the culture of manhood that encourages sexual assaults, then the culture needs to change. Or is the culture of our youth as a whole. I doubt that the boys were the only ones participating in the harassment of Rehtaeh Parsons.

Sure, high school was a little while ago for me, but has it changed so drastically that bullying has become so much more vicious and accepted? Am I among the minority because bullying wasn’t a big problem at any of the schools I attended? Sure there were conflicts between different groups and people but they were pretty minor. A few larger events took place, but they were few and far between.  Has so much changed in less than a decade? Or am I alone in this experience?

At the end of this, I still don’t understand, why victimize the victim? I can understand the defaming of the perpetrator as a way of holding them accountable for deplorable actions. But the victim… I have no answers. Anyone else?