Kancher 9-18-12

My Word: Champion case shows power of bullying

(Orlando Sentinel, September 18, 2012)

By Pam Kancher

Attorneys for Florida A&M University have declared hazing-victim Robert Champion responsible for his own death.

The lawyers argue that Champion, 26, was no child. He had signed an anti-hazing pledge. He had discussed with another band member the pros and cons of allowing themselves to be hazed. And he had witnessed the brutality meted out to two other students.

“Mr. Champion should have refused to participate … and reported it to law enforcement or University administrators,” the lawyers originally contended in their motion to dismiss the wrongful-death suit filed against the university.

The courts will have to unravel the complexities of guilt and innocence. But as ordinary citizens, this tragedy — and the response to it — should jolt us from lethargy to activism.

Ethicists, the law and society in general recognize that consent doesn’t always mean consent. For example, each state has established an age for sexual consent. A 12-year-old might say “yes” but the law says “no way.”

Irrespective of age, an imbalance of power can likewise negate true consent. This applies to clergy and congregant, professor and pupil, physician and patient. And coercive power isn’t limited to the realm of sex.

These imbalances of power are easily recognized. However, a more subtle, less understood, but equally powerful “collective authority figure” lurks in the shadows of many of society’s subsets.

We may call it peer pressure, groupthink or “Lord of the Flies” syndrome.” But whatever we label it, it’s real, and it’s coercively powerful. The expectations, though unwritten, are clearly understood. Ironclad conformity is expected. Nonconformity will not be tolerated.

Champion faced such a situation. There was a clear imbalance of power — one of the hallmark signs of bullying. It was Champion against the entire group. He wanted marching-band success. From his perspective, it would never be realized until he gave in. That’s the power of bullying.

And that’s why — as parents, as teachers, as school administrators, as attenders at houses of worship, as clergy, as civic leaders, as run-of-the-mill citizens who simply care about our fellow humans — we must make an effort to empower those who otherwise would be victims and to disempower those only too willing to be victimizers.

Pam Kancher is executive director of the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center in Maitland.