"Sticks & stones may break my bones"
For the past three years, on every first day of every Art of Peace Club workshop I've recited the first line of this adage aloud. And every first day, 25 or so name-tagged tween-age girls stare back at me quizzically, then finish by rote:
"But words will never harm me."
Is this so? Hmm. We discuss, we debate, we dissect and we slice ‘n dice this age-old chestnut. The fundamental lesson being that, in actual fact, words can and do hurt, they are the new weaponry of choice. But words can also heal, depending on the intention behind them. And so begins our six-week, solution-based, interactive Art of Peace curriculum all about ‘how to' manage social conflict & competition in our everyday lives. We learn ‘how to' use our voices; to self-advocate, negotiate, and navigate the rocky terrain of life. It's something I call ‘emotional literacy,' and I believe that self-awareness and resiliency skills are essential in a culture that promotes ever more confusing messaging and rewards Very Bad Behavior & Social Crime.
To this point, something extremely unsettling happened four or five schools ago, and it's remained this way ever since. Let's rewind to that late winter/early spring day:
"Sticks & stones may break my bones…" I began as always, and without as much as a bat of a collective eyelash the girls responded as one:
"But chains and whips excite me."
I was speechless (which in itself is quite something!) These girls are 9 – 12, mind you. It happens that this is a Rihanna lyric, of which I was aware, but I certainly hadn't thought that they were so aware.
"You guys don't know what that means." I prompted, more than a little rattled.
Um, yes they do. It seems there's a little thing called Google.
"What do you know about Chris Brown and Rihanna?" I demanded.
Everything, it seemed. They all started talking at once.
"I heard she slept with one of his friends."
"Yeah well I heard she slept with a bunch of his friends!"
"Yeah? " added another in quick succession, " Well I heard he hit her with her Umbrella, ella, ella…"
Snickers all around.
Unnerved, I asked, "So, what do we think about that? Is that love… or is that rage?"
Lots of eyeball-volleys, and then a low and slow group murmur of confusion.
"But, Rihanna's sooo pretty—"
"And she's forgiven him."
"Miz Jodi, people like Chris Brown? They're very fancy. I mean, people like that have agents and lawyers and stuff… What if, " Marisol* tilted her head, reaching," what if his agent called that day, and, like, told him something he didn't want to hear?"
Oh. My. God. "So, what you're saying is, he had a bad day? And that makes it okay?"
Wow. Such cynicism and excuse-making from 11-year-olds. De-sensitized and desperate to normalize bad behavior. And, I did remember that when the beating incident occurred much of the twitter-verse rained down all sorts of hate, mostly directed towards Rihanna. And from other women! Surely she MUST have done something, the consensus had concluded.
And then it dawned on me:
If we ‘are what we eat'—what we ‘consume'--and we do consume media, social media and the like, then what have we become? The proof is in the pudding: We've become The Kardashians, 16 & Pregnant, Chris Brown, facebook personas, texting, sexting and so on. Anything goes.
How do we instill morals and ethics and values into children whose minds and bodies have ingested and absorbed this garbage messaging as fact? How do we teach boundaries and acceptable behaviors when the lines have become impossibly blurred? Is he, Chris Brown, just a ‘bad boy'-- to be forgiven so easily?
It's difficult enough to parse our culture at 20, 30, 40-plus years of age—but, can you imagine what the world looks like to a 9, 10, or 11-year-old girl who takes her cues from pop culture? From Snooki to rap videos to the Bad Girls' Club to those who've staked their fame and fortune via leaked porn videos—is any attention good attention?
It sure seems so. While horribly misguided and sad, it is not such a leap then that women (grown women) tweeted during his Grammy performances "That Chris Brown can beat me any time he wants."
Rihanna has stated repeatedly that she's not a role model. And I can understand her insistence on a personal life away from her career. But here's the thing: whether she likes it or not, she is a role model. And not only to my Art of Peace girls. She has 62.3 million fans on facebook, she calls them her ‘Navy.' When girls are shown that violence against women is no big thing and there are no apparent consequences for emotional and physical brutality, we as a culture need to call it out. What does it say about authenticity and accountability, how does this all affect our self-worth?
I've chosen to use this all as a ‘teachable moment,' one of emotional and physical safety. Within a curriculum about the power of words and the ability and ‘how to' use one's voice in our culture— maybe the most powerful word of all is ‘NO.'
Chris Brown has just launched an initiative, his Symphonic Love Foundation— "promoting positivity, arts and education programs for youth." This seems like a step in the right direction.
Is there sincerity in this? I suppose time will tell.
For her part, Rihanna is launching her new CD, Unapologetic, this week, and on it she has a duet with Chris Brown, entitled ‘Nobody's Business.'