What is normal? Well, in one sense, it is a good thing. According to about.com sociology guide Ashley Crossman, “norms are the specific cultural expectations for how to behave in a given situation. They are the agreed-upon expectations and rules by which the members of a culture behave.” One type of norm is a law. Laws are simply societal norms which are enforced by officers of the state. So, being normal just means that one abides by the established norms. From this point of view it is evident that norms are negatively enforced. When one steps outside the norm, they pay for it in some way. If the norm is a law like a traffic rule, the offender may be made to forfeit some money. If the offense is murder, the offender could pay with their life. Laws are the norms we have decided are important enough that they should be formalized, codified and enforced. What about informal norms?

I have mixed feelings about all of the press lately received by the various anti-bullying campaigns. On the one hand, I think all people should be treated with respect and fairness. On the other, I wonder if these campaigns are aimed at bullies or at age-old norm-enforcing behavior. When I think of a bully, I think about the mean kid who picks on anybody weaker. In my experience, these kids always got what they deserved eventually. Listening to commentators on TV, I think they are targeting normal childish attitudes towards those who violate the norms of the micro society of their school. I don’t think this is a valuable use of time and effort. They always try to tie the bad actions of some poor angry kid to the fact that he or she was made fun of for being a certain way. I don’t want to sound cold, but if you think little Suzy committed suicide “because” the other kids called her ugly, I think you are mistaken. Committing violence on a person is a psychopathic act. Kids name call and poke fun. They have for thousands of years. More likely causal in Suzy’s actions are the lack of sound relationships at home.

I really do believe that being picked on in our youth is a valuable thing to go through. I was called a name once and it made me think, “Does that really apply to me?” It did. So, I changed and am so much better for it. I know others who were ridiculed for being chubby when they were younger. It caused them to worry about their physiques and as adults they are better off. The fear that some one may get bullied has led many schools to institute zero tolerance policies toward fighting. Now, imagine three young boys. One is short, skinny and studious; one is tall, overweight and as mean as his alcoholic father; the third boy is tall, strong and destined to be the captain of the football team in a few years. The big fat kid decides he hates the little skinny goody two-shoes and he’s going to whoop him. Between classes, he grabs the little guy by the neck and proceeds to give him a thrashing. The future football star could easily intervene but knows he’ll be in trouble at home if he gets in trouble at school. The zero tolerance policy says any kid caught fighting will be expelled. So, the young jock stays out of it. A teacher comes upon the scene and breaks up the fight. The bully gets expelled. Hooray, right? Sure, but so does the skinny kid! You see, he was getting his butt kicked which is a form, albeit a bad one, of fighting.

When I was a kid in school, enforcing the norms of our culture was largely left to us and we all learned how to be normal. Well, most of us anyway. Today, the administrative agents of the state step in and try to stop this practice and in so doing, they prevent norming at a critical time in a child’s life and they shrug off unintended consequences that hurt good kids. Do radio ads that tell kids to stop bullying really make mean kids play nice?