EMILY BAZELON: Journalist, Legal Wonk, Bullying Expert

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// Nina Subin

Scroll through Emily Bazelon’s Slate author page, and you’ll find that in the last week, she’s writ- ten almost an article a day, i.e., a lot. A senior editor for Slate, Bazelon is also a lecturer and the Truman Capote fellow for creative writing and law at Yale Law School. She is currently teaching a course on nonfiction writing, co-teaching another on ethics and advising students interested in media and the law. Her Slate coverage focuses primarily on bullying, the Supreme Court and women’s issues. Her new book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Char- acter and Empathy has garnered praise across the spectrum, being described as “intelligent” and “rigor- ous” by The New York Times (though it was critiqued for other flaws). WEEKEND sat down with Bazelon to talk about bullying, the advice she gives her students and the enigma that is Anthony Kennedy.

Q. You write in your book that you were “fired” by your friends in eighth grade. Besides that personal experience of bullying, what makes you so interested in this subject?

A. Two things. One is that I’m a mother. When I first started reading all the stories about cyberbullying, it was one of those moments where my interests as a journalist and as a mother intersected. One of the obvious truths about being a parent now is that we didn’t grow up with this technology, so a lot of us are trying to understand the effect that social media has on growing up. I could see that there was a lot of drama going on online and a lot of attention [paid] to that, and I was interested in figuring that out as a parent, as well as a journalist. The second thing is that once I started writing about this topic, I was really struck by how deep people’s memories are of childhood bullying, whether they experienced it or saw it or acted like a bully. I could feel people going inside themselves to talk about these scarring memories that they had. I felt like it was a topic that resonated emotionally with everybody.

Q: When you reported on the Phoebe Prince case, in which an Irish teenager who had moved to a Massachusetts high school committed suicide, you ended up giving multiple sides of the story that a lot of news media didn’t report on. When you went in, what was your expectation about what you were going to find?

A. When I went in, I was reading and seeing the same stories as everyone else, and I had just started the bullying series for Slate, and I thought, “Oh my god, what is wrong with this terrible high school? There is a path of marauding teenagers who are terrorizing this girl. How could that have happened in this apparently middle-class, stable community?” I really went to that high school thinking, “These kids must have been really bad kids, and how could this have happened?” I went to understand what I assumed was a very “Lord of the Flies” dynamic. When I started actually talking to lots of kids, it turned out that that was not how they saw what had happened to Phoebe. It was, to them, much more complicated.

 

Q. You also write about how there’s a belief in the U.S. that bullying is affecting a large swath of children, when in fact, it’s not as common as people think. Why do you think people are so quick to label what is drama or plain meanness as bullying?

A. If you succeed in attaching that label to a narrative, you’ve created a story about innocence and guilt. Understandably, when adults think that there is a bully and a victim, our sense of moral outrage builds, and that can be a natural and even healthy response if it really is that kind of domineering, intimidating, repetitive power imbalance. The problem is if you’re too quick to jump to that conclusion, and what’s happening is actually a more two-way conflict, then you’ve created this very misleading impression. And the label of “bully” is really stigmatizing for kids. It makes it sound like they can’t change, that they’re inherently bad in some way. We’re writing off certain kids, essentially, and feeling very self-righteous about doing that.

Q.  I know Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court’s swing vote, is difficult to figure out, especially in the cases about the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8, because he’s wrestling with two issues we’ve seen are important to him, states’ rights and equal protection. Do you have any idea about which way he’s going to go on the cases?

A.  I left oral argument in both of those cases feeling optimistic about same-sex marriage viewed through the lens of Justice Kennedy. It’s reading tea leaves, because he doesn’t have to say exactly what he’s going to do at oral argument. He was asking questions and playing with ideas. The most striking moment for me in the California case was in the oral argument, when he said, “What about the voices of the children?” and he was talking about adopted children of gay parents, and seemed to really be taking to heart their plight as kids whose parents can’t have the stability of marriage. That was an emotional moment. It was pretty much the emotional moment in oral argument. And if he cares about those kids, it’s really clear that he should rule in favor of legalizing gay marriage in California. That was my most hopeful moment about him.

 

Q. Let’s also talk about another controversial ongoing case. Do you think that if the court does overturn race-based affirmative action in part in Fisher v. Texas, universities will still be able to make the case for socioeconomic affirmative action?

A. Yes, I do. Absolutely. In fact, I think the case will be stronger, and the rosy outcome of Fisher striking down racial preferences — I’m not sure that’s going to happen in a broad way, and I’m also not in favor of that outcome — would be more socioeconomic diversity on campuses. David Leonhardt ’94 has been writing about this for The New York Times, and colleges and universities would have to really change how they do admissions because it’s not enough to take into account income. They would have to take into account family wealth and neighborhood in order to get any racial diversity out of the socioeconomic diversity. Otherwise, there are just too many white people: poorer white applicants will just be admitted at a higher rate, and they will kind of swamp the number of African-American and Latino applicants. However, if you came up with a formula that also took into account wealth and neighborhood, you could still include more poor African-American and Latino applicants. It would be hard for me to imagine the court striking that down. I think that could be a good outcome. I’ve been really surprised to learn how little colleges and universities do to recruit and admit low-income students, and it certainly is a contributor to inequality in our society. So I think that could actually be a good thing. It will cost the universities money because financial aid will have to rise, and I don’t think it’s easy — wave a magic wand, accomplished — but when you look at how few poor students are going to selective universities, it’s really upsetting.

 

Q. Linda Greenhouse is also a lecturer at the Law School, and you two are united by your combination of law and writing. What are your thoughts on the impact writing can have on public opinion about law and legal cases?

A. The argument I make to my students is that they are going to come out of school and out of their professional work with very specialized knowledge, and if they can figure out how to translate it so that people out in the world who are not lawyers can understand it, they can have a real impact on the issues that they care about. I think that a lot of the challenge is simply an act of explanation and translation out of a specialized world into the world in which people are not taking “Constitutional Law,” but care about the fundamental principles that are at stake. So the challenge is to always have it be clear what those principles are. What is the actual fundamental tenet of law that people should care about? And sometimes it’s hard, because law can get technical very quickly. But that’s the challenge I have for myself as a writer — and I try to impart that to my students.

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