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Phoebe Prince, Maude Barlow and Easter

April 2nd, 2010 by Alison · No Comments · sustainability

Many would see no relationship between Phoebe Prince and Maude Barlow, given that they are from different parts of the world and different generations, and never met each other. But I see a connection.

Phoebe Prince is the 15 year old girl, an immigrant from County Clare in Ireland  who hanged herself in January after months of bullying by nine fellow students in Massachusetts (“Irish slut! Whore!”) who are now facing criminal charges, including statutory rape. Maude Barlow is a Canadian author, expert and activist on water rights. An energetic grandmother, she got a standing ovation when she spoke at University of Portland last Saturday night.

What connects these two women? An intimate relationship with human aggression.

Phoebe Prince was the target of verbal, psychological aggression, witnessed over a period of four months by  fellow students and teachers who did little or nothing to help her. She died from the aggression. Maude Barlow is an advocate against aggression, largely the legal kind of aggression that corporations exhibit as they seek to privatize the world’s shrinking freshwater supply for maximum profit, regardless of who dies along the way.

I have a Master’s in counseling psychology, and I am grounded in the reality that aggression and even violence are part of human nature. We won’t change that fact. Certainly, there is an aggressive part of me that coexists with the kind and compassionate parts of me. But here is the thing: human behavior is malleable and driven by choice. Most of us manage to control most of our feelings of aggression on a steady basis. But what about when others do not? Key to any culture, its decency and quality of life is: what behavior do we tolerate?

It appears that the school that Phoebe Prince attended had a high tolerance for bullying and psychological aggression. But her school is in no way unique. Our culture in general tolerates high levels of aggression — and we shouldn’t. If I had been a teacher at Phoebe’s school, would I have intervened as students screamed insults in her face at the school cafeteria? Would I have behaved like Maude Barlow, defending the vulnerable despite the risk of drawing the anger aggression onto myself, as well? Or would I have ignored the cafeteria situation, as a student reported two teachers did?

I hope I would have behaved like a junior Maude Barlow, stepping right in and getting involved. But I’m not 100% certain I would have, because if I had been in that environment and around that kind of bullying for years on end, it would have started to look normal to me. And too exhausting to keep confronting, at least without a deeper and higher source of strength to sustain me.

The day after tomorrow is Easter. Easter is based on the principle of sacrificial love, a principle that any religion or ethical system can appreciate. It’s based on the idea that our lives can be about more than our own immediate pleasure and well-being. Easter is about transformative love, and overcoming our human tendency to be aggressive and to tolerate the aggression around us when we ought to fearlessly confront it. It’s about imitating, even for one or two minutes once in awhile, Maude Barlow, so that someone like Phoebe Prince doesn’t have to be bullied to death.

Many of the millions of people in the developing world right now without a reliable supply of clean drinking water are in that situation specifically because corporations from the developed world have aggressively taken control of their water supplies — for private profit. These people are being bullied to death, too.

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