“I’m ashamed of my school,” the seventh-grader said quietly.
Since 12 year-olds are prone to finding fault with anything and everything having to do with school, you might under normal circumstances dismiss this statement as normal griping.
But, these were not normal circumstances.
The school in question was A.E. Wright Middle School in Calabasas, California. A.E. Wright is regarded as one of the top middle schools in the area. Some families live within the boundaries of the Las Virgenes School District just so that their children can attend A.E. Wright. As an A.E. Wright parent, I can say that I have found it to be an excellent school.
But, on Friday, November 20, A.E. Wright became the object of some very undesirable publicity.
Some A.E. Wright students were assaulted that day by classmates. The victims of these assaults all had one characteristic in common: they were redheads.
Although no serious injuries resulted, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is treating the incidents as possible felony assaults. The most serious incident (at least the most serious incident reported so far) involved a redheaded boy who was punched and kicked when he arrived at school Friday morning.
Why redheads and why this particular Friday?
Well, as the facts begin to accumulate, it seems that something got organized on Facebook called “Kick A Ginger Day.”
Kick A Ginger Day was apparently inspired by an episode of the popular animated series South Park in which a redheaded boy ( the derogatory term applied to redheads was “ginger”) was subjected to harassment because of his hair color.
The irony here is that Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, were attempting to satirize racial prejudice in that episode by basing discrimination on something as inconsequential as hair color.
Instead, South Park unwittingly inspired the very prejudice and violence that it attempted to ridicule.
Or . . . maybe it’s going a little too far to say that South Park “inspired” the anti-redhead violence at A.E. Wright. Perhaps a more fair assessment is that South Park provided an excuse for the kind of hazing and harassment that goes on way too often among middle schoolers.
What is the response to this inconceivably senseless string of assaults?
The details are still a bit murky. Reports indicate that as many as fourteen students at A.E. Wright might have participated, to one degree or another, in Kick A Ginger Day. The first obvious response is to investigate the incidents thoroughly, identify each of the assailants and the degree of participation, and take appropriate disciplinary action. With the Sheriff’s Department involved, criminal charges are certainly within the realm of possibility.
But . . . what is the long-term response?
Experience shows that making examples of adolescents who practice hooliganism often has no discernible impact on the behavior of their peers. Within that particular sub-culture, the perpetrators may even be held up as heroes if they are prosecuted. Disciplining the individuals is unquestionably an appropriate first response, but that alone will not necessarily prevent future attacks.
School districts are by and large doing all that they can to combat bullying and prejudice (or at least they’re doing much more than was true when I was that age). If it were possible to eradicate these issues by education, we’d have done it by now.
What is perhaps most disturbing about Kick A Ginger Day is that it underscores a deeply-seated human propensity for creating out-groups. The people who promoted Kick A Ginger Day and those who participated went out of their way to come up with a characteristic that would clearly identify targets for abuse. It could just as easily have been big noses or small ears.
I refuse to call it “progress” that the bullies didn’t pick out a racial characteristic (although I suppose one might argue that red-headedness often implies European origin). They needed an out-group to harass and they found it. The simple fact that kids are coming up with more creative definitions of out-groups does not indicate that we are making progress toward solving the problem of prejudice.
The safety of the student body at A.E. Wright must be the top priority for now. Any child of any description could easily become a target of whatever the next wave of violent idiocy may bring. I hope that the school administration will take whatever disciplinary action is available under California law to protect the children of A.E. Wright, including expulsion.
But, beyond seeking justice in the immediate circumstances, our culture needs to keep looking long and hard at the social dynamics that are shaped by the Lucifer Effect. Obviously, the instinct toward in-group/out-group paradigms is strong. When it comes to manufacturing reasons to hate, we start way too young.
When we think how fast fads spread among teens, it's easy to see how the combined influence of South Park and Facebook could make just about anything seem "cool." That kids can be so easily led to violence is chilling. I'm grateful to you, Curtis, for your thoughtful and measured response to these events at the school your children attend.
You're right about the in-group/out-group aspects of the attacks. The anti-bullying programs are, for the most part, focused more on ending harassment of kids who are "outliers" in their peer groups. The conscious creation of an "out-group" and the remarkably high number of kids who responded presents a different kind of problem than the usual bullying scenario.
What these events suggest to me is that our youngest children, beginning with kindergarten, should have training not only in ethical behavior, but also how to resist unethical behavior. Let's start teaching resistance to the Lucifer Effect.
In-groups and out-groups may be part of our evolutionary biology. But so is the human brain. We humans have used our brains to learn lots of things, including how NOT to do something that our biology says would be lots of fun. It's essential that kids be given the tools to counteract the viral impact of some very uncool "cool" ideas. A.E. Wright Middle School needs a few more everyday heroes. It's time to "teach our children well."
I can hardly believe this is happening at this time. I once thought that man's capacity for evil was related to his animal instincts. But I can tell you that my house-cats show more civility than some of my peers. I have no solutions to offer, but I want to mention that Nick Lowe's "(What's so Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding" comes to me as think about these issues...
By Joe Friday | Posted on November 26, 2009, 3:09 am
I have no background in psychology but two things come to mind. The Bible teaches that man is inherently evil (despite the claims to the contrary of many today; see Psalm 14:1-3 & Mark 10:18). It seems that most of us do not encounter the kind of social environments that bring out the evil. I found this page to be fascinating in the research of the situations and thinking that leads to horrific and immoral behavior... http://brainz.org/ten-most-revealing-psych-experiments//
I believe there is a way to combat this through education. When a light is shined on these thought processes people will recognize them for what they are. Upon my learning of Pavlov's dog experiments I have forever made the connection between cause and effect. I can see where public education that exposes this thinking could create equal footing for recognizing evil and causing a moment to recognize it and choose not to participate.
By Cteve | Posted on November 27, 2009, 5:42 pm
This is an unusually insightful and well written article thanks. I have just published a novel for young adults which deals in part with the dynamics of bullying and the power structures in the school and community that protect and therefore foster it. It's called Angela 1: Starting Over. If you want to learn more, just click on my website. Also, please visit my blog at www.davidabedford.aegauthorblogs.com. Thanks!
The question of why we do evil things rests on the premise that certain things are evil and some are not. We see certain things as "wrong" instead of "evil" so that we can be more comfortable with them.
Charging interest to those around you (usuary) may be evil in one culture, but it has become "a way to make money" in our culture and therefore, wrong if excessive. What in the world does excessive mean? It is wrong in one culture not to provide your wife for visitor's "comfort". It would be seen as evil to use women for this purpose in "our society" except where we expose them on television for vicarious sexual gratification - hey, it sells stuff. So, what is the guideline for defining what "evil" is? If you can do it with the person's consent and they are of age is it any longer evil? It is not only those whose faces we cover, as in prison experiments, that become impersonal to us. I think, perhaps, that covering their faces causes the victim to be more fearful because they cannot see. Anonymity happens in many ways - i.e. computer videos, television, night clubs that you pay to go into which makes it o.k., etc.
By Tony Martin | Posted on December 26, 2009, 7:17 am
"The Great Being saith: Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can alone cause it to reveal its treasures and enable mankind to benefit therefrom."
By Sheela | Posted on December 28, 2009, 1:42 pm
You cannot honestly say that these "Redheads" or gingers were abused based on a television show. The children had a choice. Maybe the parents should watch their children more carefully. Or give the talk about just because its on tv doesn't mean you do it. The television show cannot be to blamed for childrens nativity.
By Angelique | Posted on January 6, 2010, 3:26 pm
This is hardly imaginable that kids who are only in seventh grade are doing this. It is sad that are society has grown up to think that because the color of your hair you are different. These kids need to understand that this is not a good situation. It is hard enough to be a teenager and most kids can not handle being picked on. Throughout middle school kids should be helped by their students and their teachers. This situation can be solved very easily and should be taken care of right away.
By Tanner | Posted on January 21, 2010, 8:44 am
I think that this is a well writen article, I think that it is very true that some people are persecuted for things that they say, actions they do, the clothes that you wear, and color of your hair that you have. I have seen stereotypes being used in a bad way to make others feel out of place and ashamed of themselves in my very own school. It happens everywhere. There is no denying it, but taking stereo types to that extinct is ridiculous. There should never be shootings or deaths based on stereo types.
I am said to say that I most formally log off the computer becuase class is over.
By Zack is so cool. | Posted on January 21, 2010, 8:48 am
It would be unfair, and small minded to blame popular culture for something like this. To say it is a television show's fault for a group of kids acting out, especially criminally, is very shallow. The greater issue here is the adults near the situation. For a high-caliber school, surely their parents instituted in them the importance of doing well in school. Yet, their children don't understand why it would be wrong to assault someone, especially for something as stupid as their hair color? Get to the root of the problem first, don't transfer the blame to an outside source.
By Elden M. | Posted on January 21, 2010, 9:58 am
To aruge the above opinion I do beleive that red heads or "gingers" have honestly been abused based on t.v shows. Their ARE sick people out their in the World that are doing crimes based on stereotypes. Stereotypical crimes are even being committed in the very school in which I attened. There is no stopping it. It will ALWAYS be there. We cannot stop them, the only thing we can do is do what WE know is best, and do the right thing. One person can make a difference.
I am sorry to say, that I most formally leave, becuase class is over and I have an econ class to go to.
This has been the Bomb Digity,
By zack | Posted on January 21, 2010, 10:38 pm
Well, one thing we have to take into account is that those shows that make satirical situations involving groups such as gingers and whatnot are rated 18+. They are shows meant for adults who can recognize the subtle messages of the show and what they really mean. These are middle school kids. They're still at that imitation stage and if their guardians aren't careful of what they're exposed to, then these things happen. There are ratings on television shows for a reason. There's a v-chip for a reason. It may seem like a lot, but with the collective effort, you get less of these things happening in the first place.
By Anon01 | Posted on January 27, 2010, 2:58 am
I have worn thick glasses all my life - I am practically blind without them. When I went to school, many years ago, I was teased and ridiculed constantly. Yet, never once was I hit, beaten, shot at or violently treated in any way and still it was very difficult to deal with (add extremely curly hair and braces when I hit puberty, to make the situation even worse). What I don't understand is why these situations have become so violent. What are these kids fighting to express and get out there that they react so violently? I cannot believe that they learn this behaviour at home. Perhaps from watching too much television, but that in itself does not seem reason enough to express such violence to another person. I have an eight month old baby girl and I hope and pray with all my heart that not only can I protect her from such bullying and violence, but that I can teach her better and prevent her from becoming the perpetrator.
By MiBennett | Posted on February 23, 2010, 4:35 am
Just a few words of response to a couple of the very interesting comments posted in response to "Kick a Ginger Day." Kudos to Zack for his understanding of the Lucifer Effect phenomenon of stereotyping. Zack says that people act badly based on stereotypes. "Stereotypical crimes are even being committed in the very school in which I attend. ... the only thing we can do is do what WE know is best, and do the right thing. One person can make a difference." It's not that kids see bad behavior TV show and mindlessly repeat it. The phenomenon is that popular culture is one influence, and the people who are in the situation can further influence each other (for good or evil). The theory of the Lucifer Effect doesn't "blame" pop culture, but calls on good people to be a counter-influence.
One comment that touches my heart is by MiBennett, To be the kid with thick glasses, braces, and unconventional hair is very tough indeed. Kudos to you for growing into compassion, and promising yourself to teach your child to be a Hero and not a perpetrator or just a bystander. Humans may be genetically hard-wired to band together against those who are "different," but we're also hard-wired to be altruistic and compassionate. The message of the Lucifer Effect is that Heroes are never off-duty. There's always a situation brewing that needs a positive influence.
A final thought. Curtis and I have both had our hands full, and haven't been approving comments or putting up blog posts for a few months. We're back in the saddle now, and a new post went up today: "For Goodness Sake." We'll both be more (virtually) present from now on, with thanks to all of our readers for our patience, and to Naive Scientist for his friendly nudge.
Labeling can define social reality through the self-fulfilling prophecy.
Philip Zimbardo has commented on the power of labels used in the Stanford Prison Experiment :
The mere act of assigning labels to people and putting them into a situation where those labels acquire validity and meaning is sufficient to elicit pathological behavior. This pathology is not predictable from any available diagnostic indicators we have in the social sciences, and is extreme enough to modify in very significant ways fundamental attitudes and behavior.
David Myers has shown application of the self-fulfilling prophecy in prejudice :
Prejudice rationalizes inequalities. Discrimination also increases prejudice through the reactions it provokes in its victims, another example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In his classic 1954 book, The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport noted that being a victim of discrimination can produce either self-blame or anger. Both reactions may create new grounds for prejudice through the classic blame-the-victim dynamic.
And in conflict :
Psychologists have noted that those in conflict have a curious tendency to form diabolical images of one another. These distorted images are ironically similar, so similar in fact that we call them mirror-image perceptions: As we see "them" – as untrustworthy and evil intentioned – so "they" see us. Each demonizes the other.
[One] result of such [biased] perceptions is a vicious cycle of hostility. If Victor believes Samantha is annoyed with him, he may snub her, causing her to act in ways that justify his perception. As with individuals, so with countries. Perceptions confirm themselves by influencing the other country to react in ways that seem to justify them. This is an example of what's called the self-fulfilling prophecy.
Stephen Franzoi explains the self-fulfilling prophecy in discussions on social cognition :
Our expectations often become the blueprint in defining social reality. In 1948, sociologist Robert Merton introduced the concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy to describe a situation in which someone's expectations about a person or group actually lead to the fulfillment of those expectations. As Merton described it:
The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true. The specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning. (Merton, 1948, page 195)
The self-fulfilling prophecy involves a three-step process. First, the perceiver (the "prophet") forms an impression of the target person. Second, the perceiver acts toward the target person in a manner consistent with this impression. In response, the target person's behavior changes to correspond to the perceiver's actions (Diekmann et al., 2003; Reich, 2004). The more interactions the target has with the perceiver, and the more this three-step process is repeated during those interactions, the more likely it is that the target will internalize the perceiver's expectations into his or her own self-concept.
Findings indicate that when people have negative expectations about others, they are more likely to treat those individuals in a negative manner, which often results in the targets of such negative treatment reacting in kind, thus confirming the initial negative expectations. Unfortunately, this form of self-fulfilling prophecy is all too common, and, over time it leads to negative self-beliefs and low self-esteem.
If you can identify someone whom you've viewed and treated in a negative fashion, try a little exercise to reverse this process. The next time you interact with them, put aside your negative expectations, and instead, treat them as if they were your friend. Based on the research we have reviewed here, by redefining them in your own eyes, you may create a new definition of social reality in theirs as well.
1. The Pathology of Imprisonment, by Philip G. Zimbardo, copyright 1972 by Transaction Publishers, in James Henslin's Down To Earth Sociology, 11th edition, copyright 2001, published by The Free Press, New York, NY, page 272
2. Psychology, Seventh Edition, by David G. Myers, copyright 2004 by Worth Publishers, New York, NY, page 716
3. Myers, page 728
4. Social Psychology, Fourth Edition, by Stephen L. Franzoi, copyright 2006 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., Boston, MA, page 156
By NaiveScientist | Posted on July 5, 2010, 8:24 am
I myself am a 'ginger', as some call it. that combined with my ADHD means I live on the outside of school, where I am constantly ridiculed and teased for my social difficulty. I try to fit in, but fat chance of that happening. I have made some mistakes in my past, and even acted like a perv last year, but know that i spend my entire life hating myself for what I've done, and NO ONE cares because I'm different, and they would rather not associate with me. High school. It sucks.
By T_T | Posted on November 30, 2010, 9:22 am
i have hurd of this kicka ginger daya nd it was created on fb. i think it is discusting and i ahve amany ginger freinds.one of my very good freinds is ginger and she is the loudest person i no and whne i ask her y she is always so hyper and loud she says " im bright ginger if im not hyper and loud ill be bullied an pushed around and i wont have that" this is all well and good but y shud she have to be like that just because of her hair colour this is not right. i thougth we were out of all the rubbish but ovez not it shudnt matter bout anythink like, colour, sex, hight, looks nuffink were all the same rly xx
By leigh granger just a normal person | Posted on November 16, 2011, 11:05 am