Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and Nairobi, Kenya, and the author of the book “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Jill Filipovic: Melania Trump chose bullying as her first lady cause. The irony is inescapable: her husband bullies regularly
The idea is good, but Mrs.Trump should go beyond talk and take on issue's social dynamics, such as misogyny, racism, classism and homophobia, she says
Melania Trump has picked her first lady cause: stopping bullies.
In her first public outing tied to the issue, she made a surprise trip Monday to a middle school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, a Detroit suburb, where she talked with kids about being inclusive with one another and true to themselves. “I think it’s important that we choose kindness and compassion,” she said
She is, of course, married to the Internet’s bully-in-chief, who in recent days used Twitter to insult a Republican US senator, ridicule a Democratic congresswoman, deride Hillary Clinton, denounce the National Football League, condemn the news media and accuse the grieving widow of a slain Green Beret of lying.
Is Mrs. Trump genuinely clueless about this dissonance? Does she care about perceptions of insincerity, or is she trying to distance herself from her husband and even take a furtive slap at him?
Let’s set her motives aside for now. Whatever they might be, it’s worth giving her program a fair shake. Why not consider what she is actually proposing, and whether it will work?
Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell, since there doesn’t seem to be much of a proposal. StopBullying.gov exists, but it was established under President Barack Obama. Mrs. Trump has given a handful of speeches against bullying – this week’s Michigan trip, and last month at the United Nations – but they don’t amount to much beyond “be nice.”
In Michigan, she backed No One Eats Alone Day, an effort to get kids to sit together in the lunchroom, but that certainly wasn’t Mrs. Trump’s idea, the initiative has existed for several years. Her official statement for the trip was long on admonishments to encourage kindness, but short on any policy agenda or suggestions for practical steps institutions might take to combat abuse.
“By our own example, we must teach children to be good stewards of the world they will inherit,” the first lady said in the statement. “We need to remember that they are always watching and listening. It is our responsibility to take the lead in teaching children the values of empathy and communication that are at the core of kindness, mindfulness, integrity and leadership.”
It’s a sentiment that calls to memory a jarring Hillary Clinton ad from the 2016 election campaign, which featured kids watching footage of candidate Trump as he fondly recalled, before cheering crowds, the days when violence was heaped on political opponents, telling CNN’s Don Lemon in an interview that Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever,” and mocking a reporter with a disability. “Our children are watching,” the Clinton ad warned. “What example will we set for them?”
Mrs. Trump is apparently concerned about the same thing.
Fighting bullying is a worthy cause. That Mrs. Trump has been first lady for nine months without having actually done anything on bullying beyond speechifying and photo ops is a disappointment, but it’s not too late.
The first lady should call in the many anti-bullying organizations across the country, as well as tech leaders and respected education experts (that would leave out Education Secretary Betsy DeVos) to discuss the landscape of bullying today (much of which occurs on social media), the challenges facing educators and parents when so much of the harassment kids experience happens electronically, out of their line of vision, and potential solutions, from the technical to the social to the legal.
Mrs. Trump should also move beyond platitudes and recognize that bullying often reflects other social dynamics and hierarchies, including misogyny, racism, classism and homophobia. Girls are still sexually harassed and even assaulted at school, children are attacked for their skin color, kids bully each other for being too rich or too poor and kids who are gay or perceived as gay remain targets of awful abuse.
Who knows – if Mrs. Trump really puts her mind to it, she might even be able to pry Twitter away from the most visible bully in the country.