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Red or blue: United We’re Mean

It started in December with flashing lights. My fourteen year old asked a teacher if they would have them at an upcoming assembly. Rapidly flashing lights can induce photosensitivity seizures, and my daughter has epilepsy, a neurological condition caused by too many neurons firing simultaneously in the brain. A boy overheard this conversation. When the teacher left the classroom, he began turning the lights on and off and laughing.

News spread, and a few weeks later, the same thing happened in a different class with different boys. Now it has evolved into this: kids say behind her, in front of her, to her, “Did you see that guy having a seizure on ‘The Simpsons.’ It was so funny,” or they sing song “seizure, seizure, seizure.”

I could blame this harassment on a lot of things.

I could blame ignorance. A 2001 study by the Epilepsy Foundation found that although 1 in 100 Americans have epilepsy, 49% of teens have never heard of it. I could blame popular culture. British neuroscientist Sallie Baxendale notes that movies depict women who have seizures as vulnerable and men who have them as mad. In hip-hop, Baxendale’s found that seizures are code for “sexual ecstasy and dance euphoria.”

Personally, I blame our widespread culture of mean. True, bullying is not new. Joseph—of Technicolor dream coat fame—was thrown in a pit and left for dead by his brothers. Five thousand years later, Don Rickles built a career out of insulting people. But never has mean made so many people so famous and so rich as it does today. We love mean, and we pay to perpetuate it. Simon Cowell, Gordon Ramsay, Rush Limbaugh: Titans of the mean industrial complex. Towering above them all, of course, is Richard Murdoch’s Fox. With its go-for-the-jugular political commentators and its politically incorrect animated programs, Fox is easily the Walmart of mean.

Politicians are no better. People on the left mocked Sarah Palin when she attacked Rahm Emanuel for using the word “retard,” but Palin, who can cut people down faster than a lumberjack, was right. Emanuel was thoughtless and mean when he used that word, proving that the culture of mean crosses red and blue boundaries.

Still, we—the people— get what we pay for, and we pay for mean. I’ve paid for mean. I loved “The Simpsons” until the day I heard it made fun of seizures. It’s true. A 1999 episode shows the family falling to the floor in convulsions while watching, ”Battle Seizure Robots,” a spoof of the “Pokemon” episode that caused photosensitivity seizures in 700 Japanese viewers. “But it’s not making fun of seizures,” someone told me. “It’s satirizing Japanese television.” It shows four people flopping on the floor like fish. It makes fun of seizures. It makes fun of the people who have them, and it’s mean. I don’t watch “The Simpsons” anymore.

Naturally, a mini-industry has developed to counter the culture of mean. Amazon lists over 600 books on dealing with mean people. Even Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison has written a children’s book about mean people. The big money is in anti-bullying programs, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and have sometimes lead to accusations of “indoctrination” and money misspent, as in the $500,000 program that led to a recall effort against Alameda School Board members last September.

Do they work? Can you buy away mean? A recent study by the Department of Justice finds that physical bullying declined from 22% to less than 15% between 2003 and 2008. The author of the study, David Finkelhor, credits anti-bullying programs as key to this improvement. All I know is that my daughter is still suffering, and she is not alone. Studies shows that people with disabilities are consistently singled out for harassment in schools, in the workplace, and on our streets.

Mean is too big an industry to bring down with just programs. So we’re doing what history says works best. We’re mobilizing. We’re flying to Washington D.C., and on March 27, we’re participating in the National Walk for Epilepsy. We’re marching for my daughter, and we’re marching for everyone who has been bullied and teased because of a disability. We’re marching against the culture of mean and for the culture of compassion and hope. If that makes me a P.C. joy kill, then make me president of the club. Decent people know there are lines you don’t cross, and everyone knows that bullies become cowards when outnumbered.