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Last night I served as projectionist, at the local park, for a showing of the documentary Bully. Sponsored by a local abuse shelter, the event was pitched to the local school. No teacher or administrator showed up. Perhaps they’ve seen the movie, and they know how badly teachers and administrators of public schools look.

How bad? Like priests of the Catholic Church, too many whom have been raping boys or covering up for same. For millennia, it turns out.

OK, perhaps not that bad. More like typical government functionaries, witless authorities unable to do their jobs.

I highly recommend the movie, which proceeds without narrator. The interviewed subjects can and do speak for themselves. We witness actual bullying in progress, on school buses, at bus stops; we hear numerous accounts of bullying — and not just by kids: in one account, a whole community of adults turn on a girl for “coming out” as a lesbian.

We see community meetings and candlelight vigils for the suicides of the bullied. And there was much talk about “speaking out.”

But two words are not mentioned in the film, by anybody: justice and manners.

Bullying is wrong on several levels. Were children instructed in and held to standards of justice — or even of decent manners — bullying would be taboo, and the encouragement to “speak out” (not “snitch”) would work itself naturally into the everyday talk and badinage of children.

But children have little instruction in what justice is. We had little of it when I was in school. And now “justice” seems dominated by institutions, not persons. That is, when we think of justice we think of police and lawyers and social programs. We don’t think of the rules of behavior and of standing up for what’s right on a personal level.

And yet it is at the personal level that each person must engage with the concept of justice. For justice is a virtue. Contrary to John Rawls and the mavens of modern pseudo-liberalism, it is not primarily a feature of institutions. It is a practice. It relies on choice and habit. It demands impartiality of a kind, and the abandonment of some personal gain to obtain the mutual gain of social co-operation. And it demands the control of emotions, too.

In the signage at the presentation of the film, I saw another virtue mentioned: empathy. Empathy’s important, and it is indeed something that can be conjured up by a movie such as Bully. But empathy is not justice. Empathy is the imagined “point of view” of the other, and a positive solidarity of emotions with that conjured point of view. It is absolutely essential to social life, as explained and explored in Adam Smith’s A Theory of Moral Sentiments and Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Ethics. But justice is a step up from empathy. it is a step up in rationality. And it is necessary to stop bullying, as it is to stopping the cycles of violence outside of schools and childish tribalism.

So, too, is manners. Actually, manners might be seen as “justice” without the sanction of law, nuanced by custom. Public schools in America, in the 20th century, lost track of justice and manners. No wonder. They were taken over by psychologists and administrators and set adrift from traditional moorings. They found no new moorings — at least, none that were adequate.

I think that, while it might be possible to reintroduce ethics and manners into public schools, we’re likely to see little improvement. The institutions have become hidebound. Better, I think, to introduce competition into education at the k-12 level, let different organizations of pedagogues compete for parental patronage. And let respect for others, and standards of decency and justice come into play at a fundamental level.

The level of choice.

Since writing the above, a few hours ago, I see a conceptual mistake. I’ll correct this tomorrow.

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