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A New Kind of Bullying: Bearing False Witness

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by Izzy Kalman (November 2005)

Are you concerned about kids being bullies? Do you wish these evil children would stop their immoral behavior?

Parents, along with just about everyone else, unanimously favor anti-bullying policies. But how would these parents feel – especially those who believe in the Bible – if they discovered that their schools’ anti-bullying policies are leading children to widespread violation of one of the Ten Commandments – one that is no less serious than not stealing nor committing adultery?

A New Kind of Bullying

The kinds of bullying we commonly hear about are insults, threats, shoves in the hallway, rumors, exclusion from cliques. However, there is another kind of bullying that is far more pernicious and is becoming increasingly common. In the following stories from my casework the names have been changed, but the deeds remain real.

Ten-year-old Billy enters the school bathroom and sees a classmate, Jason, calling his friend Vinny “gay.” Vinny laughs and playfully punches Jason in the arm. Neither Vinny nor Jason is angry, and they are laughing as they leave. Billy informs his teacher that Jason and Vinny had a fight in the bathroom. Vinny’s mom gets a call from the teacher informing her that he is getting detention and risks being sent to a special school for delinquent students if he engages in such violence again. (This was a second incident for Vinny; a few weeks earlier, after a kid took his book, Vinny poked him with the eraser end of his pencil. The current incident was a first-timer for Jason, so he wasn’t being suspended.)

Brandon, a gentle, socially naïve seventh grader, has long been picked on by a group of tough kids. Theresa, an eighth grader who hangs out with them, decides to be clever and tells the school principal that Brandon made a sexual remark to her. A policeman shows up that evening at Brandon’s house and arrests him for sexual harassment.

Roland, a black fifth grader in a predominantly white school, tells school staff that Scott called him the “n” word. Scott gets detention though he didn’t say any such a thing. This is the third time Roland has pulled off this trick on Scott.

These are not isolated cases. Do your own investigation and you’ll find they happen frequently in schools that encourage students to report incidents of bullying.

What does this have to do with the Ten Commandments?

Most people, including secularists, accept that the Ten Commandments, particularly the last six, are basic principles for living a moral and civilized life. One of those Commandments, however, is different from all the others because it relates to behavior in a specific place: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” This relates to lying in a court of law. We’re not commanded “Thou shalt not steal in the marketplace,” or, “Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s wife in the Temple.” Why have a Commandment specifically about lying on the witness stand?

This Commandment is widely misunderstood. Most commentators believe forbids all lying, which is why so many adults treat their children like major criminals when they don’t tell the truth. However, it would have been very simple for the Bible to say, “Thou shalt not lie.” But the Bible didn’t do that because lying is not always the wrong thing to do. Sometimes a “white lie” like, “No, you look fine in that dress,” or “Hey, it happens to the best of us!” is the proper thing to say. And sometimes it is definitely immoral to tell the truth. For instance, a hate-filled person asks you the location of a person he is seeking to kill. Telling him the truth would make you an accomplice to murder.

Courts: The Foundation of Civilization

The reason for the difficulty understanding this Commandment is that we don’t realize that courts of law are the foundation of civilization. Having been born into civilization, we all take the legal system for granted. We can’t fathom why a special Commandment would be required for lying in court. However, from the beginning of time until the advent of modern civilization, we lived tribally in nature, where “might makes right.” We handled our problems with each other ourselves, meting out justice much like a Mafia family. But with the crowding and complexity of civilization, we can no longer take justice into our own hands. If we were to continue resolving our disputes by “might makes right,” there would be rampant violence and pandemonium. So we appoint courts with (hopefully) wise and principled judges to determine if a crime has been committed and what the punishment should be. Without a legal justice system, therefore, civilization literally could not exist.

Using the Courts to Bully

While Civilization establishes courts to replace personal vengeance, it becomes possible for citizens to use the courts as a weapon of violence. All you need to do is testify to the court that someone committed a crime, and the court will make that person suffer. Why risk hurting someone with your own fists when you can get the legal system to do it for you?

A legal justice system can function only if it’s based on witnesses telling the truth. Since it’s so easy to abuse the legal justice system, lying under oath must be deemed an unpardonable crime. The Commandment against bearing false witness, therefore, is a pillar of civilization.

Punishing the Liars

What then, are we to do to a witness who lies under oath to get someone else punished?

The Talmud, a collection of ancient Jewish law that interprets the Bible, provides the perfect solution: We do to the false witness what he planned to get the court to do to his victim. For instance, if the false witness plotted to have the defendant receive lashes, the false witness is to receive lashes.

Punishing false testimony in this way makes witnesses reluctant to lie. And since the punishment perfectly fits the crime, it makes the liar understand the gravity of his evil intentions.

How schools encourage kids to give false testimony

Now that anti-bullying policies are requiring schools to function as courts of law, investigating and punishing all acts of bullying between students, kids have discovered how easy it is to manipulate the system to get other students in trouble. And the adults eagerly invite this behavior! We instruct our students that they must tell when they’re bullied or witness bullying. Some schools even punish kids for not telling!

More and more schools are adopting an anonymity policy allowing students to report bullying without identifying themselves. This enables kids to get others in trouble at absolutely no danger to themselves. Just put a note in the “bully box” and watch the adults torment other students and their families! This is much more fun than punching kids or threatening to beat them up after school, and carries none of the risk.

Of course schools don’t instruct kids to lie about bullying, but what do they do to discourage it? Do they say, “You must tell on bullies. But if you lie, you will be punished as badly as you wanted us to punish the bully.”? Of course they don’t! Who would dare to report bullying under such circumstances?

No, schools are not instructing kids to lie. But when you reward a crime while doing nothing to punish it, you are in effect encouraging it. And you become morally responsible for that crime. As an old Jewish saying goes, “The hole [in the wall] – not the mouse – is the thief.”

To Teach Children to Act Morally, We Have to Act Morally

If we want our kids to be moral, then we have to start with ourselves. Recognize what our ancestors understood thousands of years ago, that bearing false witness is the worst kind of bullying. It’s time to get rid of the slogan, “Telling is not tattling,” and teach kids the gravity of trying to get others in trouble. If you have a problem with someone, talk to them directly; don’t involve the authorities unless it is absolutely necessary.

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