The issue of bullying should not be politicized by celebrities or others; instead, it should be a point of social consensus that strengthens individual resolve to combat inappropriate treatment of another.
In the past week, internet users around the world have both glorified and vilified Keaton Jones, an 11-year-old boy from Knoxville, Tennessee, who was the victim of bullying at his middle school. This episode in viral groupthink illuminates the underlying insecurity that fuels bullies in the first place: an unwillingness to stand for principle over popularity.
Keaton became an internet hero after a video of him condemning bullying went viral online. Recorded and posted on social media by his mother, Keaton’s tearful plea for his own bullies, and for bullies around the world, to have more empathy solicited the attention of celebrities. Within hours, Keaton was being publicly supported by the likes of Rihanna and Katy Perry and invited to tour NFL stadiums and Pixar Studios. A stranger in New Jersey started a GoFundMe page for Keaton, soliciting $58,000.
However, in the days after the video was posted, internet users uncovered pictures on his mother’s Facebook account of Keaton and his family posing with a Confederate flag. Once the photos began circulating on social media, strangers began viciously fabricating anecdotes that Keaton used racial epithets against black peers, prompting the bullying he experienced.
Though the assumptions were entirely unsubstantiated, celebrities nonetheless began withdrawing support — deleting Instagram posts and tweets and rescinding invitations to special events for Keaton and his family. The GoFundMe page was put temporarily on hold.
Despite ardent, and founded, disagreement with use of the Confederate flag as a photo prop, we would hope that all should be able to look past the easy politicization of this issue and continue to stand against bullying. Celebrities should be able to condemn his family’s use of a discriminatory symbol while simultaneously recognizing that an innocent 11-year-old boy deserves support despite disagreeing with his mother’s political choices.
Elder M. Russell Ballard, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns this paper, told students at Brigham Young University in November that both he and the church strongly condemn “bullying or harassment of any kind.” He cited instances in which the church was able to affirm its anti-bullying position without aligning itself politically with secular organizations, specifically highlighting times the church supported social acceptance and civil rights for LGBT people.
As schools and other organizations coalesce around anti-bullying initiatives, statistics show mild improvement in the rates of those who report being bullied. The rise of social media, however, carries a new set of problems, with the percentage of those who report being cyberbullied at some point in their lives nearly doubling from 2007 to 2016.
Keaton Jones and his family used social media to combat bullying, which ironically only exposed them to more harassment. This is unacceptable, and more celebrities should have the maturity to see bullying for what it is: a nonpartisan issue. The founder of Keaton's GoFundMe page was correct when he wrote, "We have to be the voice for the voiceless. In the video I saw a kid crying not just for himself but for others. To me that's a kid with a heart of gold and deserves praise."