The Tolerance Generation: High School, Inequality, and the Anti-Bullying Era

Photo: MbDaniel Licensed under CC by 4.0

Photo: MbDaniel Licensed under CC by 4.0

The Tolerance Generation explores the tension between the rise of the anti-bullying movement and the persistent marginalization of LGBTQ, low income, and racial minority youth through bullying practices in U.S. schools. Today, all 50 states have passed anti-bullying laws and most schools have anti-bullying policies in place to protect teens from conflict. There is currently little data on the outcomes of these initiatives on school communities. Drawing on two years of fieldwork at “Township,” a rural high school in the Northeast, analysis of bullying reports and policies, 127 intensive interviews, and concurrent observations of 75 students’ use of social media, I examine these outcomes and their impact on adolescent relationships.

I find that anti-bullying agendas individualize bullying, do not address the larger inequalities that motivate and shape teen conflicts, and instead, emphasize tolerance. I argue that anti-bullying’s “culture of tolerance” reinforces existing gender, sexual, class, and racial hierarchies among youth, and makes bullying more diffuse and difficult to manage. Instead of protecting marginalized teens, these campaigns often obscure the processes by which inequality is maintained in school settings, and inadvertently produce inequalities themselves. Yet, I also find that youth often resist these outcomes in school and online, going beyond tolerance to find ways to get along, make sense of the unequal world they’re coming of age in, and work against inequality together. In order to effectively address bullying, I argue that schools must attend to the underlying inequalities that drive teen conflicts, and educate about sexual, gender, racial, and class diversity across the curriculum, as well as within anti-bullying programming. 

This study was funded by the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the American Sociological Association Section on Sexualities, the Center for Research on Families, and the University of Massachusetts Graduate School.