October 19, 2021 - 3:00pm

A recent letter to Slate’s advice column, ‘Care and Feeding’ came from a concerned mother who had found a spreadsheet on her 14-year-old son Jack’s computer.

It kept tabs on the “problematic behaviour” of his classmates. Transgressions included things like “has a mom who’s a cop,” and “used cis-normative language.” When pressed, her son denied involvement with the spreadsheet.

In the piece, the mother appears worried with Jack’s behaviour. She wrote, “Am I right to be concerned […]? I don’t know that it is the best way for him to engage with his peers and promote social justice.” 

While I think it’s natural for any mother to give their child benefit of the doubt, her description of the Jack’s behaviour read like something out of the Soviet Union. A list like this — one that meticulously keeps track a group of people’s perceived transgressions, no less — is deeply worrying. 

Let’s throw away the possibility that the whole thing is one big joke and this kid’s poor social justice-minded mother is missing the punchline — though that would provide a generous explanation on why he wasn’t willing to explain or take credit for it. Reasons why a middle school boy might do something like this range from “he’s assuaging his own neuroses about his own ‘problematic’ behaviour” (imagine a Catholic kid tracking his classmates’ sins, for example) to “he’s justifying some grand finale, and what this concerned mom found was just a proto-manifesto” (imagine mass shooter Elliot Rodger recounting all the many ways he was wronged by the people who would later become his victims). 

But beyond these possible explanations, his mother’s letter revealed something important. 

Social justice rhetoric, and its popular modes of enforcement, provide an easy cover for not just people’s various pathologies — anxiety, depression, OCD — but bullying too. Middle schoolers are well-known emotional terrorists when it comes to policing their non-conforming classmates’ behaviour. Most people grow out of it. Both the bullies and the bullied.

But part of the reason kids do move on is that it’s a lot easier for an adult to see that teasing a kid for wearing ugly glasses or eating funny foods is inappropriate. Now that it’s shrouded in “heroic” language, bullying can and will be positively reinforced.  

It is true that bullying helps correct some kinds of behaviours; it also helps kids grow thicker skin. For the bullies themselves, it’s a way people test and create boundaries.

But an important feature of bullying is growing out of it. Wokeness is preventing that from happening, causing a kind of arrested development among adolescents. It has extended its reach from cradle to grave, and we need to do more to stop it.

Katherine Dee is a writer. To read more of her work, visit defaultfriend.substack.com.