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April 17, 2009

On Bullying

While I appreciate efforts like this one to bring attention to bullying, particularly bullying that happens around homophobia and other prejudices, I think the organizers are still missing some essential points about bullying, how/why it happens, and how to stop it. (Not surprising: many very smart commentators are missing the point.)

"-Isms" like racism and homophobia are one issue, and bullying is an entirely separate issue. You can address an "-ism" effectively and still have terrible, soul-shattering bullying. (Likewise, you can stop bullying and still drive people to suicide with your prejudice.) The "day of silence" and similar efforts are doomed to only partial success, or outright failure, because they conflate homophobia (or prejudice) with bullying behavior, and assume that addressing prejudice among school-age kids will stop the bullying behavior.

It will not.

***
I was always an unpopular kid in school--precocious (put in school a year early), nerdy, outspoken, uncontrolled ... and multiracial. I was occasionally bullied in grade school, but I went to a small parochial school where everyone knew everyone. I was a nerd, but I was their nerd, and god help anyone from outside the school if they wanted to talk down to me.

So it wasn't until we moved to Ohio when I was ten that I encountered really bad bullying. The school was public, and bigger--30 kids per homeroom and two homerooms--and the neighborhood was all white except for us, one other Chinese family, and one other multiracial white/Japanese family. All the Asian kids were considered nerds. The boys started calling me names and harrassing me physically, and no one stopped them. So they kept doing it. Every day. All day long. For a whole year.

Now, when I say "no one stopped them," I don't mean that my parents didn't try anything. From what I understand now, they were on the phone to the principal almost weekly. At one point the school arranged to have one of those theater groups sent to our class to do a role-playing workshop around bullying. It was embarrassingly bad and actually helped me out only because for a week afterward we all spent our bullying time making fun of the theater group. No one (including me) connected the theater group to what was happening to me because their program was so divorced from reality that it didn't get any hooks into our actual behavior (the roleplay centered around taking someone's lunch money.)

At another point, the homeroom teachers suddenly introduced a new item into our curriculum: a family biography, in which we were to get our parents' help in writing a paper on where our families came from. Then a handful of us were asked to do a presentation in front of the class. Guess who was picked to do a presentation? And my family history is really very interesting, so everyone was interested and had a lot of questions for me afterwards. But it didn't stop the bullying because, guess what? The bullying had nothing to do with why I was different and everything to do with how my difference made me less socially powerful. Explaining why I was different was interesting for everyone, but didn't change the fact that I was less socially powerful.

In desperation, the school had me sent out of class while the assistant principal went up there and told the class point blank to stop harrassing me. That lasted about a week. Guess what happened then? When they started, tentatively, poking me again, and no consequences were forthcoming, we were soon back to a full-blown bullying schedule.

Early on in the year, the boys started calling me a "chink." That lasted for maybe two weeks and then stopped. I wasn't there when it was stopped, but in retrospect, I think some adult heard the boys calling me that, was horrified, and put an immediate stop to it. After all, racism was not tolerated at my school. At all. You really never heard any racial epithets at my school, very few racial jokes. Everyone revered them some MLK and Rosa Parks, which was made easier by the utter lack of any black people in a 10 mile radius of our neighborhood. So the "racist bullying" lasted for only two weeks and was effectively stopped. But the non-racist bullying lasted a year (until my parents pulled me out of the school) and intensified throughout.

No, they didn't need to call me a "chink" to make my life hell. They called me "dogie" when we sang cowboy songs in music class. They called me "Nebuchadnezzar" when we studied the ancient world. They'd just say my name in a really nasty voice. They didn't need to know why I was socially weak, they just needed to know that they could get away with tripping me, calling me names, spitting on me, pointing at me whenever somebody said the insult of the week. They just needed to know that the teachers and administrators didn't value my daily presence enough to punish, or even notice, the daily harrassment. They didn't need racism. They didn't need homophobia (early on, someone tried to call me a lesbo, but for some reason it didn't stick. I'm not sure if they were heard by a teacher, or if I was just so not bothered by that that it wasn't worth it. In either case, they didn't need it.) All they needed was to not be stopped. And they weren't.
***

Bullying is no more or less than a person or group of people with social power, expressing their social power over a person or smaller group of people with less social power. Bullying requires two conditions only:

  1. A social hierarchy in which varying degrees of social power are delineated;
  2. An immediate community in which bullying is considered acceptable.

If you have a situation in which both of these conditions exist, you WILL have bullying, regardless of the prejudices or social enlightenment of the group. A group of all white, straight boys, for example, who have been raised to tolerate racial and sexual difference will still bully within their group if the two conditions exist. Bullies do not need an "-ism" as an excuse.

The first condition is impossible to combat. Human beings of all ages will find ways to create social hierarchies. If you make kids wear uniforms to prevent them from using wealth as a measure, then they will structure the hierarchy not around what clothes you wear, but how you wear your clothes or how you behave. The socially powerful will set trends in how to color on your shoes with magic marker, or how high to roll up your pants cuffs, or which lunch dishes to eat and which to treat with disdain.

It is utterly pointless to try to dismantle hierarchies of social power. But you can change the way the hierarchies work, to make them livable. There are two things you can do: one is to create smaller social units (smaller homerooms, or mandatory club membership) so that every individual belongs to a unit small enough that their participation is necessary, and therefore valued. The other is to make sure that every member of each social unit has a role in the social unit that both suits them and is recognized as valuable by the whole unit. (For me, it was art. When my class discovered that I could draw well, suddenly I had my place and a small amount of respect. A couple of classmates actually commissioned me to paint portraits of their pets.) The powerless will still be low on the hierarchy, but they will not be considered expendable, and they will have a small measure of social power that they can leverage to negotiate better treatment.

The second condition is what really needs to be addressed, though. It is both mutable and extremely difficult to change. When a community decides that a certain type of behavior is unacceptable, and imposes consequences for that behavior, the behavior stops immediately. Look at how quickly the racist bullying was stopped in my case. My community had a huge stake in not seeing itself as racist, and would go to great lengths to stop the appearance of racism.

They didn't have any stake in stopping bullying, though. In fact, I think they relied on bullying, as most American communities do. Because societies rely on their members buying into conventional behavior to maintain stability. There aren't enough police in ANY society to patrol all unconventional behavior. Stability is achieved by getting people to police themselves. This can be difficult if you have to convince individuals to adhere to convention with good arguments and rewards. Punishing unconventional behavior is much easier. Bullying is the quick 'n' dirty version of policing the borders of conventions. The bullying punishes the worst offenders, and serves as an example for those who might consider straying. It's easy to do: just step back and let the bullies do their work.

And they will, because the socially powerful have many ways to express their power, and will use them all if left to their own devices, exercising power by:

  • using their social connections to connect disparate groups to each other (networking) or make resources available unilaterally (thereby making themselves indispensible to everyone);
  • selecting an elect group and rewarding that group with privileges;
  • offering their friendship as a favor to those of lesser status, and
  • withdrawing that friendship at their own whim to show that they can;
  • occasionally offering privileges to the whole community as an exercise of noblesse oblige;
  • setting activities and agendas for the whole community, particularly if they're fun or rewarding;
  • selecting an ostracized group and forcing the whole community to ostracize them;
  • squashing challenges to their authority on an individual basis, or empowering proxies to do so;
  • etc.

Only some of these exercises of power lead to bullying. There's no way to stop the socially powerful from being powerful or from exercising their power. But a community CAN get together and stop the bullying that results; i.e. certain exercises of power can be made unacceptable. This requires that the entire community be able to see the advantage to them of stopping bullying, and that the entire community participate in imposing consequences on bullies.

I don't recommend addressing bullying as a whole phenomenon, because it is so misunderstood. The simple fact that people still call bullying "teasing" is a testament to how misunderstood bullying is.

"Teasing" is to "bullying" as "sex" is to "rape."

Teasing is a general term for a method of communication -- a type of mockery that people use in social situations. Sex is a type of intercourse between people ... essentially a way of communicating or being together, or an activity that people share socially. Bullying is abuse that often leverages a kind of mockery that is similar in form to teasing. Rape is a violent crime that leverages sex as a method of coercion and humiliation. Just as rape uses sex to commit violence, bullying uses mockery to commit abuse. The point of both is an expression of power by the bully or rapist over the victim.

I think if you'd asked my bullies why they bullied me they couldn't have given you a terribly articulate answer. It wouldn't have had anything to do with race in their minds, although, of course, race is always a factor, especially in a neighborhood where the only people of color just happen to be the outcast nerds. No, they would have told you that I was a nerd, or a geek, or stupid, or didn't know how to behave. They would have a thousand ways to say it: I was was beyond the pale. What pale, they probably still don't know. But they could zero in on my, and everyone else's, relative power in our shared community. And I had the least power.

And if you ask kids at one of these homophobic schools where kids are bullied for their sexual orientation--or their perceived sexual orientation--you'll get a hundred variations on "he's a fag!" as a reason. But listen to the tone, watch the body language. The problem is not that "he's a fag!" What they're really saying is: "Because he's weak! Because I can!" And because no one has stopped them. Put a really effective gay-straight alliance in place and people will stop calling people "fags" and "lesbos." But the bullying won't stop.

I think, rather, that bullying has to be addressed piecemeal: by breaking up bullying into component parts and addressing each individually. Break it up into a set of rules that don't mention bullying, for example:

  • No name calling: of any kind. This includes making fun of people's names. Online or off.
  • No mockery of your peers. Online or off.
  • No ganging up on people. Online or off.
  • No practical jokes. Online or off.
  • No poking, pinching, hitting, kicking, punching, tripping or any kind of physical violence.
  • No spitting, squirting, or otherwise throwing anything on anyone.

If this sounds overly restrictive: it is, in a way. But it's very clear: these are the things you don't get to do. Find another way to be social with your peers. And it's very clear for the adults who monitor kids, too: you see one of these behaviors, you cut the kid from the herd immediately and put them in timeout. In two weeks, all those behaviors will stop. Most people can't imagine kids socializing without these behaviors because they've never seen kids (or sometimes, adults) socializing without these behaviors. But I have.

When my parents took me out of the bullying school and put me into an (expensive, private, all-girls) school, I found myself for the first time in a community where bullying was utterly unacceptable. No one called me names. No one mocked me. No one ganged up on me. No one played nasty practical jokes on me. No one poked, pinched, hit, kicked, tripped, spit on, or threw things at me. And I was still unpopular, I was still an outcast. People still had plenty to do and plenty to say to each other, and were still very clear on the fact that I was beyond the pale; weird; ridiculous, nerdy. No one said anything about it. They didn't have to. When I said something nerdy, people nearest me would roll their eyes and then move quickly on to the next topic, excluding me. If I tried to join a more popular group by standing or sitting near them, they'd ignore me. If I got too close, someone would glare at me or ask me directly what I wanted until I went away. My position hadn't changed. The only thing that had changed was that I wasn't being abused.

It took me two years to recover from that awful year of bullying; two years to not wince when someone asked me what my name was, two years to stop cowering away when someone approached me; two years to start trusting my teachers enough to do the work they asked me to do; two years to feel like life was worth living again. And during those two years, I had no friends. But what I had was peace. I had quiet. I had a chance to recover. And two years later I started making friends and collecting social power, and a few years after that I had put myself beyond the power of bullies forever.

I hadn't put the racism behind me, though, or the sexism. I still had to deal with that ... in fact, the more social power I had, the more people wanted to be around me because I was cool now, the more I had to deal with their prejudices and misconceptions and fears. But I was able to manage the -isms myself -- find a group of people like me, study and understand the phenomenon, advocate for my racial group (or for women) -- because I had social power and personal confidence as a result of being taken out from under bullying behavior.

****

Now, none if this is by way of saying that prejudice shouldn't be addressed early and often. You can stop bullying without addressing prejudice, but then you'll still have an active prejudice that will come out in other ways. Even if a gay teen isn't being actively bullied, that teen can still be ostracized, ignored, earnestly told that he is immoral, wrong, or bad, told that his very being disappoints his parents and embarrasses his family, and generally put into such extremes of cognitive dissonance that can cause depression, suicidal tendencies, and the like. Bullying isn't the only social behavior that kills.

I'm just saying: recognize the difference. Prejudice is one thing, bullying is another. Address them separately if you want to get rid of both.

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Comments

Excellent post and dead on. I was bullied all through grade school and it didn't stop until I nearly broke one of the bully's neck in early 8th grade. It was the demonstration of power on my part that ended it. I have listened to numerous "experts" on bullying who mean well and don't get it. (The most recent is to conflate it with gang behavior, with an emphasis that retaliation only leads to worse. Again, as you point out, there is a difference, even if the actions seem the same.)

Bullies bully because they can. Their victims get bullied because they can't meet the bullying with effective measures---or won't. And adults facilitate it with the best of intentions by trying to find underlying reasons. (There may be, but those reasons are entirely those related to the bully, who chooses victims, as you point out, by hierarchy---who can be bullied with the least consequence.)

Anyway, bravo.

Wow, Claire. This is really powerful. Lots of food for thought. And I'm so sorry you went through that. Thank you for writing about it.

Mark,

That's the part that breaks my heart the most: hearing from people who used to be bullied about how *they* stopped the bullying. From boys, it's almost inevitably by taking to violence. From girls it's usually by becoming mean -- meaner than the bullies -- and no longer being afraid to use it.

People get an uplift from hearing these stories, as if the bullied kids are just "standing up for themselves," and justice has been served and all that. They don't see the life that follows, where the bullied kid is still dealing with the trauma of (former) daily abuse, and responds to innocent triggers with violence and meanness.

Kids need to be protected from bullying so that they can grow up strong and rational. Bullied kids who have to learn to protect themselves have already lost that particular war.

What an amazing post and a truly fresh insight. I agree wholeheartedly that bullying and prejudice, while often related, are not the same thing. I have never understood parents, teachers, principals etc. who tolerate any of the behaviors you discussed. If I had ever so much as said a nasty thing to another kid, my parents would have cast me into hell for it. It just wasn't done.

I was the victim of a weird three-month burst of violent bullying at the age of twelve and the weird thing about it was that I wasn't an outsider or misfit in any way. I was popular and well-liked. I have never, to this day, been able to understand what possessed that gang of boys to physically attack me every day at recess. Nor can I explain why, when dragged into the principal's office to explain the cuts and bruises, I lied about it. I wouldn't name names. But there were adult witnesses to it. There were recess monitors. And none of the perpetrators were ever punished for it.

wow, lauren, what happened? how did that end?

It just sort of ended. I don't know why any more than I know why it started. One day these boys were my friends and the next day they were dragging me around the playground. I did hit puberty on the early side, so, who knows, maybe it had something to do with that. But there were ring-leaders and there were thuggish followers. I hadn't thought of this until I read your post. Brought back memories. Maybe this is why I have absolutely zero tolerance for cruelty of any kind.

wow, that's really complicated. it would be hard to get any adult to recognize ANY of the multiple dynamics at work in that situation.

i'm sorry you had to go through that, and so unprotected. did your parents know about it?

It's funny but I don't remember every detail. I remember my Mom with me in the principal's office and me not naming names, but everything else is kind of foggy. I think I may have blocked a lot of it out because I hadn't actually thought of that whole episode in a long time.

it's always hard to tell what fogginess is just the fogginess of a long-ago memory, and what is you blocking it out.

your story underlines for me how vulnerable everyone is in cultures of bullying. anyone can be picked out, for whatever reason, for a short period of time. it doesn't have to last forever.

and because the whole culture of that community is set around bullying, it's easier to just let it play out than to change everything so as to stop it.

also, your refusal to give up the names of your tormentors could be, ironically, a symptom of your social well-adjustedness. you knew the rules and stayed within the lines, and even that didn't protect you.

i have an image of you as a girl and i want to give her a hug, but i suspect she wouldn't have taken it. ;)

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