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Are We Ignoring The Truth About Bullying?

We have been doing quite a bit of moralizing about bullying lately.  And by we, I mean pretty much everyone.  Media.  Educators. Parents.  Experts. Doctors. Find someone in any way even peripherally associated with children and you’ll probably find someone railing against bullying. 

That I have an opinion about bullying is therefore not surprising.  Nor is the fact that I’m posting  about it.

In this article, Emily Yoffe interviews Emily Bazelon about her book on bullying, Sticks and Stones.  Now, I admittedly have not read the book, but Bazelon makes a mistake that I see repeated across the bullying debate.  Namely, that bullying is some kind of A or B equation where you are A Bully (A) or the Bullied (B) and no middle ground exists.

Yet this view strikes me as fundamentally flawed.  We see bullying as an either/or scenario, when in reality bullies are themselves often bullied and those who are bullied often bully those below them.  I myself was pretty mercilessly bullied in high school.  I actually had a small trashcan of junk dumped on my head on a bus ride home.  But I also recognize that I bullied kids deemed lower on the social scale than myself.  I’d like to say that if not for being bullied I wouldn’t have done it, but the reality is that I probably would have bullied those kids anyway.

Yoffe asks Bazelon about her own experiences being bullied, to which Bazelon responds about a girl “who really was bullied” (ital in original).  This is part of the problem with viewing bullying as an A/B dynamic.  Bazelon wasn’t really bullied; that happened to some other girl.  Is there even a hint here that Bazelon couldn’t really be bullied because she is much too cool for that?  I mean, real bullying happens to other people, right?  Further evidence that bullying isn’t an A/B dynamic but more of a AB/BA dynamic: Bazelon wrote an earlier article titled I Was A Mean Girl in which she talks about her days as a bully.  Her group of friends not only bullied outsiders, they reserved most of their most hurtful and intense bullying for group members.  So Bazelon was both A and B, as were many if not most in her social group.

Teens, genetically desperate at this time for social influence, are crammed into forced social settings with a set group of people.  Without being too hyperbolic, bullying also occurs in similar situations involving adults: prisons.  Bazelon herself pokes at this a little, admitting when asked if we could eliminate bullying that “kids are doing what anyone would do: maximizing their social influence.” 

All of this is confounded by the fact that we offer up advice like: Can we teach kids not to be bystanders?  I think bullying will always exist.  Bullying arises partly because of genetics at that age and partly because of the nature of high schools and is unlikely to go away.   I do believe there are ways to address bullying, but they are hampered by our belief that bullying is segmented, that somehow a child is either A or B.  And sure, if teens stepped off the sidelines and intervened it would go a long way to resolving bullying.  Having said that, I think expecting or asking teens to not be bystanders is a foolhardy waste of time.  That is pretty much the job of teens.  Secondly, as Bazelon concedes, bullying is about maximizing social influence, and few kids are going to be willing to risk that for someone who cannot improve their social cache.

Who will step up?  You are left relying on kids who are already outsiders and don’t fear further exclusion (a group lacking power) and those genetically inclined to step in (a small group probably dispersed enough to lack power).

One final note:  bullying doesn’t just happen with kids.  To pretend it does ignores a simple fact: plenty of adults bully.  Have you ever visited an internet comment board?  Every commented on Honey Boo Boo’s use of language or way of living?  Bazelon herself reconnected with one of her high schools friends with this result:

Our meetings were drenched in wine and fueled by her incessant need to click through album after album on Facebook, pointing and laughing at people’s miserable jobs and bootcut jeans.

Poking fun at economic status and clothing?  Sounds pretty similar to bullying in high school.


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