Bully For Us

bully word cloudBullying is all the rage; at any rate, we’re talking about it more. Has it gotten worse? And is there really any way to stop a bully?

Slate contributor Emily Bazelon has written the latest in a line of anti-bullying books and her agenda is fulsome: she wants to reform not only the way we deal with the victims but also the perpetrators, which goes to a veritable cultural revolution. Bazelon warns against labeling everything as bullying (sometimes kids disagree) while at the same time finding a way to make bullying “uncool”. Bystanders, she tells us, have a responsibility to help stop ongoing bullying.

Perhaps all these books on bullying (I counted at least half dozen others in the last six months) are addressing a problem made worse by looser rules, less moral or religious guidance, an overwhelmed educational system, and increased access to widespread communications systems (social media), which allows reputations to be ruined and resentments to be nurtured.  Or maybe the new technology allows us to release our inner brute.

Like almost everyone I know, I was bullied growing up, although it never rose to a physical threat level. In that long ago, pre-cultural diversity time, I was just different enough from the wholesome Midwest Protestants with whom I grew up–edgier, more inquisitive, and more restless. I spoke up when something didn’t make sense, even if that “something” came from a teacher. Worse, I was saddled with an awkward, unpronounceable first name my mom slapped on me as a way of honoring her newly passed, old-world mother. Oh what fun the mean girls and boys had with that!

I survived, thanks to a strong family unit. Though I suffered hurt feelings as an outsider, I had no particular concerns about being permanently damaged. I never felt my experience defined me as an adult—or maybe I didn’t let it. On one or two occasions I was even able to stand up to the bullies.

Conditions today might have made me feel a lot different. The Internet is everywhere, tempting and taunting us and giving strength to the old adage “everyone’s a critic”. Yes they are and they’ll cut you without a second thought, often anonymously. As someone who writes and publishes online, I’ve come to dread the comments box. If I were an insecure, hormonally challenged fourteen-year old with the requisite online presence, I can’t imagine how I’d stand up to an onslaught of abuse or insult. As both fiction and real life like to remind us, worrisome and dangerous consequences can result from feelings of alienation in a young person.

It’s worth noting Bazelon’s comprehensive book is titled Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. I questioned a few years ago whether empathy could be taught . In the past few years, efforts have been made to add it to the curriculum at a number of schools and universities, as well as in courses offered to corporate employees.

In fact, the New York Times reviewer John Schwartz discusses this book within the context of a larger an ongoing discussion about whether we humans are becoming more or less mean. The question has been given new impetus by last year’s controversial book by Stephen Pinker,The Better Angels of Our Nature. The outrage occasioned by the book centered on not just Pinker’s research methodology, but also on his contention that we are getting nicer. Furious commenters let Pinker know in no uncertain terms humans were bad and getting worse. The only question was why the hell couldn’t he see it?

I take the view that we aren’t so much nasty as focused on reward. Bullying, whether physical, verbal or via cyberspace, is all about control: I dominate you, which gives me a sense of power or control, which feels good or makes me feel less bad. The impulse to feel good overrides any consideration about the feelings of others. Who doesn’t want to feel in control? Show of hands? I thought so.

For years, humans have tried to restrain these instincts by creating codes, both legal and moral, to constrain injurious behavior. While such rules and regulations are valuable, they trade on inducing guilt (not to mention fear of either the all-imposing Deity or the law). I don’t believe that’s always the best approach.

Obviously, if we can align feelings of well-being and yes, even control, with concern about others, we might be able to sidestep the need for playing the guilt card. Pinker thinks we’re evolving; maybe we can nudge things along in our efforts to become more collegial and cooperative. Even the idea of we could teach empathy seems a step in the right direction. We wouldn’t reach every budding sociopath but perhaps we could lessen the number of incidents involving domestic violence, sex trafficking, dictatorship or genocide.

In the meantime, I’ll settle for rendering bullying obsolete by making it so unfashionable no teen—or boss or world leader—would be caught dead doing it.

About Nikki

Author of non-fiction books HOPE IN SMALL DOSES and BECAUSE I SAY SO as well as numerous published essays. Her new novel, THE FORMER ASSASSIN, is due out January 2018.
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15 Responses to Bully For Us

  1. Donna says:

    Nikki- This is such a thought provoking article. Several years ago I conducted a study of 99 nurses who completed an open-ended question embedded in an online survey on bullying in healthcare. Bullying in healthcare? Who knew? Doctor-nurse bullying? Actually, no. Nurse to nurse bullying is far more prevalent and it affects the healthcare of every patient who is in the bully’s line of fire. Listen to the quote of one of our subjects, “The situations are subtle and can range from sarcastic comments to being set up with the wrong patient chart . . . these sorts of things undermine your work day . . . erode your sense of comfort and security that you need to do your job in a professional manner. (Nurse 41, 2007). The deliberate, repetitive, and aggressive behaviors of bullying can cause psychological and/or physical harm among professional nurses, disrupt nursing care and threaten patient safety and quality outcomes. Just how is the public’s health care threatened? Bullies assign difficult or inappropriate patients to new nurses, withhold information at change of shift, distract colleagues so they cannot focus on their jobs, cause nurses to leave their jobs in search of workplace that is more humane and moral. One nurse manage said she spent 3 hours of every workday dealing with a bully and her effects on the staff. Bullying in the healthcare workplace has been recognized internationally, but there is still a culture of silence in many institutions here in the US. The result is underreporting and insufficient and unproven solutions. Our study described how nurses dealt with their toxic work environment. In fact, those who were horrified by what was happening to their colleagues and their patients, tried to make things right when confronted with bullying. They reported it but, guess what? In many cases there was silence and inaction by nurse administrators. What can we do? If you or family members are hospitalized and you observe or witness bullying among nurses . . . call or write a letter/email to the hospital administrator and the VP of patient care. Speak up. Get names and give details. After all, the life you save, may be your own.

  2. Mark Ward says:

    In some respects, for me, it raises a question in regard to empathy: is empathy born or bred? If it is indeed a combination of the two (which I think it is), then we must consider looking at what we (as a society) reward. What behavior attracts the most attention and reward? How do we as a society define success”? In a country that has built its success on the power of the individual, perhaps it is time to find the harmony in the success that we also create for OTHERS. What if (in our homes and schools), we focused on children in regards to who they want to be (instead of only focusing on what they do or do not do)? Then, we have an anchor for a different kind of conversation: what is the evidence of success in regards to your definition of who you want to be? What are the challenges that you see? How will you overcome them? How does who you want to be feed the success of others? This may sound abstract and off topic, but bullying is a reaction to a pervasive sense of powerlessness (by the bully and the victim). It is not enough to focus simply on the act. It is important for us to begin to examine the bigger picture implications for all the parties involved. It is another way to begin to condition positive behavior when empathy is not present (using the “what’s in it for me?” theme in our society to experience how our collective success and harmony affects the success of the individual). Perhaps our schools should incorporate service into the curriculum, where they personally experience the merit of giving to others (and how this relates to history, politics, literature, etc). It is not enough to simply focus on punishing the bully. We must empower our children with the power of a vision and foster their gifts/talents to bring it to fruition.

  3. Rabs says:

    The Center for NonViolent Solutions mediates conflicts in the schools of Worcester MA, and they teach peer mediation skills which may lead to honesy conversations that encourage developing empathy for each side of a conflict.

  4. Lezlie Bishop says:

    I agree with A.J. — I think empathy is an innate trait. However, I think it is possible to awaken that trait earlier in a child’s life to help prevent the caving to peer pressure from those who are not blessed with empathy. We all say that children can be very cruel — and they can — but in every group there is one who “feels” for the one being teased, taunted and terrorized. We need to find a way to help that child tap into his/her power of empathy and lead the less-gifted children follow THEM.

  5. Jaime says:

    I was bullied by mean girls too. And I was also the one who stood up for those even lower on the social ladder, incurring a downgraded position for like ever – or the end of high school. The reward – a laugh from a group of people you want to get in with – is powerful. I could not imagine what it would be like to go through school with Facebook and Twitter. I get the point that the term “bullying” is subjective, and it probably is thrown around too much. But the more we discuss it and bring it out into the open, the better, I think. Great piece, Nikki.

  6. Gabriel K. says:

    Too many people talk about and against bullying. Many of us have been victims of it, either by our own relatives, or coworkers, or schoolmates, yet many of us who are angered by it, are many times directly and indirectly part of what I consider the greatest form of abuse, exploitation and bullying. One only has to keyword search “Animal Cruelty” to be horrified by what is legally and religiously sanctioned and considered normal. Anyone who has suffered abuse, exploitation, ridicule, shame, psychological and physical abuse, persecution, prejudice, discrimination and every form of cruelty imaginable. By the way, the word “Bullying” should definitely be changed to something else, since it seems to me, only humans are capable of calculated, well thought forms of abuse. I urge each and every one who is enraged by this very human behavior to rethink and examine the term “Bullying” and oppose it and fight it and eradicate it from our Social Fabric and Culture. There is a whole different World in front of us, when we dare to go beyond our own kind. 🙁

  7. AJ Calhoun says:

    Dynamite article, Nikki, and timely as hell. While I’m not at all sure empathy can be taught, there may be a middle ground in that debate. I have to agree with Lisa, at least up to a point. I believe punishment, embarrassment, being called out, being made to pay for anti-social behavior is probably the only way we can teach empathy. I believe empathy is, by nature, a genetic feature. While there may always be the Bad Seed factor, I believe that empathy is normally innate, but smothered in the cradle by those around us, when we are being shaped as humans, so the sociopathic tendencies are made solid and may as well have been hard wired by nature. Can this be undone? Perhaps, but I suspect only by educating the offender as to just how it feels. This is not the same as “an eye for an eye,” though. This is, rather, re-educating, rewiring, or, at worst, causing bad impulses to be suppressed out of a healthy fear of disapproval and punishment. Is that the same as making it unfashionable? Perhaps it is as close as we can come. And of course I am open to discussing this further, because I am not so certain that I am right. I simply trust my experience and psychological insights, and even my reason sometimes. This is where I am in the process of dealing with this. I think it can be altered, and I think it’s important for bystanders to be a part of the process of defusing (or just plain intervening in) bullying. But can empathy be taught or revived in a given individual? I’d like to think so but I have my doubts. Making bullying more than unfashionable – making it dangerous – may be as good as it gets, and if so, I’d settle for that.

  8. Candace Mann says:

    interesting article, nikki. i am an admitted cynic, but i do see value in society’s treating bullies by making them feel guilty and as not one of the Good Guys group. maybe it’s that i don’t have a lot of faith in the ability of your average person to intellectualize the concept of empathy. if your friends disapprove of your bad behavior (much like your parents might have) when you bully someone, it seems like a powerful incentive to knock it off.

  9. Lisa Solod says:

    I, too, was bullied. But I don’t see it becoming “unfashionable” unless the consequences are swift and sure. Bullies get away with it because, like victims of rape, those bullied are often too scared to speak up. Forgive me for being cynical, but I don’t think we can teach empathy, either. It has been proven that men cannot be taught not to be abusers, not as a rule. Unempathetic people fall on the sociopathic level and as far as I know sociopathy is not curable. If you have information to the contrary I would love to see it. What I think IS happening is that sociopaths now have the internet by which to reach out and torment…. I am not sure there are more of them than there were. They are just more visible.

    • Lindsay says:

      I do adore how on an article of bullying, you’ve put down an entire gender and labeled them all as abusers.

      Generalization? Check.

      I’d love to see your research on why “men cannot be taught not to be abusers.”

    • Nikki says:

      Lisa: Where in the WORLD did you read that men cannot be taught not to be abusers? I’m a bit appalled at that generalization, I have to admit. And btw, it was the MEAN GIRLS who bullied me. They were incredibly adept at verbal abuse.

  10. Donn Murphy says:

    I am deeply ashamed to admit that in Leavenworth, Kansas, in the late 1930’s, it was the custom of the all-white Sacred Heart School students (of which I was one) to taunt the black students from Sumner Public School as we walked home.

    I shall never forget a tiny black tot named Mamie, who stood across the street, wrists on her hips, and exclaimed, “I’m know I’m Black and I’m proud of it!”

    She was far ahead of her time, and I keep her in my prayers.

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  12. Liza says:

    Great piece, Nikki. I also really like your last thought: make it unpopular to bully! Let’s see if that works!

  13. Joan Haskins says:

    Bullying takes many forms today. Some of them are even mistaken for being successful and powerful. No matter the context, the bully is weak.
    Excellent piece, Nikki

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