A Few Things to Realize About Bullying

Once again the world is talking about bullying. The depressing story of Amanda Todd has shown up in the world news.

Even before the Amanda Todd story came out, though, I was thinking about this. I see some problems with the way we’re talking about bullying. Things that really, really irk me. I’m going to try lay them out as clearly and simply as I can:

1. Bullying is not new.

Frankly, I’m getting tired of hearing people talk about bullying as if it’s some new disease or something, as if it  wasn’t around when they were kids.

Not that most people really, truly believe that. We all know it was. (The reason we pretend it wasn’t is, I’d say, probably because so many of us were silently complicit with the bullying that went out around us.) But it’s the way we talk about it that makes it sound this way. Consider the video of news anchor Jennifer Livingston that made the rounds last week:

Much as I applaud her standing up to her bully–and believe me, I really do, I think people like him need to get told off publicly–she also manages to claim in the video, among other things, that “our schools have become a battleground…”

This makes me wonder where in the hell Jennifer Livingston went to middle and high school. Where I went, schools were a battleground–and that’s all the way back in the 1980s. Some were worse and some were better–and as a rule, the poorer the community and students, the worse it was–but bullying was universal. This was a known and acknowledged fact of life for the inmates–er, I mean, the children–at every school I attended. Kids knew which classmates were bullies, which teachers were known for either excusing bullying or for bullying students themselves. We knew where bullies hung out, and how to avoid them. We occasionally banded together to avoid the worst of their depredations, or at least to share information about them.

But plenty of young people I knew were bullied into depression, or even to the verge of suicide. This was a widespread problem in the 1980s, and the accounts I’ve read by some writers–Rudy Rucker’s memoirs most recently, but I can think of others–suggest this is not uncommon.

In other words: though it may have grown worse lately, and new technologies may facilitate what look like new forms of it, bullying is not new, and we really ought to stop talking about it as if it is.

2. The technological dimension of bullying is not completely new either.

Don’t get me wrong: the Amanda Todd story demonstrates that Facebook has some pretty gaping holes that are exploitable by bullies.

Indeed, the Internet in general does; we’ve only just started to get a handle on trolls in the English-speaking portions of the net, mainly because the vast majority of our open-to-all, comment-enabled websites are individual ones, administered by people who have a stake in their own webpage. While there are portions of the Korean-language web that are run by individuals, they are often also not the site of heavy comment activity; rather, the vast majority of commenting goes on at either media-run news-sites, or on portals mirroring content from elsewhere, and I’m talking now about a very few portals hosting the comment-based discussion of millions of people. While this isn’t the only reason trolling is ridiculously out of hand on the Korean web–there are cultural factors I’ll get into below–it is a significant one: to regulate the range of acceptable discussion through any method other than automation would take many more hours of labour than these companies are willing to expend.

But you would be a fool if you thought that new technologies weren’t constantly being exploited by bullies. Back when I was in high school, the one student I knew who had a beeper got beeper by kids trying to harass her. Photocopiers (yes, they’re a technology) were used to mass-produce nasty signs that were subsequently taped (or glued) to lockers, classroom walls, and so on. I saw a bully once threaten a classmate with a bunsen burner in chemistry class, while the absent-minded teacher (a year or two from retirement) puttered about on the other side of the classroom.

Bullies exploit new technologies. The evil you see being carried out online is not because online is bad: it’s  because cruel people will always seek and find ways of exploiting new technologies to harm others. So it’s more constructive assume this phenomenon is inevitable, and then ask, “How can we better architecture our technologies so that people cannot bully with the benefit of anonymity, so that the features of the technology itself help make those bullying easier to catch and to deter… and, if necessary, to discipline them?”

In other words, there’s no sense in engaging in social panic over the internet, as, once more, Jennifer Livingston does when she argues that “the internet has become a weapon.” The internet was always designed as a weapon, as a tool of war. But further, any piece of technology can serve as a weapon: a cell phone, a photocopier, a school-owned camera, a chair, a sharpened pencil, the front gate of a school, a chalkboard, the stairs on a school bus, a bar of soap… honestly, I’ve seen them all used as weapons by bullies.

Bullies use any technology available to treat other people like shit, including important and lifesaving technologies. The technology is not, fundamentally, the problem (although safeguards can be built in): the problem is bullies.

3. Bullying is not necessarily something learned from adults. It isn’t necessarily the result of environmental influences.

Another thing Jennifer Livingston implies in her rant is that bullies pick up their behaviour from adults: that a kid who sees his father fat-shaming someone will go on and fat-shame someone else later on.

Now, I’m not going to argue kids don’t pick up on problematic behaviours and carry them onward through their lives. You only need to spent a few weeks teaching in a place where people are less sensitive to bigotry to hear young people blithely spewing things that they cannot have learned anywhere except from their parents and environment.

But this ignores two important points:

(a) Some people are just irredeemable assholes.

Some people bully for social reasons–I have a good friend who claims he became a bully in part as a form of self-defense, after being bullied himself, and in fact, even I as a kid did what could be called bullying in a few cases–but there are also people who are just born nasty. If you haven’t met any, you are lucky. The numbers for psychopathy alone predict the average high school of 300 kids will have 2-4 psychopaths on average, and psychopathy isn’t the only neuropathology that might make kids act as bullies. There’s a whole plethora of pathologies that could do that… but of course, we’re always nervous about the idea that someone could be born bad.

Some reasons for feeling that way are understandable, but at the same time, it’s not particularly constructive to write off the idea wholesale. I can say from my own experience as a teacher–I taught kids occasionally back in Canada, and spent almost two years with elementary schoolkids in Korea–that some bullies are just kids acting out, or whatever… but others, well, looking into their eyes was a bit like looking into the eyes of a fish or a lizard: there was no feeling, no basic humanity on display there.

Some kids, I am sad to say, really are monstrous to the core. Not many. But guess what? They were always the biggest ringleaders of bullying. Some people, no matter how loudly you point out what a shithead they’re being, will persist.

Don’t believe me? Check out what  Kevin Krause, the jerk who tried to fat-shame Jennifer Livingston had to say after she called him out. Some people really, truly are too ass-headed, stupid, or badly-wired to realize what assholes they’re being… even when thousands of people are telling them exactly that.

(b) Most people are quite willing to maintain a degree of complicity with whatever bullying goes on around them, whether to preserve themselves or for other, more distressing reasons.

We also like to pretend that most people are fundamentally decent, that bullying happens as an isolated affair. But in fact, it almost never does. After all, part of the point of bullying is that it’s a social phenomenon: without an audience, it usually just doesn’t happen. (There are exceptions, especially violent ones, but most of the discussions of bullying online hold to the audience-dependent, social-practice form of bullying.)

People who witness bullying and don’t speak out against it fail to do so for various reasons: they don’t want to become targets themselves, often, but not all failure to speak out comes down to self-preservation. People do respond, emotionally, to the spectacle of bullying. They derive some sense of power from joining in as someone is stoned by the village. If you don’t believe me, you should bring yourself up to speed on, say, the Stanford Prison Experiment, the Milgram Experiment, and… well, you might consider hanging out in a high school sometime. Hell, get a job at a big company. Or, you know, read a comment thread on Facebook or something. (Like, say, this one about sexism and misogyny in our culture: I’ll give you one guess what plenty of men said about whether women who don’t look like Kate Moss deserve to be remembered for stunning scientific achievements.)

The fact of the matter is, when they are gathered in groups people often suck in ways that leave their Niceness socialization in the dust. We’re complex animals, and part of that complexity is due to our gregariousness–our tendency to live in bands or groups–and that particular trait has a lot to do with how we relate in terms of power, group identity, self-preservation, fear, and ostracization.

Collectively, we’re really not necessarily a lot better than our closest relatives on the planet, chimpanzees, when it comes to that sort of thing. And to pretend otherwise is to ignore reality… something we humans often do when it’s convenient for us. Instead of admitting that we sat around, too scared to say anything, while some asshole made life a living hell for another kid, we join in on pretending that bullying was not so bad when we were young. Suuuuuuuuuure. If that makes you feel better. But it’s a crock. The bullies I knew in the 1980s and early 1990s would have done some of the same things we’re reading about in the news these days, if they’d had Facebook at their disposal, believe you me.

Finally,

4. Niceness isn’t the only thing we need to teach our children.

Jennifer Livingston claims that we need to teach our children how to treat one another. She claims that we need to stop modeling unhealthy things like fat-shaming, and start teaching them about respect, decency and so on.

In other words, she feels we need to Campaign for Greater Niceness.

If you’ve been reading along until this point, you’ll grasp the problem immediately: it’s akin to arguing that we will eliminate war by getting rid of our weapons and urging leaders of different countries to be nicer to one another. (Or to their own populations, even.) The problem is that there is always one bastard out there who will not throw away his nukes.

I’m not against campaigning for More Widespread Niceness. It’s just that I think we should also be adjusting our definition of what  it means to be a nice person, a decent person. Sometimes a nice person, a decent person, has to be aggressive or confrontational when someone is being a prick. Sometimes a nice or decent person needs to call rude, bigoted jerks on their behaviour. Sometimes, the nice/decent people need to band together and smackdown people who persist in being rude, ignorant, nasty, or predatory.

This is something I figured out in Korea, where nice people are socialized to tolerate amazing amounts of crap from assholes (and are pretty heavily inclined to stand by and do nothing when an asshole inflicts crap on someone other than themselves). The result is not Greater Niceness: it’s pretty much a mess. Miss Jiwaku, when she visited Los Angeles, was shocked at how even the occasional assholes she met there showed a modicum of politeness and decency; at how people seemed to regard homeless people as if they were human beings; at how decorous people were just by reflex.

They did not arrive there merely through socialization into Greater Niceness, though, because guess what? Most Americans aren’t socialized to put up with even a third of the shit that Koreans take from other Koreans on a daily basis. All of that decorousness and politeness exists in part because when you act like a shit, people will call you out and smack you down.

Which is my point: sometimes, to have a decent society, nice people need to bring the smackdown. It doesn’t need to be violent–though the potential to use violence to defend oneself against a violent attacker should be available.

(If you’re not independently wealthy in Korea, you will need to evade capture: from what I’ve been told, if you use violence to defend yourself, even against someone who attacks you first, you may need to pay for any injuries they have sustained (real or imaginary) and any hospital bills resulting from your violence… even if you were only protecting yourself–or your mate, or your child. I could be wrong about that.)

In other words, the struggle for Greater Niceness cannot be won by socialization alone. Sometimes, you’re going to have to make the cost of being an asshead so high that they will tuck their assheadedness away while in public. And, since we know some people are too assheaded ever to learn, this is pretty much the closest we can get to a win without mandatory brain-prosthesis-implantation for assheads.

The recent discussion of “rape culture” comes to mind; if you have one of “those guys” in your group, and you don’t draw the line, or deal with it, or smack that son of a bitch down when he gets rapey? Then you’re not being “nice.” Enabling people to act in predatory, nasty, collectively-off-putting ways isn’t nice, and at a certain point, saying nothing is enabling, and is being not-nice, not-decent, not-good.

I’m not saying this is easy. People struggle with this. When you’ve internalized one set of rules, it’s hard to apply another.

But frankly, I think if we’re going to deal with the bullying problem, realistically we do need to teach “nice” kids how to fight back effectively and intelligently. We need to teach kids how to throw a punch, not so that they will get into fights, but because social predators preferentially drag into fights those kids who don’t know how to defend themselves, and because being dragged into one without knowing what to do is basically the same as being left defenseless. (A kid who can throw a punch will get into fewer fights, and those fights will be less severe. Take it from someone who was never taught how to throw a punch.)

Not all bullying is physical, though, so we need to teach young people how to devastate someone who’s mocking them publicly with a few well-chosen words. We need to show them how to use the same tools to fight back–how to use Facebook to bring down the full fury of society upon the people bullying them–for example, about how blackmail is illegal, how circulating child pornography is highly illegal (something Amanda Todd could have used to bring down her attacker, if only she’d known). We need to be damned sure that authority figures in a position to intervene will do so when needed, and we need also to hold them responsible when they don’t–to the point that when a student goes to a teacher or administrator for help, and the authority figure doesn’t do so, there are serious consequences.

We also very much need to teach young people about how to be careful and responsible and wary online, about what anonymity online is and how it shields people who can hurt them. We need to sit down and talk about this with them, the way we are supposed to sit down and talk with them about sex, or about money, or any of the other things  they’ll be dealing with for the rest of their lives. While it’s possible Amanda Todd was warned not to flash her body online to strangers, and didn’t grasp it, it’s also possible this was not impressed upon her vehemently enough. That’s not to blame her mother, mind you, because we as a society are pretty stupid about including practical knowledge as a part of youths’ education. (Did you learn about responsible credit card usage, or home budgeting, in your “home economics” courses? I sure didn’t.)

Also, since parents really can’t be trusted to do this effectively, to some degree, we also need to teach this stuff–understanding the internet, and practical internet best practices–to kids in school. This definitely falls into the category of Important Life Skills We Should Be Teaching Kids Early On.

We used to understand this at least a little bit better, back when I was a kid in the 1980s. We had policemen come to our school and lecture us on what to do when a strange grownup attacks you, or tries to talking you into getting in his car, or comes to your door when nobody is home. The talk was a bit dry, but it also scared the shit out of us, which was precisely what we needed. They taught us so well that one of my schoolmates, when a police car pulled up to the sidewalk and one of the policemen called out to him, screamed “STRANGER DANGER!” and fled to a neighbor’s doorway.

But while I say that this needs to be discussed in schools, most importantly, we need to take a few steps back and look at the system within which all of this seems so prone to occurring: schools. Because,

5. In certain ways schools are, in their present form, a failed social experiment in which the emergence of bullying is probably inevitable.

If you want to know more about why I say this, there are plenty of books and studies on the subject. I recommend starting with considering the following facts:

  • The vast majority of students are not truly willing participants in the school system. Many, including the brightest, would opt out if they had the choice. The only institutions in the adult world like this are the penal system (which one only enters by violating serious laws), the military (and only in times of war; otherwise, one can choose not to join up), and cults (which, sometimes, people are forced to join, and which people are rarely allowed to quit). And while some students do opt to quit, they do so under the impression that their whole future will suffer as a result: society deincentivizes dropping out of high school in an extreme way.
  • Schools tend to feature an explicit, artificial social hierarchy that is reinforced in a myriad of ways. All social hierarchies have not only tops, but middles and bottoms–a clear pecking order and obvious targets for bullying.
  • Social fragmentation that results from bullying propagates further social fragmentation and further bullying, such that some of the marginalized (the bullied) will become bullies themselves, either out of psychological trauma or as a conscious means of self-defense.
  • Many teachers, as authority figures within schools, have neither the personal incentive (since they don’t have to live with the consequences) nor, often, the functional ability to recognize–let alone to discourage–or penalize bullying among students. It’s easier to go to the break room, to not ask the kid in the back why her eyes are puffy and red, to tell yourself that it takes two to tango even when it’s clear that’s not what happened.
  • Schools, like all hierarchic systems, also attract a number of predators and parasites, including adults within the system. Some teachers will inevitably be bullies themselves, but this is explicitly not assumed in the administration of schools, and when it turns out to be the case, it often is not seriously addressed.

For those who think that schools are important because of the socialization skills they teach children, all I can say is that the bullying they so loudly decry is a principal feature of that very specific form of socialization; that social conduct in every situation outside of schools (barring prisons) is radically different from in schools, and that the socialization one learns in schools is not therefore used in the rest of one’s life; but also that people tend to be, for whatever reason, irrationally blind to the negatives of any system they’ve endured themselves.

My Korean students are undergraduates, mostly fresh out of high school. Many, many of them have told me stories of verbal and physical abuse from teachers–things I would characterize as such, that is. When we talk about it, they agree: teachers hitting students, shouting at them, throwing objects at them, these are instances of bullying and of physical abuse. And yet, when I ask them what can be done to change things, I’ve heard–a distressing number of times–that change is not necessary, that teachers ought to hit recalcitrant students, that these forms of discipline are an important and necessary part of school life.

And despite all the other reasons we fail to recognize that education needs a serious overhaul today. I’d argue that the primary reason we can’t imagine the structure of schools changing radically is simply the laziness of those who are blinded because they think the way they’ve done something is the only way to do it.

And yes, maybe your experience was not so bad. Or maybe you remember it as less bad than it was. But for plenty of people it, was that bad. And bullying is of course not the only reason we should rethink schooling and education. There are plenty of reasons, with the decline of academic performance among students across the English-speaking world being one of them.

But it stands to reason that the stupider and more ignorant we are, the more likely it is that we’re going to act stupidly and ignorantly in social situations. That is, the more likely it is that we will behave like bullies.

Frankly, it’s time. We need to do better, and we have the resources, even now. What we need is the will.

gordsellar: Your host on this site. I'm an SF writer, homebrewer, and expat teaching at a university in South Korea. My policies for commenters on this site can be read here.

View Comments (6)

  • Great post and so much of it I see in my school that my heart breaks a bit most days.

    One quibble I have is here:

    "that social conduct in every situation outside of schools (barring prisons) is radically different from in schools, and that the socialization one learns in schools is not therefore used in the rest of one’s life; but also that people tend to be, for whatever reason, irrationally blind to the negatives of any system they’ve endured themselves."

    It's possible the reverse is true, and school affects us so profoundly that we model by default all later systems/organizations we encounter as some variant of school, likely high school or middle school. So the socialization we learned in school is useful -- but that fact is symptomatic of a larger dysfunction in society.

    • Ah, good catch. That's fatigue, after editing the thing so many times.

      You're absolutely right, and of course the subtle effects of schooling do get mapped onto the rest of our lives. If you look at the origins of public schooling, at least according to John Taylor Gatto, this was one of the core purposes of establishing mandatory education: to provide docile, manageable workers. (If you haven't yet read it, "The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher" is a good essay on the implicit lessons in school that still serve that end; and, hell, the book it's collected in, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, is also excellent. I need to read more of his work, too.)

      But at the same time, I think that at least in a Canadian context (and I think, American and Korean ones too), one's release from high school always signifies a movement from a place where high school social dynamics are unbridled, to a space where other social dynamics have a chance to come into play. Less so in Korea, but even in Korea, authority figures don't use violence on underlings with complete and unquestioned impunity. (Even a professor of a college freshman has no access to violence, the way some high school teachers have access with effective impunity today; I think it's even less likely that employees will let their bosses beat them physically. Likewise, employees don't threaten one another with fights after work out in the parking lot.)

      But we could also argue those are cosmetic differences, since the social dynamic of psychological bullying is inescapably prevalent throughout Korean society, and to some degree we see it all over in North American society too. Bosses are often consummate bullies, just as are teachers, and we surely don't learn intelligent conflict resolution in school... and that does seem to carry over to the kind of childish stupidity I've sometimes seen in workplaces back home too.

      • According to my co-teacher humiliation, manipulation, and constant competition make the elementary school go round....

        And kacaotalk.

        • Hell, they seem to make whole big segments of this society go round, from what I gather...

          Kakaotalk optional.

  • FYI if there are no people who let themselves be bullied then there won't be any bullies. Take care of yourselves.

    • FYI that's called blaming the victim.

      I agree that people who are bullied need to stand up to those who bully them, of course. But they also usually need some kind of support system to do that. Part of the point of what I wrote above is that by arguing that we need to teach kids to be nice to one another, we're also failing to equip the "nice" kids with the tools they need to deal with the kids who will inevitably attempt to bully them.

      I'm curious what you think Amanda Todd should have done, though. She changed schools; she moved to a new city, even. The cyberstalking and bullying continued. To suggest that it would have stopped if she had "not let herself be bullied" seems absurd when, let's be honest, hundreds of teenagers were probably involved in the bullying on the day-to-day level. Should she have taken kung-fu and kicked the crap out of the people bullying her? Dropped out of school? Obviously she should have gone to the police, and the police should have tracked down and jailed her cyber-stalker... but the fact that didn't happen suggests she probably wasn't getting the support she ought to have gotten, whether in the home or at school or wherever. IF she didn't seek that help, we can't blame those who failed her... except insofar as she didn't seek help because she expected (perhaps rightly) that it would be useless.

      I can say that I dealt with bullying as a kid for a number of years, and when I did seek help both at home and at school, instead of getting any support at all, what I got was either blame for the situation or more bullying (usually of an emotional nature).

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