Bullying requires far more than policies and words that pay lip service to abstract notions of ‘being good’
High school can be a difficult place to be even remotely different from the rest of the student body. You like to wear funny clothes? Well then, we relegate you to conversations with similarly dressed people for the next four years.
I think we’ve all experienced some variation of this situation during our lives, regardless of the countries in which we live. The struggle to ‘fit in’ and be just like everyone else through our consumption choices in particular seems to be the exclusive curse of the middle class in capitalist societies.
However, teen bullying, which seems to be on the rise in the past few years, is more than just being forced to sit at the ‘misfits’ table during lunch because you don’t buy the right brands or don’t have the right personality. Bullying has played a large role in teen suicide, as many recent high profile cases across North America, and studies conducted internationally, have demonstrated. And so we see it make its way onto The Agenda. For everyone—from not-for-profits to celebrities to legislators—bullying is the issue of the year. But how deep is our commitment to solving the problem? Do we even scratch the surface when we respond with memorials and Facebook groups upon the realisation that teens are taking their own lives? Or do we simply become involved for five minutes to appease our consciences?
Certainly, advocacy and awareness on the issue is a start.
But I would argue that bullying and teen suicide are two symptoms of a complex disease, one that we collectively have yet to address. I also do have to say that I have serious objections with how the current mainstream discourse on bullying and teen suicide presents it as a solely LGBT issue. It isn’t. Children and adults of all backgrounds and identities experience this. Why don’t we properly recognise and address how gender can shape the experience of being bullied, for example? Or class? Or race? Or having a disability?
It is clear to me that dealing with bullying requires a much more multifaceted and proactive approach than has hitherto been adopted. States, schools and societies obviously have a problem on their metaphorical hands. So how do they respond?
The state responds with legislation, in many cases, and does not respond at all in others. Legislation, however, seems to be a symbolic gesture. Educating students on the importance of toleration is important, yes, but it does not have any real effect on the actual perpetrators of this type of behaviour as far as I can tell. Bullies may have serious behavioural problems, which probably stem from their own lived experience, and are unlikely to stop behaving in a certain way simply because they are told it is morally wrong. This logic also assumes that these individuals can identify what they are engaging in as bullying, can recognise the potential effects of their behaviour on the victim, and assumes that the bully will stop once this recognition occurs. Studies have shown that in many cases, these individuals see what they do as harmless teasing. This means that they are unlikely to stop any time soon. Further, even if you’re attaching reprisals from school authorities to bullying behaviour (as has occurred in Ontario, for example) you’re not doing very much.
Demonstrating to authority figures that bullying behaviour is taking place is extremely difficult for the victim. Think sexual harassment or discrimination in the workplace. As women and/or minorities, we know that simply stating that we feel we are being harassed is never good enough, despite the fact that laws against this type of behaviour exist. This is particularly the case if the harassment is ‘only’ verbal. How can you effectively communicate the intricacies of tone, facial expression and body language that make up human communication, to some old white man who’s reached the pinnacle of that corporate ladder and is unlikely to have experienced anything remotely similar? Similarly, bullying might not be an entirely obvious form of behaviour to other parties and we neglect this completely. In this case an already vulnerable person risks further social rejection and even intensification of abuse by the perpetrator. Thus one real problem, with or without legislation, remains identifying the victims of bullying behaviour and the bully, if the bully is in fact a single person and not a large group of people complicit in the abuse.
And what about society at large? Society seems, for the most part, to have been absolved of all responsibility.
A major problem is how we speak of bullying as though it occurs outside of an enabling framework, as though our high schools and the children within them exist in a vacuum, outside of society and outside of the adult world. They do not. Human beings are mirrors of one another. When teens behave maliciously towards others, they’re acting in ‘learned’ ways. Many bullies dehumanise their victims because that is what they have been taught to do by the world. They have also been taught that in the pursuit of self- interest, one need not consider others. Thus the mob mentality among high school students (and among people in general) is something that needs to be addressed. Additionally, our culture today seems to almost value rudeness. The ability to mock others and be sarcastic is considered a mark of great intelligence and spirit, and a quality to be admired. We really don’t consider what we are saying or how it can hurt in a world where everything is about staying entertained.
This is where education does have a role to play. Educating students about the importance of having kindness and empathy, as well as courage to stand up to someone who is doing something wrong, abusing their power, and hurting someone else, is definitely the way to go. But this education goes beyond the classroom. It involves us as adults teaching through practice. It means changing the way we treat others around us. It involves us recognising that our words have power. It means that we choose our words and react carefully when we disagree with others, no matter who they are or what they have done to hurt us. This can help outlaw negativity and hate in every segment of society, and provides youth with an alternative vision of how they can proceed in their interactions with their peers.
And this is where role models, popular culture, and the media are also important. Children need to see these character traits, especially among those they look up to and respect. Our role models can teach us about being human, treating others like we would like to be treated, and about making good choices.
Yet who do we see making the news? Chris Brown, girlfriend-beater. Kim Kardashian, narcisissist. Both famous and loved anyway. Twilight, the story of an abusive relationship, sells anyway. The media is key here because it glamorises these people and phenomenon, makes them household names so it seems like bad decisions and bad behaviour towards others over whom we have power pay. As though actions don’t have consequences. We need to find ourselves some better people to put up on that pedestal over there.
Image from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/mother-tongue/9670573/Using-Facebook-to-protect-your-child-from-bullying-online.html
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