The problem of bullying is a complicated issue. It hits a nerve with everybody who has been the target of bullying, it makes bystanders uncomfortable, and it is a problem that can have very dire consequences if it is not dealt with. Unfortunately, nobody really knows how to deal with all of its intricate layers at once.
People want a quick fix to stop bullying, but there isn’t one simple solution because there isn’t just one reason why people are victimized, and there isn’t just one reason why people bully. The problem exists in the home, in the media, on the sports field, in the schools, and in the community. It will require a shift in all environments in order to see a change.
Some anti-bullying initiatives, such as those that encourage and empower the bystanders to join forces and declare that bullying behaviour is not okay, are seeing a slight reduction in bullying. Other initiatives result in no change. Sometimes it’s because a one-size-fits-all program won’t work on every demographic. Sometimes it’s because the initiatives aren’t tackling the correct problem.
Is the problem a tormentor who has impulse control issues and comes from an abusive or troubled home? Is the problem an emotionally fragile or socially awkward victim who inadvertently invades others’ personal space or unwittingly provokes a hostile reaction? Is the problem a culture of competitiveness where aggression and overpowering those who are weaker is rewarded with status and power? Is it something else entirely?
Every student in our school district participates in anti-bullying campaigns each year. They wear their pink shirts and blue bracelets and learn that bullying is bad, so why does social aggression still happen every single day?
Let’s start with a clarification of the definitions. Social aggression includes everything that we would consider mean or rude: name-calling, teasing, exclusion, inappropriate jokes, threats, and physical aggression. Bullying is repeated, socially aggressive behaviour intended to damage people, physically or mentally, so they will submit or retreat.
The vital distinctions between social aggression and bullying are that social aggression is a method for establishing boundaries, appropriate behaviour in a group, and hierarchy. Bullying is the REPETITIVE, HUMILIATING use of social aggression that results in SUBMISSION by the victim.
Thanks to anti-bullying campaigns, young students call all social aggression bullying. “She invited everybody to her birthday except me”, “He wouldn’t let me play defence and pushed me in the mud”, “She always chooses Chelsea instead of me”, “They wouldn’t use my idea in a group project and said it was stupid”.
Although upsetting, everyday social aggression is not bullying. Conflict teaches children how to solve problems, how to cope, and it builds resiliency. Children need to experience situations where they are pushed around or challenged. Solving conflicts on their own is necessary in order to grow and build the skills to survive in a social world that has rules, competition, boundaries, and a hierarchical structure.
Bullying, on the other hand, should not be allowed to exist under any circumstances. The difficult part in eradicating the more severe harassment is that a victim of real bullying will almost never talk about it because it is incredibly humiliating and scary. “The girls who I thought were my friends photo shopped my face onto a pornographic picture and posted it online with my phone number”, “A grade twelve student peed in my locker and told me if I don’t sell weed for him he’ll hurt my little sister”, “A girl I don’t even know told me to stop dating the guy she likes or she’ll jump me, and she’s waits outside my school every day with a bunch of her friends”.
If we want bullying to stop, we first need to stop governing with it, conducting business with it, and laughing at it. The television program GLEE prides itself on tackling topics like bullying, while hypocritically the characters say things to each other like, “Rachel, your moustache is thicker than a Middle Eastern dictator”, “Read my lips because we know you can’t read words”, “All I want is just one day a year when I’m not visually assaulted by uglies and fatties… if you’re hideous stay at home.”, “Wheels, Gay Kid. Come on, move it! Asian, other Asian, Aretha, and Shaft”, and “…your finger-licking, lard-loving, Gilbert Grape-looking mama”.
Why do we laugh at that and give the show awards? Humiliation isn’t funny, and laughing at the expense of someone who has been humiliated makes it unlikely that the person will ever talk about it.
In order for a culture of bullying to change, we need to teach children to put a stop to humiliating and intimidating behaviour immediately, even if that requires them to be rude or socially aggressive. We need to teach children to stand up for themselves in a strong but non-violent way – because in their lifetime, they will likely be harassed, threatened, intimidated, hurt, or the topic of rumours. We need to teach them the difference between bullying and social aggression. And, we need to support any child who is emotionally vulnerable and at-risk of becoming a victim or a bully. Most importantly, we as adults need to question what we laugh at, what we encourage, and what we role model.