Bullying has been in the news a lot lately, most recently with the suicide of Tyler Clementi. Victims and survivors of bullying are coming out on blogs I read and even celebrities are speaking out about their experiences of being tormented for any number of reasons; the only requirement for becoming a target is being perceived as different somehow. But it isn’t a new problem, or even rare, even though it’s really only become a high-profile issue since Columbine. The sad part is that in the 11 years since then, we’re still doing very little but wringing our collective hands. Children are killing each other and dying by their own hands, and the camps are still oddly split between “this is a tragedy and we have to stop it,” and “bullying happens to everyone; it builds character, and those who can’t hack it are just wimps.” I think the former is true, and as for the latter, while bullying happens to many folks, I don’t think that excuses bullies. War, famine, and cholera happen to many folks, too; that doesn’t make them benign.
I think the root of the problem, though, is a combination of evolutionary processes and the socialization of compliance. A big part of the problem is that we call the problem “bullying,” as if it were an entity unto itself, a rarity entirely separate from the average human experience, when in fact it is the very nature (in all senses of the word) of human and other life on earth. And until we dig deep and address that, the problem will continue.
All animal life on this planet operates according to a pecking order, where those at the top of it receive the most benefits and privileges, and those at the bottom are destined to be eaten, most likely alive. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fish or a Chihuahua or a human being or a corporation or a nation: the system is designed to have us all jostling for a higher position in the pecking order, because that’s the only way we can have any security (or at least the pleasant illusion of it) at all; it forces us to, and to do that, we learn the law of the jungle: might makes right.
Sometimes it’s physical might. Sometimes it’s psychological might. Sometimes it’s economic might. Sometimes it’s the might of the majority. But in all cases, might allows me to force or coerce you into doing or not doing things, with the ultimate goal of me getting my way, regardless of what you need or want or are entitled to.
That, as far as I define it, is bullying; it’s not just something that happens to kids. It happens every day between adults and institutions and nations.
This is how the world turns. Big men pick on small women. Big countries pick on small groups. Big dogs snap at small dogs every day in my house. (And I must say, it’s more than a little disappointing and disconcerting to watch the world around me operate with no more subtlety or sophistication of agenda than four critters who sleep most of the day, are eminently bribable, and lick their own butts on a regular basis.) Employees are bullied by bosses and coworkers. Waitresses are bullied by people who have no one else to bully, so they take it out on the only people they have any power over, if only for the duration of a meal. As long as we have someone we can be better than, stronger than, more important than, we “win” the human race. Yay us! There is a bizarre human contentment in the idea that “I’m better and better off than that sad schmuck.” We excel in schadenfreude, and fail at compassion which is antithetical to the whole concept of a pecking order.
We understand, explicitly and implicitly, that we live in a competitive world, and that for us to get a leg up, someone else must necessarily get shoved down. For all our advancement and technology, when it comes to interpersonal dynamics, we never left the trees. We enforce pecking order and refer and defer to people as “alpha dogs” (to mix animal metaphors) as much as any group of animals. When you strip away the internet and the fact that we drive cars, we really haven’t evolved all that much. The vast majority of people live from a place of fear and lack, and the only way they know to overcome that is to overcome all comers, grab what they can, and protect what they have at all costs.
That’s reality, and you’ll meet plenty of people who not only acknowledge that life is a continuous series of battles to the death, but pride themselves on getting into the stadium every day and trying to win most of them, never mind the growing pile of corpses of strangled principles, dead values, suffocated ethics, and collateral damage. Our entire culture sends this message (among others) in a million different ways to all of us, including children. And yet somehow we are baffled by the existence of bullying. “Where does it come from?” we ask. “What can we do about it?”
We make bullying something else, something that is a special nightmare that happens between kids that they’ll eventually grow out of, when it is clear enough to me that it is nothing more than the natural result of a biological tendency towards, and cultural conditioning in favor of, the strong overpowering the weak. The only thing surprising about it is that we’re surprised it’s happening. How could it not?
The extreme bullying cases that end in someone dying, someone in jail, or both, make the news, but it is, in fact, a common occurrence. Common enough that I truly don’t know anyone who wasn’t bullied at some point in his or her life. And that includes me.
I didn’t start being bullied until we moved to Wisconsin the summer before 5th grade and I started public school. Prior to that, I’d lived in a small town where I attended a Catholic school from kindergarten through 4th grade; puberty had not struck for any of us yet, nor the cliques that form contemporaneously with those changes, and everything was fine. But my life at school took a significant change for the worse when we moved. I was the new kid. People said I was fat, though when I look back at pictures, I wasn’t, but I was tall and solid. I had a weird eye. And I received truckloads of abuse for all of the above; I went home and cried many days. In 5th grade, it was a girl named Angie who took a dislike to me and wouldn’t leave me alone. The worst humiliation was the day I was in the bathroom, doing my thing, and she popped over the top of the stall to stare at me and make rude comments. I never told anyone. In 6th grade, I was tag-teamed by a kid named Andy, who liked to sing “Don’t treat Kristie like a dog, dog, dog…feed her hippo chow,” and another, Jon O’Connor (who was in the 6th grade for the second time that year) who harassed me about my body and told me I needed to wear a bra, as if the patriarchy had nominated a 13-year-old boy arbiter of such things. (I didn’t, and perhaps the patriarchy did; it sure would explain a lot.) In 7th grade, a girl who sat at the opposite end of the table from me in study hall decided to hate me, for reasons I didn’t understand then or now, and she and her twin and their posse started yelling at me and threatening to beat me up every time they saw me. I was scared to walk home alone. It’s a funny thing, looking back…I was so afraid of those girls, but if I’d been the fighting type, I was bigger than they were, and could’ve probably put an end to the bullying right quick with two shots.
But I wasn’t. Nice girls don’t do that. Nice people don’t do that. We are taught early and often that we ought not make a fuss, that it’s better to run and live to (not) fight another day. We are taught to comply with authority and yield to whatever might they happen to be wielding. Do what you’re told, and nobody gets hurt. People who don’t do that are considered assholes. But of course, it’s the assholes that benefit from that teaching. They ignore or reject that teaching, and while the rest of us are scurrying around trying to avoid getting stepped on, they’re out stomping the streets in the biggest boots they own, taking what they want, and using and abusing the better-trained and the more docile whose best hope becomes fading away so completely that they cannot be seen as targets.
Sometimes, they just disappear. We are taught “Don’t hit-don’t fight-don’t hurt,” but how long does an animal unwilling to bite and claw, and actively trained not to, survive in the wild?
Some people say that we don’t need to address the bullies; I see them in the comments to stories about the latest bullying tragedy. They think we need to teach the victims to stand up for themselves. And there might be some truth to that, if you’re into short-term solutions; however, if I had become physically aggressive, I might’ve solved my personal bullying problem, but I would have, in turn, become the thing I despised and feared. Who might I have become once I realized that I could hurt others and make them fear me? I think the better approach is to stop creating bullies in the first place. And we are absolutely creating them. Bullies are not born; they’re built, directly through fear and pain and lack of love, and indirectly through eons of example that to be bigger, stronger, meaner, and more ruthless is to succeed.
So what we have is an unevolved natural tendency, rigorously reinforced by social mores designed to keep the strong powerful and the weak in line. These are deep, tenacious forces, but most people do not reflect on how they influence our lives every day. And if we don’t, there’s no way we can address them when it comes to the natural desire (of most) to protect our children. We cannot divorce the tacit education and subsequent experience of children from that of the rest of the species; they are one and the same.
People want to create anti-bullying programs to teach kids how to get along, and how to respect each other. And on the surface, that seems like a reasonable idea. But a quarter-long unit for 40 minutes a day is not going to drown out the drumbeat of “might makes right” that kids hear in every other area of their lives the rest of the time.
And I have to wonder who is going to create those programs? Adults who don’t have any idea what that even means? Exactly how does that work? We’re dealing with a population that contains a segment of people who don’t even understand that they should not bully and abuse their own partners and children, that they should love and protect them. There are plenty of people who are no better equipped to care for children than hamsters, and just as likely to eat their young, if not literally, then through the steady and liberal application of physical, mental, and emotional abuse.
This is taken for granted, to varying degrees, by so many in society that a lot of folks don’t see what all the fuss is about bullying, whether it comes from inside the family or from outside. “We all went through it, and look at us! It builds character.” Yes, look at us. Look at the places in our deepest hearts, places we never show anyone, where we are insecure. These are the barely healed wounds of childhood and adolescence that easily start to bleed at the slightest, and even unintentional, bump. Most of us never get over those childhood scars; we just learn to live with them. And that’s the best case scenario; some people bury them so deeply that they cannot even recognize that they are bleeding, dying, and cannot begin to live until they can identify the wound and try to heal it. Like many emotionally scarring experiences, they can build character, but there is no guarantee that that character is a positive one, a strong one, a compassionate one. It’s as likely (or maybe even more likely) to be a bitter, terrified, emotionally crippled, sociopathic character that either withdraws entirely, or seeks revenge via everyone it encounters. But because we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking we survived unscathed, we don’t take the problem seriously when the next generation experiences it. To do so would be to revisit it, to remember the horror, and to acknowledge that we failed to protect our children from it. Maybe the reason adults are so often hands-off with this sort of thing is that our own wounds from it are so deep, and we’re unwilling to acknowledge those wounds; we want to pretend it will all go away eventually, even if we know better.
And also, perhaps on some level, we are paralyzed in the face of bullying because we realize that to take on bullying is to take on the entire basis of life on earth. It is to take down the pecking order, which is a monster beyond measuring, and it is all we know and we have no idea what we’d replace it with. It requires us to reckon with the fact that our children bully each other because that is what they learned from us, ever since the world began. To get our children to stop picking on each other, WE have to stop picking on each other. We have to stop dropping bombs, and stealing land, and hoarding food, and selling poison, and passing laws that make subgroups subhuman, and smirking at people’s outfits. We have to evolve. We have to evolve beyond being opportunistic predators and frightened prey, for surely we’ve all been one and the other at some point.
Yes, we are animals, and subject to the drives of our ancient brainstems; but those urges are not entirely beyond our control. We have the power to think, to reason, to plan, to reflect. For human beings, biology is not destiny, unless we abdicate our cognitive abilities altogether. In which case, we might be better off, for at least then there’d be no malice.
But if we do not examine our own souls, and humanity in general, and take responsibility for the fact that children are only doing what they’ve been taught to do when they terrorize each other for being different, there is really no hope. A consciousness-raising program, and a listening ear, and a hug might save one child (and thank goodness), but it will not save us. What will save us is recognizing that we have choices, and that we can choose to cultivate “power within” instead of “power over”; we can choose love and kindness instead of fear and hate; we can choose “enough” instead of “more.” And if we can do that, the rest will take care of itself. If we want to make the world better for children, we need to be better. That’s it. That’s everything.