In the October 11 issue of Newsweek, Jessica Bennett writes
The reality may be that while the incidence of bullying has remained relatively the same, it’s our reaction to it that has changed: the helicopter parents who want to protect their kids from every stick and stone, the cable-news commentators who whip them into a frenzy, the insta-vigilantism of the Internet. …None of this is to say that bullying is not a serious problem, or that tackling it is not important. But like a stereo with the volume turned too high, all the noise distorts the facts…
She goes on in the piece to refer to “raucous teens” who bullied Phoebe Prince and quotes one former prosecutor as saying that parents will just have to “tell (their) kid, ‘Sometimes, people say mean things.” What this writer of this quote (and the rest of the piece, indeed) seems to have missed is the distinction between a passing comment (or mean thing) or an emotional response in a specific situation and a systematic, persistent effort to demean, degrade, and/or emotionally or physically abuse the target. The former is human–who doesn’t get angry and say the wrong thing sometimes?–while the latter is sadism. Bullying isn’t about common human interaction and emotion, it’s about power and how good power makes the bully feel. It doesn’t matter if the person doing the bullying was a student in “good academic standing” or had friends willing to defend them as “good” people.
Pieces like this one in Newsweek and another from the same source posted online (“Is the Bullying Epidemic a Media Myth?”) do no good to the bullied. They are the bystanders who make excuses for the bullies. Bennett writes that once you look past a story like Phoebe Prince’s suicide, you find that Prince was already suicidal, an emotionally disturbed young woman who engaged in self harm and was struggling over her parents’ divorce. The point Bennett seeks to make is that one cannot blame a child’s suicide wholly on bullying, that other factors are involved. Sure. That’s true. Some of us are more resilient to torture than others. Does that somehow excuse the torturer? Is not this very lack of resilience to bullying one of the very things that makes the bullied vulnerable?
The message I derive from this truth isn’t to blame the victim for weaknesses and chinks in their own armor that led them down that path, driven by the demons of bullying. I blame a society that gets off message. The message that we all should learn is this: Everyone is fighting personal battles and demons, so be as kind as you can be. You don’t want to be someone’s last straw.
And of course, an understanding that some people are less resilient to bullying than others doesn’t discount the sadism that is inherent in bullying. For some people, an emotional response in the moment isn’t enough, despite Bennett’s efforts to excuse persistent, systematic bullying as an “emotional response.” It’s not. It’s creating a drama in which the bully has the power. Bullies are not simply acting out on the anger of the instant. They have an edge to them that leads them to push it, to continue their torture of another person’s psyche. The question is, Who are they, and what do we do about them?
One answer I have is that pieces like this one in Newsweek that purport to offer a practical, fact-based, even-handed look at bullying in America do no good if their fundamental premise is that this anti-bullying atmosphere is a “frenzy” and that helicopter parents are to blame for naming every act of negativity “bullying” when it’s really just people being people. Just as whipping up homophobia gives sanction to homophobic taunting in schools, dismissing bullying as the warped perspective of over-protective parents or a society gone mad for revenge simply facilitates the continuation of the bullying. It’s no different from dismissive school districts or parents who brush off daily emotional or physical abuse of the bullied as “kids will be kids.”
So, a question: How do we foster empathy and reduce this emotional (and sometimes physical) sadism when national magazines and high-profile politicians seek either to diminish its relevance or continue promoting the hate?