Bullying: A Genetic Problem with a Social Solution
Are we going to tell our children to stand up and do the right thing, or to watch in silence?
How do we have a hope against bullying if so many of us are complicit bystanders?
There’s lots of talk about bullying these days. While it appears there is broad consensus that bullying is bad, we’re not quite sure how to deal with or even how to define it. Is bullying uniquely a youth thing, because adults have more emotional maturity to handle aggression/not take harassment personally? Does social media/violent TV contribute to bullying behaviour? Is micromanagement a form of bullying? How do we discourage bullies – and is it possible to inoculate people against the emotional stains bullying causes?
The latest conversation has been kicked off by the heart-breaking suicide of Amanda Todd, a victim of the all-pervasive kind of bullying that has only become possible thanks to social media. Before her it was Jamie Hubley, another high-profile youth who killed himself after merciless torment; prior to that there was Greg Doucette. Each of these deaths shocked us into conversation and a retributive mood. While these specific bullying-induced suicides grab the nation’s attention, they’re a bit like the Attawapiskat crisis; individual, visible examples of a pervasive, systematic issue.
One in five students in Canada says they have been bullied. Between Canada, Australia, the US and the UK there have been 41 cyber-bullying attributed deaths since 2003. Youth suicides are just one indicator of the social impact of bullying – in Canada, one in six employees reports they have been bullied. This pervasive, society-wide harassment has a hugely detrimental impact on individual mental health, the economy, our health care system, families – it goes on and on. The problem is so significant that Political Parties from across the system are trying to find ways to legislate against it.
If bullying is such a recognized problem, you’d think we would have a clear definition for it. Public Safety Canada tells us bullying “is characterized by acts of intentional harm, repeated over-time, in a relationship where an imbalance of power exists. It includes physical actions (punching, kicking, biting), verbal actions (threats, name calling, insults, racial or sexual comments) and social exclusion (spreading rumours, ignoring, gossiping, excluding)”. The “balance of power” reference is key to our understanding of bullying; without that caveat, you could easily include everything from heckling in the Legislature to the Obama Birther movement as harassment.
How then do we define “balance of power”? The man accused of kicking off the bullycide campaign against Amanda Todd clearly had power over her, in terms of the harmful video he’d conned her into providing. The tables turned, though, when Anonymous outted this man, shifting the balance of power against him; the bully became the bullied. Was it bullying when the Conservative Party of Canada spread rumours suggesting Irwin Cotler was going to retire? Heck, aren’t all attack ads a form of bullying?
Most would say no – because politics is expected to be a blood sport. Politicians should expect to be attacked and be prepared to fight back. It’s through the cut-and-thrust of Question Period, election campaigns and increasingly, every political interaction in between that the public can determine not only which ideas stand up to scrutiny, but which representatives/leaders are tough enough to do the job of governing. Somewhere in here is an unspoken notion that the balance of power doesn’t apply to politics, due to individual agency and public accountability of each elected official. This notion doesn’t hold up to scrutiny itself, though; as politics becomes increasingly aggressive, Political Parties are becoming increasingly tribal. How can you not label as bullying the dogged targeting of individuals by entire political packs?
What about micro-managing employers? They have power over their employees; does abuse of the employer/employee relationship count as bullying? Again, there are those who would argue against this, suggesting that individuals always have power over their own fates and are therefore equals in the labour market. If employees are really bothered by the treatment of a boss, they can speak to them about it and if that doesn’t work, they can quit and move to another job. If they don’t do that, they’re just playing the “victim” card. If this were really the case, though, would we be facing an unheralded business crisis in Canada?
For me, these aren’t academic questions. I know what it’s like to be bullied. A December baby, I was always the youngest in my classes. Added to this, I have Attention Deficit Disorder, a “disability” which went undiagnosed until I was well into my teens. Being the smallest and a bit different in how I interacted with the world, I was a natural target for those on the lookout for someone to diminish as a way of aggrandizing themselves. From about Grade 1 all the way into high school, I was on the receiving end of vicious taunts, torment and physical abuse.
Decades later, I still have clear memories of being chased home by older kids waving baseball bats (Grade 2). It made them feel powerful to instill terror in a runt like me. Then there was the time I was tied to a flag post in winter and left outside after all the other kids went back to class, laughing at me (Grade 4). It got so bad that my parents eventually moved me to a different school, but by then the damage was done. I had become a fearful child, mistrustful of people and afraid to speak up, knowing that whatever I said would be used against me. This hesitation morphed into a stutter, which became just one more opportunity for my peers to mock me.
When bullying is that pervasive, there is no escape. Even when your tormentors are gone, the anxiety remains, riddling your thoughts with disquiet and doubt. I hated going to school. I didn’t like interacting with others, period. I dreaded every waking moment, never knowing exactly what sort of private hell it would bring me. The ADHD only magnified the pain, as I could never shut down the soundtrack of doubt and self-loathing playing non-stop in my head. Self-harm became a way out; if the pain was sharp enough, it would cleanse my mind of the pervasive anguish that nestled there like a splinter. Of course, the relief was temporary, and the fact that I was cracking my head against my desk hard enough to leave welts simply put another arrow in my bullies’ quiver. Suicide was definitely something I contemplated – there just didn’t seem to be any other way out.
That was then. Today, I am a confident, positive person that has a reputation for finding the silver lining around any cloud. There’s nothing life can throw at me that I can’t handle. Why is that? Why is it that my name now appears in a byline rather than having featured in a headline like Todd, Hubley and Doucette? When moving schools didn’t solve the problem, my parents decided to try an alternative solution; fight might prevail where flight did not. They enrolled me in a Karate class led by a tough-as-nails Sensei with the hope that learning how to fight back might help. It did, but not in the way they intended.
My Sensei was tough, but always fair and never judgmental. He never criticized mistakes – instead, he corrected them. The senior students who helped lead the lessons were the same way; they pushed the class but were always, always supportive. They taught me how to fight back, which I eventually did. The supportive attitude of the teachers carried over to the students; we were all in the same quest for perfection of technique, together. Although I hated the class at first, it eventually became my community. For the first time I could recall, there was a place I felt safe and respected, plus a group that included me as one of their own.
This element of belonging made a huge difference, but Karate provided me with even more. The strict physical discipline and quick reaction times required by martial arts nurtured in me a level of focus and confidence that bled over into every aspect of my life. My stutter began to fade; I became more and more comfortable in asserting myself. At the same time, the experience of having been bullied combined with the positive experience of the class shaped my understanding that individual strength is nurtured within supportive communities.
I tell this tale not to gain your sympathy or to toot my own horn but to show that it can get better when we address the underpinnings of bullying proactively and cooperatively. The importance of collective morale and promoting individual resilience is understood within our military, if not those who command it. The idea of fostering social-emotional learning and positive relationships with teachers and peers is equally a key component of Ontario’s Full Day Kindergarten program. The entire field of positive psychology is dedicated to the development of cognitive grit the way exercise builds physical strength. There is no reason these principles can’t be applied more broadly, especially in the places where bullying is most prevalent – schools and the workplace.
The other lesson to draw from experiences like mine is that the tools for developing resiliency aren’t instinctive. As Colin Powell points out in It Worked For Me, social functioning is learned behaviour; this is as true for the human animal as it is in all social species. Left to our own devices, we tend to fight, flee or circle the wagons and avoid – it’s just how natural selection works. There’s really not much difference between the playground, Question Period or an episode of Animal Kingdom. It takes moderators – an elder, a teacher, the Speaker, etc. – to referee social interactions, foster respect and maintain order.
It also takes leaders to set examples and develop the kind of work or school cultures that manage down this bullying instinct. Former Ontario Premier Mike Harris famously fostered a competitive culture within the Progressive Conservative Party, believing that ambitious people would produce the best results. Instead, the internal fighting became so toxic to the Party that Harris had to lay down the law for his cabinet ministers. It’s the exact seem scenario that’s being fueled by the heightened, competitive rancor in Queen’s Park now. Somewhere along the way, our political leaders have forgotten that it’s possible to be in total disagreement with someone without denigrating them as a consequence.
If we, as a society, want to have a hyper-oppositional culture that fosters survival of the fittest competition, that’s fine – but we’ll also have to accept that victimization and its consequences are part of the package, including the lost productivity, the health care costs and the youth suicides. If we’re really serious about addressing bullying, we have to realize the only way to do so is proactively – by providing universal resiliency and social-emotional training on the one end and using programs like restorative justice to stifle bullying behaviour on the other. The most important thing we can do to end bullying, though, is lead by example.