“How can we stop a bully?” I urgently asked myself when my kid fell victim to one. “What is there to do?” Our school’s policy is simple, “Tell on the bully. We need names and details to make a case in order to confront him or her.” After the information was given – with fear of being seen as a weakling, a weirdo or a snitch -- the bully was summoned and cried, seemingly remorsefully. But in reality, there was little change. She neither repaired or even attempted to repair the trail of damaged relationships nor did she completely stop the bullying. Before I suggest a more effective response to a bully, let’s become clear about why this cruel behavior exists in the first place.
Nobody likes a bully, so why do we have so many? And why do we enable and even get a kick out of bullies, both in the political arena and in social settings such as schools? Most of us choose to stay away from bullies. After all, we could be next, right after the bully is finished with the public shaming, pushing, hitting, and shushing her or his chosen victim(s) and opponent(s). Nevertheless, we have more bullies than ever, male and female, who can unleash their hostility with new, technological weapons that can stab a person in the heart without a trace of real blood on social media. It’s good to be a bully when you can text and delete instead of box and run.
Just to clarify, bullying is not just any aggressive behavior, such as when someone cuts in front of your car, even when your very life is endangered. Bullying is an aggressive behavior with the aim to intimidate and harm another, repeatedly over time and with a more powerful person or group attacking a less powerful one. While it happens more frequently in countries that promote violence and that are intolerant of inter-individual differences, bullying is everywhere. Even in other species: chimpanzees do it; dogs do it; mice do it.
We bully when we feel threatened by someone who stands out and/or who seems to have a competitive edge over so-perceived limited resources. So, nobody likes a bully, but everybody likes to be empowered or be in the shadow of a person who is. Power equals access to resources, which can be sexual attention (I want to be wanted), attention from a peer group and powerful adults (I want status and favors), attention period (I want to be famous), economic opportunities and money (I want to be rich and powerful). If human beings feel insecure and believe that they can get away with bullying themselves to power, they will.
I don’t think that the primitive survival strategy of bullying can be eradicated by placing the burden solely on the victim. In other words, it is not enough to ask the bullied person to step forward and be courageous. While this rudimentary response might suffice in some cases, it does not in many others, while also blaming those who do not step forward. A more effective response to a bully has to take into account:
- a deeper understanding of our biological nature and the meaning of and propensity for bullying
- the specific personal reasons for why the bully and his or her enablers feel disempowered, threatened or unsure of themselves
- the responsibility of the community to stop and prevent bullying by building powerful coalitions around the victim.
Surely, sometimes a bully can be stopped by being especially skillful and demonstrating independence. “Stop that! I don’t like it,” or “Don’t think I am afraid to tell if you continue to act out your insecurity on me,” might have an impact. But once again, if our focus is predominantly on the victim, we won’t make much progress, especially when the victim is young.
Human beings have the capacity to understand their biological nature and can go way beyond it. There is something even greater than our evolved animal instincts: we can become aware. Only when we learn to see ourselves clearly, when we acknowledge our animal nature and transcend it at the same time, can we expect to prevent bullying.
What is there to do? Surely we cannot wait for awareness in others. We need to respond to a bully in the present moment.
First of all, let’s empower the victim by sharing the insights about the primitive behavior of bullying which is powered by feelings of weakness, insecurity, cowardice, and/or the perception of scarce resources. Knowledge is power because it changes the story we tell ourselves. While the bullied person will begin to de-identify as a victim, she or he will likely also discover his or her power that threatened the bully in the first place. This knowledge should also be shared with the bully, who needs to know that bullying is proof of fear, that is the fear of facing ones own infirmity and pain, of not being or having enough.
Second, let’s demand that the bully does not merely apologize, but is obliged to look into her or his behavior. The bully might have been bullied him or herself and is in dire need of interventions. There should be follow-up meetings to assure that the bully repairs the resulting damage no matter what the causes are. We should demand a policy change that imposes mandatory counseling for those who engage in cruel behavior as to find the underlying personal reasons for it. Crocodile tears and promises should not impress those involved. What is needed is demonstrable action for a significant time after the occurrence of bullying.
Third, we should not only summon the bully, but his or her primary caregivers. This should be standard procedure, not just in horrific cases. Along the same line, by-standers and enablers need also to be confronted. Kids and young adults need to be taught to stand up against bullies, age-appropriately. If we want the victim to heal and de-identify as a victim, we need to take responsibility and provide a support group for him or her. We need to find allies and align powerful peers and adults who take an active role in the process of reestablishing the balance of power. The victim must not only feel that she or he can get the support in case, but that she or he has a proactive type of support on an on-going basis.
Fourth, all parties ought to look into the contributing factors of an atmosphere of intolerance and aggression. If schools promote competitiveness from an early age on, dividing kids according to their test taking skills, offering special classes, discussing college in elementary school and the “rush to nowhere” in general, we ought not to be surprised that kids start to elbow each other. We need to look at racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and other discriminative behavior and engage in open discussions. Where is the dialogue about uncomfortable truths?
Fifth, we need to address the fact that a myriad of people are unhappy and highly medicated, suffering from depression and anxiety, triggered by the great recession, social injustice, glorified aggression in movies and actual war fair, extremely high divorce-rates and dysfunctional families, inertia, anorexic role-models and reality TV stars whose one God is money. Happy people are the exception, not the norm and are therefore an easy target for those who are fashionably unhappy. The least we can do is to be mindful about mental health and the lack of thereof.