Here’s another familiar character. This is the kid who shook you down for your lunch money on the elementary school playground. The one who taunted you in gym whenever you failed to pass the basketball to the only guy able to sink it. The swaggering bad boy who threw the “dodge” ball in your face and then fell down laughing.
But don't be fooled by ribbons and curls. Boys aren't the only bullies in town. There’s no bully quite so deadly as the high school girl who has learned to use her talent for empathy as a laser gun directed at her best friend’s fragile teenage heart. Girl bullies, like their boy counter-parts, often travel in packs. While the boys will physically rough up their victims by kicking or punching them, the girls ridicule and shun.
Just as we were not assholes, we are also not bullies. If the mothers in our children’s playgroup want a change in the schedule, we offer our opinions rationally, kindly consider the needs of the other members, brainstorm potential solutions, seek consensus and make small sacrifices in deference to the well-being of the group as a whole. When we do this, we are observing “polite” society’s unwritten rule that cooperation and occasional submission of our needs to the welfare of others will ultimately serve the individual’s needs as well.
Still, there was that fight with your neighbor just last month when he once again refused to prune the branches of the jacaranda tree that are hanging over the fence that divides you -- dropping all those “lovely” purple flowers onto your patio. You got a little heated, you’re sorry to say, and said some things you regret. You called him “lazy” for one and then said something about the size of his backside. You threatened him with legal action – told him your best friend was one of the best trial attorneys in town. You gave him an ultimatum. Then you stormed inside and slammed your door.
You no longer greet your neighbor or his family when they pull into their drive way at the same time you do. You’re not letting your 4-year old son play with their 5-year old daughter. You no longer pop next door to ask for a cup of sugar.
You are shunning them. But that’s not bullying is it?
Let’s ask the social scientists.
Bullying, they say, is the repeated and deliberate abuse of power by one person or group of people over another person or group. Like an Asshole, no one can be a Bully alone in his room. He not only needs someone to push around, but a social context in which to do it.
The reason we so often couple the word Bully with Schoolyard is because the conditions in schools – like those in the military and prisons – are perfect breeding grounds for bullies and excellent places for them to find the people every bully needs – victims.
That’s why the social scientists say that bullying -- the deliberate and repeated abuse of power – is most likely to occur in relatively stable social groups with a clear hierarchy and low supervision.
Why? Because hierarchy – a system that ranks people one above the other -- makes low-status individuals visible and easy to get at. It also makes them less likely to receive protection by their peers.
(above, bully girls in Mean Girls)
Not that long ago, a 13-year old girl (let’s call her Susie) committed suicide because her 16-year old cyber-boyfriend (call him “Doug”) dumped her. Doug attended a different school in the next county. He’d read Susie’s MySpace profile and sent her an email praising her photograph, her taste in music and the romantic quotations she’d posted to her MySpace page. Susie and Doug began an online courtship, exchanging photographs and writing long soulful emails to one another. Susie confided her new romance to her friends at school and talk of an impending first “date” at the local mall consumed their lunchtime conversations.
Then, Doug dropped the bomb. He reminded Susie that she’d once had a friend in elementary school named “Pam.” In fact, Pam had been Susie’s best friend before Susie transferred to the private middle school she now attended. She’d outgrown Pam and didn’t keep up the friendship. Doug told Susie that Pam was devastated when Susie “dumped” her. He said he would never date anyone who treated people that way. Doug “broke up” with Susie in this email and did not respond to her repeated attempts to exchange email with him again.
Two days later, Susie hung herself at home.
That’s not bullying, you say. That’s a terrible story. But that’s just how teenagers are. Tragic but not what you said “bullying” was. It was just a youthful relationship gone bad. No one was deliberately and repeatedly abusing their power over another.
But you haven’t heard the end of the story. There was no “Doug.” No 16-year old infatuated with the MySpace page of a middle school girl. There was only Pam’s mother, a parent enraged by her daughter’s apparent mistreatment at Susie’s hand. A mother intent on exacting revenge. A mother who pretended to be a 16-year old boy for the purpose of “punishing” Susie for the harm done to her daughter.
The first thing a bully needs is power. The classic “schoolyard” bully – the kid who shook you down for your lunch money or whose gang physically roughed you up in a deserted part of the playground – possesses physical power to harm you. Physical bullies are powerful for two reasons – they are either bigger, older, stronger or better armed than you, or they are able to persuade other kids to join their shake-down crew.
Not all power, however, is physical. Knowledge is also power, particularly when the individual intent on harming another knows of her victim’s unique vulnerabilities. Pam’s mother had the power of knowledge over Susie. As an adult, and as the parent of a teenager, she intimately understood the weaknesses of adolescent girls in general. She also knew something very personal about Susie – that she once rejected her best friend Pam.
Pam’s mother continued to gather information while posing as Doug that she could use against Susie in the course of their intimate email exchanges, developing the power of relationship with Susie. By gaining Susie’s trust and affection – her devotion – Pam’s mother developed the power to break Susie’s heart.
Power that is Deliberately and Repeatedly Abused
For months, Pam’s mother repeatedly and deliberately used her superior adult understandings and the particular knowledge she possessed about Susie’s needs, desires, vulnerabilities and relationships for the purpose of causing Susie harm. This use of adult power against Susie’s teenage vulnerability was not only deliberate and repeated. The power Pam’s mother developed was the power of trust and love. When an emotionally strong (or impervious) person develops and misuses the power of trust and love for the purpose of harming another, that power is being abused.
The “Right” Environment for Bullying
It turns out that the internet – like schools, the military and playgrounds – is the perfect environment for bullying to occur.
At least one internet site devoted to decreasing online bullying defines “cyberbullying” as the “use of information and communication technologies to support deliberate, repeated, and hostile behavior by an individual or group, that is intended to harm others."
No better description of Pam’s mother’s behavior is possible.
Why is the internet such a fertile ground for bullying? Because it can be experienced as hierarchical, i.e., as a system that permits one person or group of people to be ranked above others; because it makes low-status individuals such as any child or teenager using the internet visible and easy to get at; and -- due to its anonymity -- it makes low-status individuals less likely to receive protection by their peers.
But what about that fight with my neighbor?
Any dispute can give rise to acts of bullying. Calling your neighbor names and threatening him with a lawsuit is not bullying because, though deliberate, it is not repeated. Shunning, however -- the act of deliberately and habitually avoiding another person -- is an excellent way to use the power of relationship to harm your fellows.
Because we are social creatures, rejection is one form of power any of us can use at any time to “punish” our friends, family and neighbors for their misbehavior. When the relationship is an important one (as Doug’s was to Susie) or a constant one (as your neighbors’ relationship is to the entire neighborhood) shunning can be a very powerful deterrent to anti-social behavior. It can also be used to bully others into compliance with your demands.
It would greatly surprise me if anyone reading these post did not, at least once in their lives, use the power of rejection to bully someone into compliance with their demands. Friendships, romantic relationships and marriages all come immediately to mind. How many of us have “shunned” our friends, our romantic partners or our spouses in response to the real or perceived harm they have caused us – from mild upset to devastating loss.
We hear the phrases “I’m not speaking to her anymore” or “we’re not speaking” nearly as often in social interactions as “she’s my closest friend” or “my mom and I talk on the telephone every day.”
We all use our power of relationship – the trust and affection we have for one another and the emotional, spiritual and financial support we provide to one another – to bully our friends, our spouses and our neighbors into compliance with our wishes.
Whenever we do so, we should take quick look in the mirror and ask ourselves whether we, too, have become the bully in the schoolyard who may, after all, have some of the same reasons for acting the bully as we do.