Friday, April 30, 2010


(News-Herald, April 29) Bullying is back in the news. Recently we’ve seen disturbing new developments, including bullying so extreme that it has driven teens to suicide. Bullying in schools is nothing new, but commentators are suggesting that we have turned an ugly new corner.
The problems of society have always leaked into public schools; a new wave of bullying is no surprise. Society has some bullying issues of its own.
The students in school today grew up with politicians and pundits who attack opponents with flat-out meanness. From Ann Coulter to Al Franken, political disagreement has been recast as a professional wrestling match, and political candidates at all levels compete to see who can deliver the most damning smear. Bullying is no longer simply a tactic; it’s the point, the purpose. The winner is presumably he who does the best job of pushing his opponents down.
It’s no wonder than many young people have learned that the best way to deal with someone who disagrees with you is to try to brutalize him into submission.
School bullying is complicated, often subtle, and now easier with internet anonymity. Sometimes one bully is goaded by a stealth agitator. Sometimes the bullied quickly becomes a bully. And let me be clear about this—nobody ever “asks for it” and it is never “his own fault.” But at the same time, there are students who keep feeding the situation that creates their bullying.
Over the past several years, school anti-bullying programs have proliferated with nice slogans like “no place for hate” or “no bully zone.” They mean well and probably don’t hurt anything (they’re better than rules designed to protect “different” kids from bullying by forbidding any students to be different). But I don’t believe they help much, either.
Bullying isn’t about hate. It’s about power. Strong kids bully weaker kids. Smart kids bully dumber kids. Well-dressed kids bully scruffy kids. The social elite bully the social inept. People with power bully people without it. Bullying is about picking a fight, on your terms, with someone who is not equipped to fight back. It’s about being bigger and forcing someone to understand that they’re smaller. It’s not always about hate; sometimes it’s not even personal.
A No Bully Zone is also largely futile because hardly anyone who bullies other people thinks he’s a bully. Tell him this is a No Bully Zone and he will look puzzled and suggest that you go scold an actual bully. To stop bullying, we have to understand what a bully is thinking when he’s making someone else miserable.
Some bullies believe that there are different rules for people who are Right and people who are Wrong. Right = big and Wrong = small, so it’s okay to beat Wrong people down, and keep beating if they won’t stay down.
The bully may see himself as a soldier for Order and Right. He’s not picking on people—he’s just trying to put Those People in their place, because if you don’t keep them knocked down a peg, they’ll start thinking they’re as good as Regular People. He may even see Those People as a personal threat. This is how some alleged Christians end up believing that it’s okay to bully gay folks, and how some gay folks end up believing it’s okay to bully Christians.
And now several Christians and gay people are getting ready to write me a letter explaining that what they’re doing is certainly not bullying—they’re just protecting themselves from Those People, who started the fight in the first place. That’s why people want to be on the losing side (so many people want to “take back the country” that I’m wondering who actually has it)—if I’m a victim, I’m just defending myself, not bullying someone else.
Those People is another tell-tale bully trick. Most bullies will tell you, “Of course I treat other human beings decently. But Those People don’t count because…” In any local school you can substitute another label—tecker, prep, jock, goth, other terms not fit to print—we all already know them.
The antidote is simple. (Not the Golden Rule, because the bully’s response is “If I was one of Those People, I would know to stay in my place.”) Let’s not argue whether to call you a bully or not. Just do this:
Treat other people well. Don’t be mean. To anyone, ever.
No passes, no excuses, no justifications, no exceptions. If we could manage to instill this in students (and their parents), we’d never have a bullying problem again.

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