Wednesday, May 26, 2010

When Society Is A Bully

Last month, I wrote about the tendency to "blame the victim" in our bullying culture. As I have continued to explore the roots of bullying, I have become more and more aware of how deeply engrained bullying is in the fabric of our society.

Exploring and talking about bullying does not make me popular, and can even make me the target of hostility and bullying-type behavior. For example, I have been told by other people as I have tried to explain what I am doing regarding anti-bullying work:

"When are you going to just stop being such a pain and stop trying to meet with people and just let things be?"

"Bullying has been around since the dawn of humanity. It is human nature and it is never going to change."

"If someone wants to avoid being bullied, they need to make a list of things they are doing that might make them a target, and just stop doing them. If they don't stop, it is their own fault that they are bullied."

"Society expects you to conform and if you don't conform, it is your own fault that you are bullied."

My heart hurts whenever I hear these kinds of statements. Just because something has been around a long, long time, and perhaps, ALWAYS, does not make it right. Just because human beings have bullied one another for a long time, does not mean that we should continue to allow bullying to be a norm in our culture.

There may be ways any individual can take steps to avoid being a target, but sadly, there are too many cases where one can be a target just for being the way one is. And there are parts of our identities that are the core of who we are. What kind of society do we live in if we are told we need to give up the core of who we are if we want to avoid violence? If one is black or gay or smart or tall or short or male or female, is it fair or right to be a target of bullying? If someone is angry or jealous or scared or stressed out, is it fair to inflict their pain and anger on another human being?

And the pressure to conform at all costs is an oppressive and bullying force itself. A huge part of maturing as a human being is to balance have a personally defined and meaningful sense of self with a respect for the social context we live in. Yes, we need to understand social norms and respect them in many circumstances. But, no, not all social norms are healthy (such as the norms of workaholism, living beyond ones means, accruing debt, sexuality teens, eating junk foods and feeling so stressed out one cannot go to the bathroom when one's body calls).

When teachers or parents or kids or community organizations try to confront and address a bullying problem, they are often met with bullying. A parent bullies a teacher for informing them that their child has been hurting other kids at school. "Who are you to be singling out my child?" yells the angry parent. "That other kid is a wimp. I don't see what my child did wrong. I'd do the same thing." "You're a wimp to be standing up for Johnny," chimes in Tommy, who is both Johnny's and the advocate's peer.

These kinds of attitudes push the fundamental problem underground and pass the bullying buck. Bully, bullied and bystander all suffer from our bullying culture. And EVERYONE needs to be engaged, mobilized and collaborate if we are going to build the awareness to take action and create new models to allow for cultural change.

The bullying issue is so polarized right now, that it is very difficult to dig deeper and see the forest from the trees. If a kid behaves badly, they might be expelled from school, but then what happens? Is the kid left to sit at home watching hours of tv or playing hours of video games? Or does the kid then start loitering in the community at large, feeling isolated and bad about him/herself and then start getting into deeper trouble?

If someone is causing trouble, they are part of a troubled system. Kids who belong to gangs do not come from "stable, welcoming, emotionally literate homes." They are not loved and nurtured at home, so they look for belonging on the streets.

At a conference planning meeting I attended today, one of my colleagues made a very interesting point. Once, it was believed that kids who participate in high risk behaviors are more likely to have trouble with school. What's been recognized more recently is that kids who have trouble with school are more likely to engage in high risk behaviors. When we don't belong. When we feel lost and invisible. When we carry deeply buried pain or even contain pain just below the surface, things are not going to be okay.

As I have been working with a team of colleagues to put together a bullying prevention conference scheduled for June 8, we've made a list of key messages we want people to understand about bullying and bullying prevention:

* Bullying is serious; it isn't just a right of passage for young people growing up. (And it doesn't end with youth either. It can continue throughout one's life if not addressed and taken seriously.)

* Bullying has serious consequences for the bully, the bullied and the bystander. No one escapes the tentacles of our bullying society.

* Bystanders are key to fostering a climate of zero tolerance. We can't just stand by and ignore what is happening around us.

* Just because bullying has been around for generations (and perhaps millennia), does not mean: 1. it is or has ever been okay, and 2. it needs to continue to be tolerated.

* Creating environments that hold people accountable to the harmony of community are essential. A great deal of tragedy takes place when this kind of environment is lacking.

* Bullying prevention is part of an overall school climate. It is part of an overall cultural climate as well.

* Bullying is EVERYONE'S problem. It is a systems issue and can only be solved systemically.

* Emotional literacy is at the root of safe relationships, safe schools and safe communities. Sadly, our culture suffers from a low EQ, and few models of emotional literacy are available or visible.

Albert Einstein commented that we can't use the thinking that created a problem to solve it. That is very much the case with the bullying mentality that has been normalized in our society. Until we can integrate heart with head, spirit with intellect and self with other, we are at risk of suffering the painful separation that allows us to stand back from and remain numb to the bullying dynamic that really effects us all.

Each and every one of us can be part of the solution. And if we are going to overcome the bullying society, we all need to work together to find a different path.

Copyright 2010 Linda Marks

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