This post is in response to a query from one of my former students asking me for my sociological opinion about bullying.
So, what about bullying? Well, I suspect it’s not just one process, and people will experience it differently depending on many social and individual circumstances, and I mean bullies as well as those bullied. We used to call bullying, being ‘picked on.’ It always includes picking out, singling out a person for rejection by the group. Rejection is sometimes expressed verbally but also in many other ways. Bullying tactics include taunts, name-calling, exclusion for regular group activities, and even physical assault. The goal of the bully is to render the person singled out to be bullied helpless and vulnerable. But none of this is new to the world.
Bullying is a social institution, a way that people attempt to self-aggrandize while diminishing others. And because there is a lot of diversity in the population, some people are virtually immune from bullying or being intimidated by others while others are highly vulnerable. Some people fight back when bullied, others shrink back into themselves.
Bullying, in effect, is the individualized equivalent of scapegoating. Bullies are more or less adept at gathering support for their ‘cause,’ which is the shunning of a person, or sometimes of a group of people, because of certain characteristics they target as socially unacceptable. Sometimes these characteristics are real, sometimes contrived. The effect is the same, either way. It’s the old solidarity thing again. Durkheim wrote about it ad infinitum and others like Otto Rank, Ernest Becker, Norbert Elias among many others, carried on the tradition. In fact, that’s what sociology is all about. Durkheim correctly argued that sociology is the science of morality. Solidarity is achieved in many ways and at many levels. It’s not too difficult to get people to think of themselves as being an important part of a group. Group life is necessary for human survival. Our very lives depend on the power of our groups. One way we do that is to try to diminish the ‘other.’ Governments do it all the time (as in the ‘evil empire’ crap) but so do many other organizations, even high school cliques.
I remember distinctly a time when I was a student at a private Catholic boarding school in Edmonton, Alberta (50 years ago now, sheesh), one of 40 kids from British Columbia in a school of 350. We had a real we/they thing going with the kids from Alberta and Saskatchewan, most of whom we considered hicks. I doubt if they spent a lot of time thinking of ‘us’ as a group. In any case, we shared a sense of being in this together. I’m not saying it was rational, but that’s the way it was. Strangely though, in one period of a couple of months, I found myself leading a group of kids taunting this poor kid from rural Alberta who had some personal hygiene issues, but who otherwise was like the rest of us. (We slept in a dormitory of 125 beds. Lots of boys had personal hygiene issues. The odor in that room was sometimes choking and even the huge wall fan at the back of the room couldn’t deal with the stink). He eventually left the school because of it and I remember us feeling triumphant about it.
At another time, I was singled out for special bullying attention. That lasted a couple of months before I finally broke and got physically violent with one of the other boys. The priests who were in charge of the place had a practice of dealing with inter-boy aggression by putting both boys in the boxing ring and letting them go at it in an officially sanctioned way. Interestingly, that often worked to diffuse bullying because the boys, like me and ‘my bully,’ could go maybe 3 rounds before falling together in an exhausted heap, finally breaking out in laughter and hugs. (Boxing is really hard work!) These bullying incidents were situational. One day a bully could easily become the bullied. The feeling I got, though, when I was bullied was complete helplessness and I remember writing my mother and asking her to get me out of there. She urged me to stick it out and that’s when I struck back. When I was the bully, the sense of power that gave me and my co-bullies was pretty significant. We smirked and laughed and felt strong, even playing hockey more aggressively (and better, some would say).
We can all be aggressive: men, women and children. But there’s a lot of variation in the population so that some individuals are more resistant to bullying than others. But that’s on an individual level. On the social level, bullying will happen as an inevitable playing out of power struggles as each of us tries to find our place in the world, much like chickens in a coop find their pecking order. We can never do away with bullying as long as we are individuals living in societies where each one of us dances between expressing our individuality and living within the group’s moral wall. Big problems would ensue for a society if no one were safe from aggression or bullying, if morality broke down to such an extent that we were all individuals on our own. That, of course, is not possible for our species, so we try to put mechanisms in place to mitigate the damage caused by too much aggression or bullying. We pass laws, we use guilt and shame.
Sometimes, things get out of hand. A particularly vulnerable person like Amanda Todd, needing like we all do to be a meaningful part of a group, is shunned by more and more people (smelling blood) making for an increasingly constricting scope of activity, for extreme isolation. Todd was not even safe in her own room at home where she was vulnerable to bullying online. Bullying, like scapegoating, can happen just as easily at a distance as it can face-to-face. Todd ended up committing suicide, in Durkheim’s terms, egoistic suicide because of the isolation she experienced and her perception that she had no one to ‘be’ with.
Bullying is a consequence of the dance we all experience between self-aggrandizement (ensuring that we take up valuable space in the world) and self-effacement (respect for the fact that we owe everything to our group and that we’d better not step out of line). For some of us, sometimes, the dance turns deadly. Most of the time, nobody pays attention to suicide, but every so often one incident gets a lot of publicity. If the suicide is ‘caused’ by bullying, then, with the right set of circumstances, the social reaction can be severe. People are calling for the arrest of the bullies in the Amanda Todd case. Politicians are threatening to enact anti-bullying legislation. That’s a sign that we’re all feeling vulnerable and helpless these days. We want our society to protect us. And that’s fine, until we are ‘protected’ so effectively that we no longer have any room to move, to express our individuality.