Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Bullying, micro and macro

My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.

-Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States
It is encouraging to see how far our society has come in recognizing the harm caused by bullying, both to the victims as well as the community. I can remember a time when this was hardly the case. The memories of multiple instances of being shoved around and tormented by older kids in the schoolyard at recess, as the teacher on yard duty looked directly at me with vacant eyes and then simply walked on by, still haunts me all these years later. That feeling of my stomach being knotted in helplessness and rage is something I pray neither of my sons ever experience for themselves, particularly while under the supposedly watchful gaze of an authority figure, such as a teacher.

So, it was hardly surprising to read about the findings of a recent study by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, where 20% of bullying victims reported bringing weapons to school. While I don’t agree with weapons of any kind being brought into our schools, it at least seems like a given that despair can lead to a person making very bad decisions.

At a very basic level, it’s easy to empathize with the impulse to fight back against an oppressor, and likewise it’s hard to feel sorry for a bully when they experience unintended consequences (or, blowback) for their actions. In reality, however, following through on said impulse can have very tragic consequences, particularly in an age where mass shootings at schools are sickeningly common.

On the one hand, children need to be taught to respect the human dignity of all their peers, and on the other they should be given the tools to cope with bullying in all of its variations: 
Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose. 
I have generally found, however, that what occurs on the schoolyard also occurs in the office, in the halls of power and on the world stage. Is it much of a stretch to imagine a segment of the population, or a race, or even a nation facing unwanted, aggressive behavior when an oppressor leverages a real or perceived power imbalance? And even when the 'blowback' takes a tragic turn, does this excuse the bullying that caused it?

For all the talk about bullying at the micro level to mean anything, we should also be conscious of it, and hold it in just as much contempt, at the macro level. Otherwise, to various oppressed groups, we become the disinterested school teacher on yard duty, and thus through inaction we join the bullies’ ranks.