Bullying: It’s my fault (and yours)

Bullying. Where do you start with a topic like bullying? I suspect that everyone has an immediate reaction to the word. You remember having been bullied, you remember times in your life when you didn’t act as your best possible self, you think about the experience of your child today or what you see on the playground when you visit a school. Probably though, and this is a generalization, but probably you think about children.

In schools across the country today there are prominent anti-bullying posters, there are programs that are taught in classes starting with pre-school, there are sensitivity trainings and empathy workshops and books and movies and public service announcements and billboards, and yet bullying continues. Bullying in fact, I would say, is rampant. And I will also say that I believe it is our fault, the adults, because we do it all the time, everyday and we call it entertainment.

When was the last time you watched TV? Ever seen a “reality” show? I’ve only watched a couple and none with much commitment, but I did watch a couple of seasons of American Idol and here is what I saw: lots of people who wanted to be famous, some of whom were quite talented and interesting, many of whom were not, some who were outright awful and boy did they make us laugh. Wasn’t it just so much fun to watch the awful people who thought they were the next big thing get up on stage and make a complete ass out of themselves. In fact that is so funny the producers do a whole bit just about those people, giving them their fifteen minutes of fame, or infamy as the case may be. Until one day more time was spent on the montages of awful and humiliating than on the talent and opportunity. It was more entertaining to make fun of people than look for talent. I was watching the public bullying of hundreds of people, I was passively encouraging it, I felt like I was doing something wrong and turned the TV off.

I know, those people on TV gave their permission, they understood the risk and they were willing to take that risk in exchange for fame, any kind of fame I guess. And it’s true; we each have to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions. But I did not mean to sign-up to be a participant and I’m not sure how many of us really have; we all just went along and we are all participating in a giant social machine that has turned bullying into entertainment. We do this when we purchase a gossip magazine with its sections on ‘who wore it best,’ or ‘fashion fails,’ we do this when we tune into a radio station to listen to prank calls and laugh at the stupidity of the victim.

There are layers upon layers to the problem of bullying. We are told that it is getting worse with the anonymity available and social importance of functioning in the cyber world. The dictionary says that a bully is: “a person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker.” The front page of today’s paper provides California’s much more complex definition, focused on the student angle: acts committed by one or a group, reasonably predicted to have one of the following outcomes including fear, detrimental effect on physical or mental health, interference with academic performance, and so on and so forth. I am paraphrasing because it is a long definition. The California definition has gone beyond the traditional understanding of bullying and into what might be considered ‘teasing’ because as it turns out words can in fact hurt, quite a lot it would seem. The problem with the California definition, the problem with how we think of bullying in general is that we limit our thinking to it being about kids. We don’t spend any time thinking about how we are involved, each of us, personally and as a society.

We all agree that bullying is bad, and that bullying is more than just pushing someone over to take their lunch money. Bullying has evolved as our understanding of the emotional life has evolved. But we don’t seem to want to do anything about it because that would mean we have to do something about ourselves.

When my son was in elementary school and he reported that smaller children were being physically and emotionally bullied by bigger kids, the teachers told him not to be a snitch, that nobody liked people like that. He did the right thing, he said “this is wrong” and he asked the person in charge to fix it, to provide safety, protection, and opportunity for others to have room to be who they wanted to be. Our society is each one of us and we have individually and collectively heaved a great exhausted sigh and said, “shut up, I’m watching this celebrity make fun of someone and I don’t want to miss the part where they leave the room crying, that’s the best.”

We will say that bullying is wrong, we will say that we must teach the children and help them understand others, we will put up posters and ask the children to think about how something would make them feel if. But we will continue to be bullies ourselves and children do as we do and so it is our fault because we are the ones in power and we are harming the ones we should be protecting. We are setting a bad example, that is the bottom line. It has been said many times, “we must be the change we want to see,” so if we don’t like bullying we, you and I should act like it, we should turn off the TV when those shows come on, we should show our children what really matters in the world, treat our neighbor as we would be treated, and stop hurting ourselves by hurting others.

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