Monday, December 12, 2011

Some thoughts on “bullying”

Glenn Greenwald has a post up about the use of the word “terrorism.” An excerpt:
This topic is so vital because this meaningless, definition-free word — Terrorism — drives so many of our political debates and policies. Virtually every debate in which I ever participate quickly and prominently includes defenders of government policy invoking the word as some sort of debate-ending, magical elixir: of course President Obama has to assassinate U.S. citizens without due process: they’re Terrorists; of course we have to stay in Afghanistan: we have to stop The Terrorists; President Obama is not only right to kill people (including civilians) using drones, but is justified in boasting and even joking about it, because they’re Terrorists; of course some people should be held in prison without charges: they’re Terrorists, etc. etc. It’s a word that simultaneously means nothing and justifies everything.
I wonder if a similar phenomenon is starting to occur with the word “bullying.” Of course, no one likes a bully, and we’d all like to see less bullying in schools. But when I hear people talk about a “War on Bullying,” and about “crackdowns” and “zero tolerance,” and when I hear the word applied to an increasing range of conduct (see Iowa City’s definition here), I get an uncomfortable sense of deja vu. I can’t help wondering whether the word “bullying” is being used as a rhetorical tool to generate support for – or quell opposition to – the schools’ use of increasingly authoritarian practices to “manage behavior.” Is policing more conduct and punishing more kids the best way to teach kids to treat each other well?

I don’t think we should take the War on Drugs, for example, as our model for how to address a social problem. Bullying, like drug abuse, is a real problem, but it doesn’t automatically follow that a heavy-handed law enforcement approach is the solution.

This is particularly true in the context of bullying, because the more schools use coercion to address bullying, the more they are modeling coercive behavior. The school, after all, is telling the kids how to act, giving them no say in what it demands of them, then policing their behavior and punishing them if they don’t comply – sometimes even casting them out of the community (via suspension or expulsion). Schools can’t avoid doing some of that. But consider how often “bullying” resembles those same actions. Is it possible that some of the bullies are acting out what they see around them? How confident can we be that, if the school intensifies its focus on punitive enforcement, the kids will start to treat each other better instead of worse? And shouldn’t we be concerned about the other values that end up getting taught – even to the “well-behaved” kids – the more the school starts resembling a police state?

Greenwald and others have also written about the double standard that often applies when the words “terrorism” and “torture” are used to refer only to what other people do, and not to what we do. Similarly, it’s hard to come up with a fair definition of “bullying” that wouldn’t apply to some of what schools do to kids in the name of compulsory learning. When one kid coerces and intimidates another, it’s “bullying.” When the school coerces and intimidates the kids, it’s apparently something else – maybe “enhanced education techniques”?

The first step to addressing bullying should be to model humane treatment of other people. Schools, given the power they have over the children who attend them, are in a particularly good position to model humane treatment of those who are weaker and more vulnerable. Wouldn’t that necessarily involve giving them some say over their own treatment? Wouldn’t it involve treating them more gently, and with more understanding, dignity, and compassion, than one could get away with? What else is bullying but a disregard, through superior force, of those principles?
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8 comments:

Chris said...

Some other skeptical views of the War on Bullying appear here (Peter Gray), here (Andrew Zack), and here (Izzy Kalman).

TeacHer said...

Bullying is a really, really tough topic. On the one hand, bullying is very psychologically destructive to a lot of students and needs to be dealt with swiftly by teachers and administrators. On the other hand, as you point out here, bullying is often hard to define. Here's an example:

I have a student who clearly falls somewhere on the autism spectrum (although I have yet to receive any clinical diagnosis). He happens to be in a sort of spirited class with a lot of jovial, talkative, sometimes downright goofy kids. They tease each other in a good-natured way all the time, and sometimes they tease him, too. My assessment is that they are trying to include him in their jokes, and many students have told me as such. I've watched very closely and really don't believe they're making fun of him. But because his ability to interpret the social behavior of others is limited, he sometimes feels bullied by the other students in the class. Does it really matter that I think that the other kids are actually trying to bring him into their circle if he FEELS persecuted? Should those students be punished? If they are, they probably just won't talk to him at all, which would preclude him from forming any type of friendships with any of his peers. I'm not sure this is healthy either.

Of course, this is sort of an extreme example, but I think it illuminates your point. How do we define bullying and how do we intervene when bullying (as we define it) is occurring? It's a very tricky issue right now for all school officials and one that I hope you'll explore here further.

Chris said...

TeacHer -- That doesn't strike me as an extreme example at all. I bet there are a lot of situations where the right answer (for the kids or the school) is not black and white. One of my concerns is that schools are trying to take a categorical, rule-based approach to situations that require case-by-case judgment.

Daniel said...

I completely agree with your comments about the "War on Bullying." However, it will be seen as a controversial point of view to require a public school to utilize a flexible, common sense approach when solving bullying problems.
Public schools which are controlled so much by state and national influences (I can tell by your blog Iowa City is not any different- the local preferences are not seriously addressed) are going to continue to mimic the bureaucratic system that the administration and teachers themselves grew up in and then learned while getting their degrees. That means a hardline "no tolerance" approach is what will be continued instead of adopting an approach that could work.
I enjoyed the irony in the fact that the schools do not want kids to use force or resort to coercive behavior, but as long as it is done under the guise of an Authority, it is okay. That irony reaches far beyond the school house and into government and society, but after all, the public school system is just another country where the citizens are children and the rulers know what is best for the citizens.

Suburban Chicken Farmer said...

TeacHer, If all involved know the teasing effect is - the single student feels persecuted- and they do it anyway, WTF? These students may even believe, "Our teacher thinks highly of us because we include ***** in our group during class."
Ya know, that's pretty shitty.

Wonder what the interaction with these youngsters is like when they're not under your watch? If you could be a fly on the wall throughout the day, in the hallways, in the lunchroom, all the places, this Aspie-esque student goes, what would you see?

TeacHer said...

@Suburban Chick Farmer - I don't understand what you're saying, I think you missed a word or two in the first sentence. I think that you're implying that I'm allowing him to be teased. In a way, yes, but in the same good-natured way that they're teasing each other. High school kids can be really, really mean. But they also use friendly teasing as a way of building rapport with each other...and with me. My point was that the student in question is being included in their friendly teasing, but he is very socially atypical and doesn't understand that they're trying to be inclusive, even when the other kids try to explain it to him. And autistic students are notoriously unpredictable - sometimes he is able to spot the purposeful, good-natured joke, sometimes he isn't. So it's not as if all the other kids (or I) know exactly what he might misinterpret.

So what's the solution, tell the other kids just not to talk to him? Or to only talk to him in a weird, ultra-polite way that actually DOES come across to everyone else as making fun of him?

It's a hard question to answer, and that's what I was getting at. I want all my students to feel comfortable in my class and included in the social and intellectual community, but in this case that ideal is proving hard to achieve.

Suburban Chicken Farmer said...

Sorry, TeacHer. My writing is no great shakes.

I think if a kind person already knows the Aspie-esque one is uber sensitive and might feel really (albeit overly, even ridiculously by our standards) hurt by teasing, a kind person doesn't tease.

I've seen outsiders get the, "Hey, Buddy, we're buddies, right?" treatment in front of teachers and parents from seemingly socially graceful children who then blithely ignore, shun or harass the outsider when they think they aren't being observed. Really. Eddie Haskells exist.

Chris said...

Daniel -- Thanks for commenting! (Sorry I was so slow to respond -- busy time of year.) I agree that the increasingly prevailing attitude is that our rulers know best and must protect us from the choices we would make for ourselves. Your comment arrived just as I was drafting this post, which touches on the same idea.