Bullying and Prejudice: It is Real. But Why?
by Anya Kamenetz
You can’t buy school culture.
Any fair reading of education and social development will show that there are two schools of thought on bullying. The first, and perhaps the more prevalent one, is that there is no such thing as bullying: bullying is just people acting stupidly (usually as a means of making themselves feel more powerful) and the problem is not at all in the idea of bullies and victims.
Bullying, then, is to be broken down into what a child’s preferred mode of communication is. In the case of reading a book, the best defense may be to read as fast as possible. In the case of bullying, the best defense may be to lie back in a towel.
The other school of thought holds that bullying is not a problem at all; in fact, there is no such thing as bullying. Unlike reading, this view takes no account of the targeted child’s preferred mode of communication and could be thought of as a completely new model for bullying.
In order to advance the cause of the first school of thought, we will need to break down the abuse-by-others assumption by moving it into its own factual context, and on to its second factual context, by providing examples where the abuse was in the form of bullying.
In order to do this, one must first consider what the idea of bullying is. To state the obvious, it is not happening as a result of a shared ideal or trait. Rather, it is the abuse of a specific characteristic. For example, if you tell your child “Don’t scream at that girl and make her cry,” you don’t mean: “When that girl tries to do her best, let’s make her cry.” In the above example, the child is prevented from getting along with the girl simply because she is different from other children. That she is different is not at all what you are saying here; what you are telling her is to see the possibility of violence.
This seems so obvious that anyone with a moment of awareness would realize that it is being said just that, but it is not. Most people, when asked about their opinion of parents screaming at children, say: “That sounds wrong. It is not parents yelling at children; it is adults yelling at children. That’s not right.” Because such a statement makes this about a common attribute of humans (which it is not) most people think of it as bad, because it violates a common definition of something.
What this means, in its essence, is that bullying is a common trait of humans, because most people live in the world where it happens. Since most people live in the world where it happens, and it should be admitted that it happens, it cannot be real if it doesn’t happen. In fact, it is not real if it does not happen because there is no evidence that this thing exists. So it must happen, at least for the sake of argument.
Not that this means that it really does happen. In recent years, there have been increasingly popular myths about bullying that try to imply that it happens all the time. Well, not so fast. When we label bullying as “real,” we may be responding to the reality that other people’s actions are being reported by a common school of thought and might become a popular belief. We may be reacting in the way that is most likely to become a universal phenomenon (because if the experience of being bullied is universal, then everyone should believe that it happens to them). There is a body of empirical evidence to support this interpretation. But other people may not know that something is worth reporting, so why report it?
This is what the “bullying and prejudice” myth is about. Bullying is real, of course, in the sense that it does happen. It happens whenever someone or some group of people are hated or afraid for the mere fact of being who they are, and that is why we must examine how it is mistranslated, and why we must scrutinize attempts to assign psychological character to bullying.
Anya Kamenetz, an education, psychology, and law scholar, is a visiting scholar at the New America Foundation.
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