Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Thinking About Bullying

This video has gone viral, and several of my Facebook friends were posting it in their feed as recently as last night, all with positive comments for the woman in the video.  It got me and The Mrs. thinking about the topic of bullying last night.

The focus on bullying as a social behavior is a more recent trend.  Certainly bullying is not new, nor has it just recently come into existence or into the general knowledge of the public.  Bullying has been around as long as there have been people on earth, and everyone has known about it.  In recent years, however, the topic of bullying has garnered more and more attention in the public realm.  We hear about it on the news, and there are even movies and documentaries being made on the subject.  I think it's safe to say that the level of attention bullying has been given in schools and even in the public square has increased dramatically since I was a kid.  While I was taught to respect others and their differences when I was in elementary school, kids nowadays are going through all kinds of education on bullying and its sometimes devastating results.  Why the shift?  Why has bullying become such a prominent and public issue?

First I think we need to know what a bully is.  The online Merriam Webster's dictionary defines a bully as "A blustering, browbeating person; especially one habitually cruel to those who are weaker."  By this definition, everyone in the United States of America either is, or at least has been, a bully.

Think about it: did you ever make fun of kids when you were a kid?  I certainly did.  I was even "habitually cruel" to some kids.  Maybe you're even a bully now.  Ever experience road rage?  Ever yell at a driver for doing something you think is stupid and then retaining that anger for a while?  Is there a co-worker of yours that is nerdy and weird, and you and other co-workers talk about him or her behind their back?  Do your kids ever irritate you so much that you are irrationally angry with them and give them a punishment they don't really deserve?  If you've answered yes to any of these questions, then you, my friend, are a bully.

But if the definition of a bully is so broad as to encompass all people in the country, and if we all either have been or currently are bullies by definition, then why is there such an intense focus on bullying at the present time?  It can only be that the type of bullying that is being brought into focus through the news media and in schools is something different than what I've just described above.

In one sense, bullying has become an issue that has been brought to the forefront for the simple reason that the way people (children and teenagers in particular) respond to bullying has changed drastically.  Rather than crying, being a loner, or enlisting the help of friends or adults to take a stand against a bully, kids nowadays respond to bullying with measures of their own violence, cutting, or even by taking their own lives.

Furthermore, the things that kids are bullied for nowadays are different from even when I was child (which I like to think wasn't that long ago).  When I was in third grade, I was made fun of quite a bit for wearing a Super Man belt.  I told my dad what had happened, and he told me kids were making fun of my belt because they were jealous of it.  That explanation worked for me at the time, and I wore my Super Man belt with pride.  In my later elementary years I was teased more for my size.  I was larger than most other kids (horizontally and vertically) and they pointed it out to me quite a bit (although not too much, as size does have its advantages!).  And let it be known that I did my own share of teasing as a kid, even on into my teenage years, and the objects of my scorn were those who were different, dirty, weird, or undesirable in some way.  Nowadays kids can not only be bullied for the same things I was bullied for, but also for sexual orientation, weight, race, etc.  The stakes seem to have been raised, and kids (and adults, for that matter) are responding differently.

But while this may be true, and I do agree that bullying is a serious issue worth addressing, there are also some elements of the current conversation around bullying that I think need to be thought out, spoken about, and taught more.

1. Bullying can be a two-way street.  It's perhaps not surprising (at least not to me) that those who are victims of bullying can also become bullies themselves by the way they respond to bullying, and often times their bullying is directed toward those bullies who bullied them (wow, there's a lot of bullies in that sentence).  That is, while I believe it is right and good to stand against bullying, I think we need to have a careful and measured answer for how to respond to bullying.  The proper response to a bully is not to disparage him or her publicly, or to return the bullies actions or words in kind.  I even wonder if the newscaster in the video linked to at the beginning of this post was crossing the line by addressing the issue publicly on television.  Obviously she was using the occasion as a spring-board to launch into a speech about how bullying is serious and detrimental, but at what cost?  Did she become what she was speaking against by calling out the man who bullied her in front of thousands?  Or was it really wise for her husband to post the letter on the man's Facebook page?  I'm not saying she did become a bully by doing these things, but I think it's something worth thinking about.  I just wonder if it wouldn't have been a more effective stand against bullying if she had simply deleted the email as soon as she received it.  If we are teaching kids (or adults) to respond to bullies with scorn, disdain, and general hatred, we are doing a disservice to our children, and are, in fact, teaching them to be bullies.  What we need is a good dose of Matthew 5.21-22 and 38-42 taught to our kids, but let's not hold our collective breath.  If nothing else, I think there needs to be some careful thought about how we respond to bullying.

2. The negative impact of bullying is directly related to the victim's propensity to be bullied.  In other words, bullies only have as much power as is given to them by their victims.  When my dad told me that other kids made fun of my Super Man belt because they were jealous of it, I couldn't have cared less about their derogatory comments toward me and my belt.  I refused to let them bother me about it.  Now, it would be too simplistic to say that we can cure bullying by instructing kids to not take offense at the words and actions of those who wish to do them harm.  There are some bullies that will be relentless in their bullying, even if no acknowledgement is given by the victim.  But I think this is an important point to consider in the conversation: bullies are only as powerful as we allow them be.

3. We need more thorough definitions of terms.  In one sense, the anti-bullying campaigns are somewhat unsettling to me - not because I endorse bullying, but because I'm not really sure what bullying is.  As homosexuality and other issues become more culturally acceptable and mainstream it will become increasingly unpopular to oppose them.  As schools and other public forums increasingly embrace a "tolerance" mindset that prohibits any dissension from pro-gay norm for example, will my children be labeled as bullies if they speak out about their belief that homosexuality is wrong (see point number one above)?  In a world where Christian organizations are openly labeled as hate groups for being "anti-gay," is it really a stretch to think that my kids will some day be labeled as bullies for supporting the biblical view of marriage?  Again, something to think about before we jump on the anti-bullying bandwagon.  In a lot of ways, the anti-bullying message sounds a lot like the tolerance nonsense we hear in media and in culture.  This is why we need a better definition of terms before we go about branding people with the bully label.  Who is a bully?  And what must one do to be a bully?  Physically harm someone?  Verbally or emotionally harm someone?  Disagree with someone?

It should be noted that in order for me to watch the video that I linked to at the beginning of this post, the website the video is hosted on popped up a window on my screen that had a survey question on it.  The site wouldn't let me watch the video without looking at the question.  It said this: "I support equality for all.  I believe everyone should be treated equally, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation."  Below the statement there are two options to choose from: either "Agree" or "Disagree."  That's the most loaded question I've ever heard.  I, for one, absolutely agree that everyone should be treated equally, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.  But I do not agree that "treated equally" means allowing homosexuals to marry.  So I can either agree with the statement or disagree and be labeled a bigot (bully?).  Take your pick. I just hope the current conversation about bullying doesn't go the way of the tolerance insanity that we're currently dealing with in our culture.

So how should we think about and respond to bullying?  I'm certainly not saying I have all the answers, but I am saying it's something we should keep thinking about, as it is a topic that has far-reaching implications - both for me as a person and also as a parent.

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