Rebuttal to “Bullying: 3 rules”

I rarely submit articles for publication on AVfM (other than on server- or tech-related subjects) because I generally have far too much to be doing, even though there have been several occasions when I would really have liked to write something up.

Lee Turner’s recent article, Bullying: 3 rules, however, touched on a subject which deeply affected me personally and about which I have some quite strong perspectives so, however much I should be doing other things, this article is an adapted and slightly augmented version of a comment I posted on Lee’s article that was really too long to be posted as a comment anyway. So, fair disclosure: I’m not completely impartial on the matter.

For the most part, Lee’s piece contained a good deal of good and thoughtful advice but, in the spirit of constructive debate, I want to offer a rebuttal and a critique of several aspects of Lee’s piece.

What thesis?

There seemed to be two distinct theses running through Lee’s piece: on the one hand, the role of government and whether government initiatives can be worthwhile and, on the other, the actual subject at hand, viz. bullying.

We’re a politically diverse lot, which is precisely why we forbid discussion of partisan politics on AVfM — so the most I’ll say on this subject is that inclusion of even the assumption that a government initiative cannot succeed because, ipso facto, it is a government initiative is an unnecessary distraction from and adds little to the much more serious and profound debate around bullying.

Perhaps it is not even worth mentioning it, except to point out how a strong argument can be weakened by an unrelated argument that is, well, arguable.

No one-size-fits-all solution

Bullying is a complex subject and very difficult problem to resolve because it affects different people in different ways, and therefore reactions and long-term consequences are just as diverse.

I think Lee illustrated this point in the following passages:

Reflecting back on it now, I realise that whilst painful then, this experience was a necessary one. It has not destroyed our lives and appears to have been at least partly instrumental in making us what we are today – fully functional members of society, sometimes quite successful in career and business. It grows thick skin and teaches one to deal with personal conflict.

I’m glad Lee’s experience didn’t destroy him or his future, but many kids aren’t so lucky, as he partially recognised when he then wrote:

I can say from direct personal experience and of many of those around me that bullying can have a lasting negative effect on a person’s life…
For kids who can successfully face and deal with their abusers, I’m sure it is, indeed, an empowering experience and a valuable lesson (as you said) in conflict resolution.

Some of the comments in Lee’s article echoed both of those sentiments.

My question, then, is what of those kids who never manage successfully to fend off their abusers? Lee mentioned that bullying sometimes has fatal consequences, citing the Columbine shootings as an example.

I would say, though, that deaths from bullying take the form, in much greater numbers, of suicide, whether at the time, or later in life. Indeed, at least one commentator on Lee’s article mentioned this. Sometimes, the means of suicide takes years or decades to effect itself. I am, of course, referring to substance abuse.


Lee gave a fairly decent amount of good advice, too, particularly the rejection of the old canard “ignore it [they’ll go away if they don’t get a rise from you]” and the need for kids to stand up to their bullies.

That idea is, and always was, a lie, a sop or a thought-terminating cliché that allowed adults to avoid having to face the problem head on. Bullies don’t go away until you make them.

I do agree that how a child deals with bullying has more to do with how the kid is raised than it does with what the school or government does (though I don’t think the school or, by extension, government should be free to wash their hands completely of the matter as once was the case).

In my own case, my parents’ peculiar religiously-driven attitude was that fighting back, especially if it involves violence, is never justified. The damage that did was quite sufficient on its own, for I never learned how to defend or assert myself and therefore never learned (in childhood) any conflict resolution skills. I acquired them later in life, but not before the consequences of internalising and subsuming such conflict — the only socially-acceptable alternative available to me — did far more damage than it need have done.

How a child deals with abuse has as much to do with the psychology of the child, which also affects the consequences for and impact on the child, and what tools the child has to defend themselves.

That said, what the school does about bullying does matter. In my day, bullies were rarely punished (because they were just behaving normally or, at least, normally for them), where any kid who fought back was much more likely to be punished because (so far as I could tell) it was the path of least resistance for the staff involved.

That schools are now, at last, taking the problem of bullying seriously is hugely significant, even if the way they’re going about may turn out to be ineffective. The authorities’ first attempt may prove fruitless, but (so long as this is not just lip-service) sooner or later, they’ll find an intervention, or at least a way to support victims of bullying, that does work.

Taking responsibility

I had grave difficulty with this one passage in Lee’s piece, however:

It is a character test and a lesson in overcoming adversity. Failure to cope with it successfully is a personal failure and not that of any system educational or otherwise.

The effect of this is to tell a child — whose character and personality are not yet fully developed — that their character is faulty, that there is something wrong with them or, at any rate, that their experiences are their fault. Perhaps that is not what Lee meant, but it is certainly how I read it (and if I, an adult, can interpret it that way, how might a child?).

Feminists are fond of saying that fault always lies with the perpetrator of abuse and, on this occasion, I agree with them. Where I differ from feminists is that the fault of one does not absolve the other of responsibility for dealing with that abuse.

School years are, as Lee said, about learning life skills as well as academic, and part of learning anything is getting it wrong on occasion. The message contained within that quote is completely counterproductive if you want a child to learn to cope with bullying on his or her own because it undermines their self esteem (which is already likely to be at a low ebb, anyway, after prolonged bullying) and thereby their ability to deal with the problem (yet) and to try again.

Still, I agree that shielding kids from bullying altogether (by adult intervention) is equally counterproductive because, as Lee pointed out, it doesn’t teach coping skills that will be needed later in life.

The second fundamental failure of anti-bullying campaigners is the, “listen to your child” message. […] “No snitching” is a firm rule and, as with the point made above, is different to what adults can do in their lives.

This is also deeply counterproductive. Children can’t get the support they need if they won’t (or can’t) talk to the adults who, whether in loco parentis or their actual parents, have a duty to provide what support and teaching is required for the child to address the problem on their own.

If the kid could have dealt with it already, they would have, and the problem would have been short lived. If the kid can’t deal with it, not asking for help means “sucking it up”, bottling up the anger, hurt, humiliation and frustration (and the attendant consequences for low self-esteem), which solves nothing.

A problem not solved is merely a problem postponed. Sooner or later, it will demand redress, and better that it be addressed as a child than in adulthood where it can turn to substance abuse, bad relationships and other self-destructive behaviours (to say nothing of various kinds of mental health issues) and where unlearning ingrained behaviours takes much more effort than before they become established.

It is well known that adult men are bad about seeking help. Failing to train kids to ask for help when they need it is not going to ease that problem in the slightest.

So, what to do?

So far as I can see, the solution to bullying is not an either-or question. It requires awareness on the part of school staff and, to the extent that it is necessary, it is up to the state to ensure that every school, private or public, and member of teaching staff is aware of their obligation to understand the problem and be trained to deal with instances constructively as they arise. I would say that the only constructive things school staff can do is be cognisant of the nature of any given conflict, to punish bullies and not punish the victims who, especially if they are trying to figure out how to cope on their own, may not always use appropriate means to assert themselves.

Victims of bullying also need access to resources to teach them how to proactively defend themselves. For example, reacting to words with fists is not okay, so give them words that they can use and adapt.

But, if the victim is getting beaten up, then (I believe) it is appropriate to teach them effective self defence techniques designed to disable an attacker speedily and with only the minimum force required (and that kids must not be punished for doing so when they are required to employ those techniques). In fairness, Lee did allude to some of this in his article, but didn’t elaborate on it.

The single most important thing a victim of bullying can do is learn how to assert themselves effectively and proportionately. Like mathematics or civilized conversation, this is a learned skill with which nobody is born. Why, then, should anybody expect kids to figure out such a complex and subtle skill on their own?

Teach kids that it’s never okay to start a fight, but that it’s absolutely okay to finish one started by somebody else.

Addendum: bullying in adulthood

Bullying is not, as Lee pointed out, a phenomenon unique to childhood. The techniques that are applicable to childhood bullying aren’t always appropriate in the adult world, especially not in the workplace.

Outside of the workplace, there really isn’t much you can do except remove yourself from the situation (unless the situation is at home, in which case that opens the whole question of DV and especially DV services for men).

The power dynamics of the workplace are quite different from those of the school yard. It’s true, an adult victim of workplace bullying can choose to work elsewhere (even if they shouldn’t have to, though it may be the least-worst option in some instances), but it’s not quite true to to say that employees aren’t required to be there. Bullies and victims both certainly are, if they wish to remain employed there!

That being the case, there are some things that can be done in workplace bullying situations, assuming company management is functional and competent (and yes, that is quite an assumption).

From the company’s point of view, every employee (including management) is there to further the company’s business activities. Any conduct that interferes with an employee’s ability to discharge their duties also interferes with the company’s productivity — and any manager worth his or her salt should have an interest in rectifying such hindrances.

It doesn’t always work (especially in small companies or companies given over to cliquishness) but, in theory, a bully’s employment can be made conditional on their modifying their disruptive behaviour. Exactly how this can be achieved depends on the company amongst many other factors, but anybody experiencing workplace bullying might be able to effect some sort of change either via an Employee Assistance Programme (if there is one) or with a quiet word with one’s own manager (or their manager, if necessary). The idea is to make it the manager’s problem by framing it in terms of the victim’s productivity and therefore the productivity of the victim’s workgroup which, in turn, reflects on the manager.

There are no silver bullets and I am sure that many readers can quite legitimately take issue with what I’ve said just there, but I felt it was worth mentioning just in case it could help someone, even if it it can’t help everyone.

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