Let’s talk about “bullying.”
Not the act, the word. How is the conversation about the goal that we want, particularly those of us who are men influencing the emotional development of boys, affected by how we label it?
Just like a lot of teachers around the country, I was encouraged to begin the school year with a discussion of bullying. Most schools these days have a strong anti-bullying position, offering statistics about teen suicides, academic performance, and social decay that is being caused by bullies.
So, on day one of school, we talked about bullying. I could tell, though, that the students checked out fairly quickly. They thought the conversation didn’t apply to them. They weren’t bullies, so they didn’t need to know how not to be a bully.
Many of them were willing to be cast as victims of bullies, but this conversation was about how they were going to stop bullying in their environment, and that’s not something that victims can easily do. And since my teens come from an environment where “snitches get stitches and wind up in ditches” (so goes the mantra), upstander pledges tend to be given with a hollow rote.
My high school students are typical teens. They roughhouse, especially in the hallway. They show their love through insults and the dozens, particularly the boys. I’ve seen boys make others move out of desks, or get them pencils, or otherwise order them around. They could definitely stand to adjust how they show their respect.
But talk of “bullies” makes them check out.
On day two, I started all of my classes with the same question: By a show of hands, how many of you are bullies? Throughout my day, one hand went up.
Question two: How many of you have ever bullied anyone else? My total for the day was about a dozen hands.
Question three: How many of you have ever done anything aggressive, mean, or pushy to another student?
The majority of my students, both boys and girls, tentatively raised their hands.
The United States Government defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.”
One thing that bothers me about this definition is its limitation to “school-aged children.” We live in a society that is filled with bullies. A Presidential candidate has a reputation of engaging in “unwanted, aggressive behavior” against anyone who he sees as a threat or who insults him; that sort of bullying is common in politics, but he takes it significantly beyond the typical point.
TV personalities like Gordon Ramsey and Simon Cowell have made their public careers on mocking failure. Daytime talk shows have made entertainment out of heated arguments. Public verbal beatdowns result in standing ovations and catcalls. Hopeful entrepreneurs go before the aggressively named “Shark Tank” hoping for investment.
Even when movies like “A Man Apart” show men briefly as emotional, it’s not long before we have vigilante violence.
Teenage boys who aren’t content with passive entertainment can role-play bullying thanks to games like RockStar Games’s “Bully” and the Grant Theft Auto series.
So how can we discourage teenagers from engaging in activity that they see being employed successfully in the movies, TV, games, and real life?
When we label something, our conversations quickly turn to deciding whether a label applies to a behavior, not to whether the behavior itself is problematic.
Nelson Muntz on The Simpsons is a bully. That’s easy for students to see. Nelson is routinely Othered, a shrouded, less complex character whose catchphrase is monosyllabic: “Ha ha!”
When we tell boys not to be bullies, they hear: Don’t be Nelson. Don’t be Draco Malfoy. Don’t be Bluto.
Okay. That’s easy. But there’s a problem.
It’s the same problem with talking about racism, or sexism, or any other behavior type that we can generally socially agree is wrong: People are willing to apply those labels to others, but resist admitting it about themselves.
The process for eliminating “bullies” is the same as the process for eliminating “racists”: Redefine the rhetoric so that nobody is a “bully” or a “racist.”
The opposite strategy also occurs; everyone is defined as a “bully” or a “racist.” This is sometimes well-intentioned, meant to encourage everyone reflect on their own behaviors ), but the effect is to make the labels useless. If everyone is a bully, then there’s no way to stop bullying.
We care about the behavior, not the label. Regardless of what we call it, “aggressive, unwanted behavior” is a problem. It leads to suicide, it leads to violence, and it makes the world a less pleasant place.
As a teacher and a parent, and as a sensitive male, I’d drop “unwanted” out of the formula. Let’s minimize aggressive behavior. We don’t need it anymore. When we were living in caves fighting predators that were larger than we were, we needed it. Not anymore.
One irony is that our culture of aggression is so deeply ingrained that much of our anti-bullying campaigns are themselves a form of bullying. We have Zero Tolerance policies. By limiting our scope to “school-aged,” we miss that teachers can be bullies, too. While we tell students not to bully, we surround them with adults who bully them into compliance.
Focusing on bullying behaviors instead of bullies is a step in the right direction, as it is with racism, it still leads to teens quibbling over whether pushing an acquaintance into a locker while you’re both smiling really counts as “bullying.” It is routine for teens, particularly males, to bond through behaviors that, from a distance, definitely look like bullying.
Instead, I encourage my son and my students to reflect on how a behavior looks, and how it feels. “I know you show your love for your friends by slapping them,” I’ve said, “but think about that. Is that the right way to show your love?”
In my experience, that’s been more effective than simply saying “Stop bullying” and moving on. If we really want to end the behavior, let’s clarify the behavior, not just label it.
Originally published on The Good Men Project.