What is “bullying,” anyway?

I think we may be losing sight, in the wake of incidents such as the Tyler Clementi suicide, of what “bullying” really is. For instance, I’ve been seeing reality TV being blamed as a major cause of the perceived increase in bullying: Reality TV communicates that humiliation is an acceptable form of entertainment, says the argument, and so teens learn that it’s fun to humiliate their cohort.

While I would agree that the continued popularity reality TV programming, especially those that rely on enforcing strong and dysfunctional cultural norms such as the innate sizism of The Biggest Loser or on using peer pressure to get people to do inane and sometimes reckless things on Fear Factor, reflects poorly on our society, I’m skeptical that it’s as major a force on any objective increase in bullying as is our general culture of meanness. Two and a Half Men, I’d argue, has done more to encourage bullying than Cops has.

Bullying involves not just action but intent. This is what Wikipedia has to say:

Norwegian researcher Dan Olweus defines bullying as when a person is “exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons.” He defines negative action as “when a person intentionally inflicts injury or discomfort upon another person, through physical contact, through words or in other ways”.

The Clementi case is a fairly weak example of bullying, in my view, not the canonical case that the media has been presenting it as. For one thing, it’s not clear how long or intensely the friction over Clementi’s sexual identity existed between him and Ravi. For another, it’s not clear (although it’s probable) that Ravi had actually meant to harm Clementi; it’s plausible (although unlikely, in my opinion) that Ravi really did simply think it was a valid form of entertainment to broadcast the footage he did, and he didn’t place himself in Clementi’s perspective.

Bullying behavior generally has two main motivations:

  1. To exert power over someone else, because the other person is perceived of as a threat, because the bullier is being bullied themselves and is lashing out (for children, bullies are sometimes abused at home), or because it entertains the bullier to do so for other, possibly sociopathic, reasons.
  2. To identify “in-group” from “out-group” members, where the target of the bullying is being castigated or ostracized. In this case, the bullier may be either the perceived head of the “in-group” and is using bullying to keep the members in line or a fringe or hopeful member of the “in-group” who fears that they themselves will be castigated or ostracized, and engages in the bullying to distract from their own perceived weaknesses.

Note that I am deliberately avoiding using the noun form of “bully,” because the issue is the behavior, not whether it’s meaningful to call someone a bully. The issue is whether Ravi bullied Clementi, not whether Ravi is a bully. It’s a variation of the argument below, which is on “racist”: (link no longer available).

This is in my view even more true of bullying, because bulliers are very often, if not more often than not, victims themselves of some sort of bullying behavior. By creating a strong bully/victim dichotomy, we might allow ourselves to engage in bullying ourselves on the grounds that “we can’t be bullies, we were victims ourselves!” or to suggest a victim of bullying is somehow less “worthy” of support because they once engaged in bullying themselves.

Bullying is, unfortunately, a fairly inevitable facet of human existence. For one thing, people have the innate need to belong to groups, and bullying is one of the coarser ways to establish group membership. In my own experience, some of the most savage acts of bullying I’ve received or observed have been committed by the aforementioned fringe members who are overcompensating for what they perceive to be a weak group membership, not by the strong, core members of a group (who are more secure in their membership and, therefore, don’t feel the compulsion to “prove it” by mocking the Other).

However, I think there are things that can be done to reduce and ameliorate the effects of bullying, especially among teens. Teach tolerance of differences. Identify those fringe members and urge them to reflect on whether membership in such callous groups is worth the negative effects. Identify the leaders of bullying actions, particularly lone wolves, and explore the causes (if the bullier is being physically or emotionally abused at home, for instance, that’s a cause that definitely needs addressing). Remind young adults that the perceived anonymity of the Internet dulls our awareness that there are other human beings, with thoughts and feelings, on the other side of the monitor. Urge people of all ages to take a moment before acting in a callous or aggressive way to reflect on whether the person they’re feeling hostile towards truly deserves the aggression, and whether the aggression actually serves any constructive purpose.

And, last but far from least, make sure that when you say you’ll be a supportive voice, a shoulder that can be relied on in times of trouble, you mean it. It’s important to offer support, to help victims of abuse (bullying or otherwise) feel less alone, but follow-through is even more important.

(Edit 7/28/21: Several links no longer work and have been removed.)

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