It has been over a year since my last post, and I thought I would take a shot at a return to writing by tackling the subject of bullying since October is National Bullying Prevention Month. At least a quarter of all the students in the school where I work are there because of bullying, including one in my own household. I remember seeing him as he was writing on the whiteboard when one of his teachers asked the students why they had chosen this school and he wrote “NO BULLIES!” I was a bit surprised. While it was a persistent problem at his previous school, I had thought that they had taken care of the situation. But apparently it was still foremost in his mind. My oldest is not a perfect student, and there were times when his own behavior could be construed as bullying. Although he would never actually resort to real violence, he would resort to a threatening tone often enough.
Bullying has been around since the first time kids ever got together and decided to ostracize one of their peers. Kids seem to naturally gravitate toward that Lord-Of-The-Flies behavior and sometimes adults do too. And anyone who has ever posted a YouTube video or even written a blog has experienced the cyber version of this, thanks to the anonymity afforded by the medium. However, the internet’s community-building has also created safer places for kids who might be different so they can bridge the gaps created by physical geography to connect and share unique interests with each other. There’s never been a better time in history to be a nerd. The internet was created by nerds for other nerds, and the rest of the population eventually jumped on the bandwagon and made it hip and cool and an environment almost as treacherous as the real playground.
I was bullied pretty relentlessly while I was in school. I was not “tough”, I wasn’t a jock and I wasn’t cool, although heaven knows I really tried my best at all of those things. Being socially awkward and not a member of the cool crowd carried (and probably still carries) a pretty heavy price tag in small-town America. It gets even heavier when you move from one to another, and you have no established family ties in the area and everyone else seems to be related to each other. And if you didn’t have the money for the coolest clothes, cars and consumer goods, you were were pretty much out of luck. The town I spent most of my time growing up in, is actually now one of the most diverse communities in the state of Iowa; a state not known for its diversity. And I imagine the natives that didn’t eventually flee from the area HATE it! I believe God has a unique sense of humor and this is proof of it. A place that was pretty intolerant in the 70’s and 80’s now has it’s economy pinned to its diversity.
However, regardless of how I was treated I still have to ask myself a more important question “Was I ever a bully?”
I certainly was not the guy shaking down others for their lunch money or terrorizing smaller kids on the school bus. But I’m pretty sure I might have done some things that were unkind to people who were lower on the social ladder than I was, as low as that was. The desire and pressure to fit in, be cool and be popular would eventually get the better of me. Or rather, it allowed control by the worst of me. If I thought that it would have advanced my own social position, yeah, I would have thrown a rock or two at Piggy. I probably said the wrong things to people that hurt them at some point. So the line between the bully and the victim is not so clearly drawn, and I think we all have some darker part of us capable of inflicting misery on others. There’s always some degree of intolerance, no matter how tolerant we think we might be. Sometimes we lash out at intolerance with more intolerance!
It’s rather ironic that October is devoted toward Bullying Prevention. As we approach November elections we’re going to witness intense bullying in the form of electoral discourse across all forms of media as each party clubs the other with negative advertising designed to cause lots of repeated discomfort for the other side. I’m just referencing the treatment given to the topic by the American Psychological Association:
Bullying is a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. Bullying can take the form of physical contact, words or more subtle actions.
The bullied individual typically has trouble defending him or herself and does nothing to “cause” the bullying.
Individuals with autism are especially vulnerable to bullying. The prevalence of bullying is so high against and among individuals on the autistic spectrum that I would almost make an argument that it is as much of a Aspergers marker as repetitive behaviors. The articles I linked to give a good treatment of the problem within this community and hypothesize as to the reasons for it. It’s part of the body of evidence that allows me to stake a modest part of ASD real estate for myself.
I think the most crucial skill we can teach our kids, especially those who are prone to being bullied, is to recognize when they are being baited and to bypass the temptation to become engaged in a battle that can’t be won. Most arguments regarding religion and politics fall within that category but almost any area of interest or passion can be used to draw a person into a situation where they feel the need to defend themselves from attack. Most cyber bullies will use those things to troll and trap a victim into a relentless cycle of abuse and it’s important to know when it’s time to just walk out and not respond at all like Zelda did.
The internet and social media have turned into a double-edged sword for people who have difficulties relating socially. The buffer of the keyboard often gives people the space for free expression and voice where they might otherwise not have one, but it also provides the sort of cover that can be harnessed by miscreants who like to ambush people and set them off for kicks. I’m grateful to be part of a school that offers a relatively safe place for students to learn without the threats of physical assault, incessant teasing and the anxieties of not fitting in becoming a distraction to learning. There are still distractions and cyber bullying can still happen, but in our virtual setting and environment we are able to keep tight controls within our virtual classrooms. For the most part, the students are friendly and very supportive of each other as they often find that they share a common history of maltreatment from their traditional settings. This explains why there was such a flurry of agreement and supportive comments in the chatbox fpr a message on the white board. NO BULLIES!