1. We still blame the victim, disliking the victim for their “weakness” or difference. What this really means, of course, is that we dislike our own weaknesses. The victim reminds us of our own vulnerabilities. It also means that we too often internally, maybe unconsciously, look to strongmen (bullies in government in other words) to hide behind and keep us safe.
2. We treat bullying like it’s a simple, interpersonal problem. This fails to see the connection between what we call “bullying” (which calls to mind funny Bart Simpson images) and what I call narrative violence—the larger historical, socio-political and cultural narratives that link larger historical forces to everyday life. These narratives describe the worth and qualities of particular social groups—Muslims, girls, Jews, black people, immigrants, low income kids, overweight kids, kids with special medical or other needs. The cultural stories we tell about them are often the justification bullies turn to for picking their victim; they often know who will not be able to fight back.
3. We still have “both sides” disease. This clip below shows just what I mean. The young man in this clip (credit: Independent Lens’ “The Bully”), Cole, is clearly the victim in the scenario. This is unequivocal; the local police have had to become involved. Yet the Asst. Principal revicitimizes the younger student by insisting that he forgive and make friends with his bully, without any acknowledgement of the harm done or any acknowledgement of a need for safety. She equates Cole’s refusal to shake hands with the bully’s threats to injure and kill. She demonstrates no awareness of the power dynamics at play or the false equivalence of her argument.
A schoolroom argument is just an argument—bullying by nature involves an imbalance of power. Instead of using her adult and institutional power to stop the abuse, she acts to protect herself and avoid controversy by arguing that “both sides” were equally wrong. But aren’t there two sides to every story? Certainly, but that doesn’t preclude the clear guilt of one party in the specific cases of bullying. It is obviously, for example, never ok for a teacher to call a Muslim student a “rag head Taliban” as happened in Florida, or for groups of students to chant “build that wall” at immigrant students. Effective responses to bullying must be aware of power dynamics and insist on a safe environment for the victim before attempting reconciliation. Otherwise, justice is not served and “both-sides disease” prevails.
4. We don’t listen to young people. They tell us time and time again that the problem is much larger and more common than we acknowledge (see Duckworth, Williams and Allen 2012)—perhaps because this implicates us, we struggle to hear them. For many complicated reasons, we don’t listen. We have our own fears and vulnerabilities as adults, and the path of least resistance sparkles like the ocean.
5. We divorce lessons on school violence and anti-bullying from the “real” curriculum. While we must work to create a culture of peace throughout a school, also important is ensuring that dynamics of conflict, root causes of violence and principles of peace building are all explicit in our curriculum. An interdisciplinary, experiential curriculum lends itself to this.
6. We respect bullies. We defer to them. We promote them. In fact, we elect them.