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Sun, Dec. 30th, 2012, 03:07 am
[psych, anthro] One Thought on Bullying

The vast majority of anti-bullying efforts give me the heebie-jeebies. They seem terribly well-intentioned, and yet there's something -- or plural somethings -- that fill me with foreboding and make me want to edge out of the room.

I just figured out what one of them is.

Allow me to quote something that[*] doesn't give me the heebie-jeebies:
When we were in junior high school, my friend Rich and I made a map of the school lunch tables according to popularity. This was easy to do, because kids only ate lunch with others of about the same popularity. We graded them from A to E. A tables were full of football players and cheerleaders and so on. E tables contained the kids with mild cases of Down's Syndrome, what in the language of the time we called "retards."

We sat at a D table, as low as you could get without looking physically different. We were not being especially candid to grade ourselves as D. It would have taken a deliberate lie to say otherwise. Everyone in the school knew exactly how popular everyone else was, including us.
"It would have taken a deliberate lie to say otherwise." Yes. Quite.

There is a narrative, a theme, a meme in so much anti-bullying rhetoric, and even scholarship, that implies or assumes, "bullying is something done by individuals to individuals". It emerges as claims that "bullying happens to everybody". It rings in the silences where discussion of social status context should be.

No. When I use the word "bullying", when I think about "bullying", what I mean -- and I expect a very large swath of my readers uses the term likewise -- is a system of violence and harassment particular to and reifying of a specific social status system.

That specific social status system has a name. We used to use it all the time, when we who talked about such things talked about them and nobody listened to us; but now that we've gotten all up in our white lab coats and formal and Western-individualist about it, we don't use the natives' own term for the system in which they function. "Popularity."

(Step back from the word, from what you think you know it means in a literal sense -- whether or not someone is liked by many other people. Think of the word as if I were telling you an important untranslatable term from another language about an alien social practice they have. This thing, this brutal hierarchical system, they call it popularity. When a kid in school talks about how "popular" kid in school is, they aren't talking about how many other kids like that kid, but how high in the social status system of popularity they are.)

Bullying is a means of asserting the social order of popularity and keeping lower-status members in their place; the seductive pleasure of cruelty is a rewarding, and sometimes addicting, privilege for higher-status members (but not highest -- they don't need to bully). Bullying is not committed by individuals qua individuals against individuals qua individuals; it is committed by individuals who experience themselves as representatives of a social class within a social hierarchy against other individuals who experience themselves in being bullied as representatives of a social class within that same social hierarchy.

Any discussion of "bullying" and redressing it which does not also include a discussion of popularity, which does not define "bullying" as inter-status-group violence which establishes and maintains that social hierarchy, which does not take a phenomenological and social approach instead of the merely behavioral, is, well. Giving the benefit of the doubt, it is, at best, grossly "culturally incompetent", as we say in the human services biz.

Not giving the benefit of the doubt? It's a damned deliberate lie.

Regardless of intent, the effect is the erasure of the actual experience of the very people being victimized and the protection of the social system oppressing them.

No wonder these do-gooders make my skin crawl. Under the guise of wanting to end bullying, they're exculpating the system which engenders it.

In fact, now that I think on it, I would be pleased if the entire present social movement about preventing "bullying" -- which is a set of behaviors -- were to fall off a tall cliff, and be replaced by a social justice movement attacking popularity as a spontaneous(?)/emergent(?) toxic social organization in which higher status members are entitled to assault, harass, steal from, vandalize the property of, humiliate, ostracize, etc. lower status members for recreation, narcissistic aggrandizement, ego defenses, and maintenance or advancement of their own popularity.

[* Surprisingly, as I rather dislike a lot of Paul Graham's stuff.]

Note: Comments screened, because I will be away from the computer a while -- possibly for several days -- and otherwise preoccupied, so I don't know when I'll be able to reply and I won't be around much to moderate. Happy New Year, all.

Note 2: This is a public post. Link away; you don't even have to ask. Credit to my LJ handle.

Sun, Dec. 30th, 2012 09:19 am (UTC)
goldjadeocean

I remember that essay. It came out when I was miserable in grade 9. It was part of what fuelled my decision to transfer to another high school over the summer; I wasn't bullied for my last three years, because I was in a small IB class.

I also remember, as a highschooler, musing with my friends at the gaping disparity between "most popular" and "best-liked."

The most effective anti-bullying campaigns as integrated into ordinary schools without seriously overturning the hierarchy seem to be aimed mostly at limiting opportunities for the hierarchy to swing into action: breaking up cliques in seating arrangements and group assignments, teacher-led games at recess, etc. The literature acknowledges that they aren't breaking the hierarchy, they're just making life better for the people at the bottom.

Tue, Jan. 1st, 2013 08:44 pm (UTC)
siderea

I am all in foment of thought about how to directly address the hierarchy. (Which is bad, because I have 5 days to finish my slides for my talk on something completely else. :)

It is very clear to me that popularity is not inevitable; that some social hierarchy may or may not be inevitable, but the experience of schools with little to no bullying shows that popularity as a vicious organizing social principle is not fundamentally necessary to childhood. Hmmmm.

I do not think the solution can or should be breaking up social alliances or striving to prevent them forming. For one thing, that's what we in SysDyn call trying to change the players instead of changing the game: it's enormously expensive of resources and doomed to failure. For another, it seems wrong, a violation of the freedom of association, of liking whom one likes.

It is possible to dislike another person without predating upon them. That would seem to be the crucial realization that we need to be working from.

Sun, Dec. 30th, 2012 03:06 pm (UTC)
metahacker

Oh, god, yes. I would quote this entire post. Two points in particular:

bullying [...] is a system of violence and harrassment

Excellent point. And a system which is enforced even by many attempts to combat or ameliorate the effects of bullying. "Punch him right back!" is an individual response to a systemic act, and condones the frame.

it is committed by individuals who experience themselves as representatives of a social class

Which is visible in those rare moment when you break apart the social constructs. For example, the storybook one-on-one interaction between a member of the bullying class and a person at the 'D' table, where away from the pressure of peers and of being forced to maintain face, the bully reveals himself to have empathy and attempts to connect with the nerd as peers or even friends.

the seductive pleasure of cruelty is a rewarding, and sometimes addicting, privilege for higher-status members

People just don't *say* this enough. Bullying is FUN, dammit, and vindicating, especially for people who despise their lower-status in the face of a more-powerful authority. Sadly, so many people don't grow out of this, they just carry it forward into adult life and find ways to abuse each other there.

(A few typos throughout, btw: harrassment->harassment; assering -> asserting.)

Tue, Jan. 1st, 2013 09:06 pm (UTC)
siderea

Excellent point. And a system which is enforced even by many attempts to combat or ameliorate the effects of bullying. "Punch him right back!" is an individual response to a systemic act, and condones the frame.

At least it has the advantage of acknowledging that popularity exists, and, indeed -- yea, verily, I am the voice of experience -- counter-violence is a viable way of climbing in popularity. The old idiocy of "Ignore them!" doesn't even do that; it invalidates the reality of the victim that they are being systematically oppressed in a way which involves other parties, and not just the representative member of the class.

BTW (mostly for anybody else reading comments, not directly to you) this understanding is part why I have some of the forum moderating principles I do, and which I commend to all people on LJ, DW and likewise. One thing I do not tolerate is to be talked to or about in certain ways in public. If one wants to speak disparagingly/degradingly/disrespectfully of me to me that's... fine is the wrong word, but okay. That's what PM and email are for. If one does it in front of other people, I will ruthlessly suppress it because I will not let somebody set public precedent that it is acceptable to to speak to me that way.

I have watched how other LJ users -- all women -- have tolerated other users -- often men -- treat them as dim, or not worth listening to, or worthy of casual contempt -- out of personal affection ("Oh, he's a [buddy|relative|relevant social contact] of mine, [I know from in-person communication he doesn't mean it how he comes across | there are other ways in which our relationship is beneficial to me that make up for it | he gets a pass]") which then metastasizes to the other discussants in their journal.

Disrespect is catching. Quarantine it wherever it breaks out.

Which is visible in those rare moment when you break apart the social constructs. For example, the storybook one-on-one interaction between a member of the bullying class and a person at the 'D' table, where away from the pressure of peers and of being forced to maintain face, the bully reveals himself to have empathy and attempts to connect with the nerd as peers or even friends.

Oh, god. I had a friend who was friendly and always up to play in our neighborhood, but wouldn't be caught dead being friendly to me in school. Sadly, I think I was the one person she could relate to in some ways, being very bright herself. But she was astonishingly socially gifted (I learned so much from observing her) and managed popularity with enormous deftness.

People just don't *say* this enough.

Well, for a reason. If people admitted it happened and was wrong, they'd feel guilty and feel they have to stop doing it. Nobody wants to give up their favorite drug. :|

And here is the problem in schools. I think very much of it comes down to an unwillingness of teachers and administrators to specifically identify and call out what is wrong in children's conduct by name -- "cruelty" -- when it means they would have to acknowledge their own cruelty is wrong and should stop.

So much shit flows downhill.

(Thanks for corrections! ETA: Why doesn't my browser's dictionary flag "assering"??? WTF Camino 2.0.9.)

Edited at 2013-01-01 09:12 pm (UTC)

Sun, Dec. 30th, 2012 04:17 pm (UTC)
tasha18

I am guilty as charged of teaching an anti-bullying curriculum in the way you described, which is silly, because I am obsessed with themes of social and power. I just couldnt think of a way to translate these ideas about popularity for my middle school students, because behavioral-oriented approaches is the only way I know how to get through to them. This is not good. DO you have any examples of activities/discussion questions that might be good to try?

Tue, Jan. 1st, 2013 09:18 pm (UTC)
siderea

Alas, I have no resources. Do you know goldjadeocean already? I've been meaning to introduce you guys for a while, if not. She's probably the go-to person on this.

See her comment above which I've unscreened.

Sat, Sep. 14th, 2013 07:14 pm (UTC)
siderea

Do now. See latest post.

Sun, Dec. 30th, 2012 11:08 pm (UTC)
merle_

Huh. Must process. I have a feeling you are right. Some subset of it may apply to insular subsets (sexual orientation comes to mind) although the bullying is more psychological and exclusionary than physical. I am not certain about that.

And, no, bullying does not happen to everyone. You want to appear to be at least a quiet member of group C or D; when successful you cease to be a target inside or outside. Or at least that's how I played the game.

Mon, Dec. 31st, 2012 12:18 am (UTC)
en_ki

I had this itch too. Thank you for scratching it.

Mon, Dec. 31st, 2012 03:31 pm (UTC)
etherial

I'm not sure your narrative fits my experience much better, though it is complicated by the fact that Wellesley had nonlinear social stratification.

Tue, Jan. 1st, 2013 02:59 pm (UTC)
alexx_kay

"Bullying is not committed by individuals qua individuals against individuals qua individuals; it is committed by individuals who experience themselves as representatives of a social class within a social hierarchy against other individuals who experience themselves in being bullied as representatives of a social class within that same social hierarchy."

While I think that this statement is probably true, its truth is certainly *not* obvious to all, or even most, individuals involved in the process. It was certainly my perception during school that there were specific individuals who were specifically (and repeatedly) choosing me as a target.

I still have a very vivid memory of an incident when a 'random' (unknown to me) student bullied me. It seemed to me that he was just doing it out of some kind of reflex. At the time, it made me think of bullies as less sentient, which made it easier for me to shrug off their abuse. I may have been groping towards the insight you express above.

Tue, Jan. 1st, 2013 09:42 pm (UTC)
siderea

It was certainly my perception during school that there were specific individuals who were specifically (and repeatedly) choosing me as a target.

Oh, there's nothing about my theory which precludes that. Especially in the light of the addictive nature of cruelty. That, say, widespread pernicious sexism exists and manifests in men denying women "masculine" jobs does not deny the concomitant existence of stalkers or rapists; indeed, q.v. "rape culture". Likewise, while anti-Black racism is most typically latent and/or covert in White Americans, there will always be some assholes who decide to structure their social life around dressing up in bedsheets and murdering people for yucks.

Wed, Jan. 2nd, 2013 04:30 am (UTC)
fabrisse

What does the school administration get from allowing the bullying to continue or for encouraging it on a spectrum anywhere from tacit acceptance to outright "this student is okay to bully" statements? My experiences all had a component of administrative acceptance of the idea that I was so different, weird, whatever that I had to be put down and kept down. Twice, once in fourth grade and once at summer camp, the administrative bullying got so bad that in one case the teacher lost the acceptance by the other kids in the class and it was active complaints from their parents that eventually got the teacher fired (or so I was told, it happened at the end of the year), and in the other case another counselor decided to intervene on my behalf.

Fri, Jan. 4th, 2013 04:49 pm (UTC)
(Anonymous): Social justice...

But this would open the door to larger discussions of social justice, class, and social stratification. That is not permitted in American culture or political discourse, so we must only focus on individual behaviors in total isolation from their context.

Thu, Jan. 24th, 2013 05:26 pm (UTC)
rising_moon

Others may have pointed you to this article already, but in case they haven't:

http://nymag.com/news/features/high-school-2013-1/

Citing primarily the effects of changing brain chemistry during puberty, NY Magazine's Jennifer Senior posits that "big-box" high school is exactly the wrong place to put adolescents.

Fri, Jan. 25th, 2013 10:42 am (UTC)
heron61

This post fit well with my own experiences of public school, and now there's solid data too. I just read about a study correlating popularity and how much people bully others, with comments from researchers like "The ones who are cool bully more, and the ones who bully more are seen as cool"