Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bullying is Complicated

Julian Sanchez has a very interesting post up on why it is impossible to measure "bullying," and why trying might not be a very good idea:
On the victim’s side, even a teen who is conscious of being the victim of bullying might feel ashamed to admit it. But it’s actually more complicated than that, because once we move out of the realm of bullying as simple physical assault, the difference between psychological bullying and more innocuous types of ribbing or reciprocal verbal aggression ultimately comes down to how the teens themselves feel about it. So a teen who denies being “bullied” and appears to shrug off various kinds of social animosity as just “drama” is not necessarily in denial about the independent, objective fact that they really are being bullied. Rather, insisting on adopting the attitude that they’re on equal footing with their aggressors (and so not bullied) may be a primary determinant of whether or not this is, in fact, the case: Telling yourself that you don’t care what those jerks say about you is often part of the process of actually ceasing to care what those jerks say about you—or at least, ceasing to care much. On the victim’s side, then, psychological bullying is hard to quantify, because “bullying” is not always an observer-independent natural fact: Denying that you are being bullied is sometimes a means of making it true that you are not (successfully) bullied.
And on the side of the aggressors, Sanchez offers a sort of parable from philosopher Derek Parfit called “The Harmless Torturers”:
Parfit imagines one scenario in which 10,000 torturers each torture one of 10,000 victims using an electrocution machine. Each torturer clearly inflicts terrible agony on an individual victim. In Parfit’s second scenario, each torturer’s machine is configured so as to deliver one-ten-thousandth of the same voltage—a quantity so small as to be utterly imperceptible to the victim by itself—to all of the victims who were individually electrified in the first scenario. In the aggregate, the torturers inflict exactly the same amount of pain on exactly the same number of people. But in this second scenario, each torturer can—with some justice—claim that his actions are “harmless.” Each, in other words, can claim: “If I stayed home, there is not one of those 10,000 victims who would feel any difference.”

As applied to physical torture, the scenario is fanciful. As applied to psychological torture, it describes the norm. Only a few really horrid people commit themselves to relentlessly harassing and abusing a single individual. But many teens—and not a few nominal adults—will make a handful of snarky and cutting remarks to numerous different individuals over the course of an ordinary day. It would often be overblown to characterize any particular remark as bullying: In isolation, all but the most fragile of us would shrug it off. In the aggregate, they may be intolerable to even the most self-assured.


leif said...

is he serious? that argument in the first quote sounds patently hollow and misguided. i would suggest that the theme common to teen bullying is fear. if the victim feels fear that he/she will suffer physical harm, that teen is being bullied. if others fear the bully even if they're not the victim, that's bullying. if the victim fears their reputation will be hurt in a systematic way, with malicious intent, that is bullying.

harmless ribbing among friends is just that: it's a way to gently remind your FRIEND that his/her behavior needs some modification. i believe this exposes another characteristic that bullying involves the victim, who would not consider the bully a friend, receiving any sort of negative attention from the bully. no bully cares about a victim enough to gently suggest any improvements. bullying has distinct purposes: to cause fear in at least the victim and thereby influence the local social scene into recognizing the hegemony of the bully. thus often the victim is chosen somewhat randomly -- seen as a likely victim, but chosen among possibly many about whom an example should be made.

one of the only quoted statements that seems plausible is, denying one is bullied is indeed sometimes true. if one feels that it's not a big deal, then fine. perhaps it truly isn't. however for most victims, the shame of being bullied is deep enough to present as lies to parents, friends, counselors and essentially anyone who isn't cognizant of the actual interactions of the bully and victim.

the 10,000 torturers illustration simply proves the point that torturers -- bullies -- have both malicious intent and are cognizant of their actions having inflicted suffering.

John said...

I think that you are placing too much stress on a boundary for "friends" and others that is not at all obvious. Especially in middle school, that boundary is very fluid and often what is being negotiated in teasing/bullying episodes is who is a friend and who is not. For girls, especially, that can change from day to day.

As for fear, sure, bullied people are afraid. But what are they afraid of? Often, the loss of membership in a group. So walking away and wearing the exclusion with pride can be an effective defense, as Sanchez says.