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.