In the Bully's-Eye

Karl Peart’s parents explained to London’s Daily Telegraph that their son had been a lifelong target. Although he could make friends easily, harassment from school bullies had been constant. His parents recalled instances of bullying when their son was only a toddler. By the time he was 13, Karl would return home with bruises, cuts, a broken finger, and stories of taunts and threats.

But by 16, Karl had it all figured out. He closed the door to his bedroom and opened a bottle of prescription painkillers. When his mother found him the next morning, Karl was dead, leaving notes for his parents and plans for his funeral—even choosing the music he wanted to have played.

Perhaps, his parents conceded, Karl had not been enough of a fighter. His father took it hard. “If he’d had a bit more of me in him, he would have smacked them on the nose,” he said. “But Karl would never ever do that: He was too gentle.”

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (April 25, 2001), out of more than 15,000 public school students surveyed in the United States, nearly 30 percent reported occasional to frequent involvement in bullying, whether as a bully, a target, or both. In the United Kingdom, the British Schools Health Education Unit found that a quarter of 10- and 11-year-olds surveyed were bullied either “every day” or “often.” Another report says that about 15 percent of Australian children admit to being bullied weekly.

These numbers may not be astounding. Of course, how one defines the problem may change how one views its prevalence. If calling other children by mean names or excluding them from play constitutes bullying, then perhaps the number would actually be closer to 100 percent.

But for the children who are on the receiving end of the harassment, the numbers really don’t matter.

Sustained Oppression

Most adults would probably define bullying not in so many words but in gut-wrenching memories dredged up from childhood. Social psychologists, on the other hand, tend to be more clinical. Many define bullying as psychological violence; a sustained oppression that strips a person of control and dignity.

This brings up an important point: Bullying is not limited to physical violence. It is a prolonged pattern of negative and repeated behaviors that overwhelm the target, degrading him or her to the point of powerlessness. It is an imbalance of power that, over time, wears down the victim. Bullying is a silent epidemic, one reserved for those moments when the watchful eyes of authority figures are turned elsewhere. Victims are usually reluctant to tell school officials or even their own parents.

Schools know this, so in an attempt to stamp out the problem at its source, they are trying a variety of interventions. Some have implemented zero-tolerance programs to punish any instance of bullying so as to scare the perpetrators into civility. Other schools take a more proactive approach, seeking to establish a climate in which students look out for each other’s best interests. Some schools train peer mediators to resolve conflicts. But these well-intended tactics seem, at best, contrived and unrealistic. Bullies go on terrorizing in private, and with little recompense.

Fertile Ground

Who is teaching children these behaviors? Surprising though it sounds, society may well be giving bullying a tacit green light through the expectations we place on our youth.

Surprising though it sounds, society may well be giving bullying a tacit green light through the expectations we place on our youth. 

While any number of factors could be blamed for the culture of bullying in which today’s children find themselves, competition seems key. Australian psychologists Ken Rigby and Phillip T. Slee, experts on children’s peer relations, attribute the prevalence of harassment in schools, in part, to the competitive ethos of the education system. Students vying for top marks on tests, choice positions of responsibility, and acceptance letters to the finest universities turn their attentions inward, leaving little room for compassion for the targets of bullying. After all, if the targets shrink into the background, the pool of competitors is thinned. So the oppressors continue, uncontested.

There are other contributing factors, of course. A wide range of researchers, psychologists, educators, politicians and special-interest groups have studied the phenomenon, and the Internet is brimming with sites reporting new findings and offering new ways to combat the problem. Some point to peer norms, technology and the media as causes for bullying: bullies view television violence; they play violent video games; they have fewer adult role models and more negative peer influences.

But perhaps these modern influences only support harassment, while the cause lies much deeper. A desire to come out on top may be a common aspect of human nature, but those who become bullies seem to have a particularly acute desire for dominance.

Parents can play a crucial role in preventing their children from becoming bullies, and an equally important role in protecting their children.

Whatever the cause, parents can play a crucial role in preventing their children from becoming bullies, and an equally important role in protecting their children. It’s true that parents of harassed children can feel powerless. Take Karl Peart’s father, who lamented the fact that he was unable to protect his own son. His pain is not unique.

Psychologists insist, however, that parents can help in significant ways. They encourage them to respond with positive attitudes, empowering their children by offering alternatives to accepting the unfair treatment. For example, rather than suggesting that the bullied child respond with violence or aggression, parents should help recruit friends to support their child. Parents can encourage their children to brush off cruel comments, avoid anger and surround themselves with allies. Such strategies help to bolster the child’s self-respect while building a shield against the barbs of the bully.

Is It Really So Bad?

Rigby has noticed a trend of resistance to the view that bullying is harmful to children. Some adults proudly recall experiences with bullies and deny that they suffered in any way, while some students in one of Rigby’s Australian studies claimed that being victims of harassment actually made them tougher.

So what are the effects of bullying? How do the targets fare as they grow into adulthood? Not surprisingly, the answers show that in the main, the bullied don’t feel improved by the experience.

Dan Olweus, a Norwegian pioneer in the study of bullying, found that the targets may lose their self-esteem and develop long-term emotional and social hang-ups.

Kidscape, a U.K.-based charity for the prevention of bullying and abuse, notes that childhood harassment not only affects self-esteem into adulthood, it also hinders adults’ ability to make friends and to find success in further education and in careers. Perhaps more shocking is the finding of a Kidscape survey that 46 percent of respondents who had been bullied contemplated suicide, compared to 7 percent of those who had not.

And what about the bullies? Do they outgrow their behavior? William Pollack, clinical psychologist and author of Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood, fears that today’s boy bully is often tomorrow’s adult violent offender. At the same time, he points out that boys are no more hard-wired for aggression than are girls.

Olweus’s research found that 8-year-old bullies are five times more likely than other 8-year-olds to have a criminal record by the age of 30. An American study reached a similar conclusion. It reported that childhood bullies have a 1-in-4 chance of having a criminal record by age 30, while children who do not bully others have a 1-in-20 chance. The studies also suggest that childhood bullies are more likely to have children who copy their aggressive behavior.

Rigby sums up the grim results: “Unfortunately, some children learn only too well how to dominate others by foul means rather than by fair, and sadly begin to enjoy doing so, setting a pattern for how they will behave as adults. Meanwhile other children, more easily dominated, suffer miserably, often in silence, and develop a victim mentality that they may be unable to shake off.”

Into the Workplace

It’s a sad reality that domineering behavior is not limited to the younger generation. While some childhood bullies turn to a life a violent crime, the likelihood is that most will enter society as productive adults. But as these individuals grow up and enter the workplace, their influence may simply become more sophisticated, taking the form of what might be called emotional terrorism.

Workplace Bullying

According to psychologists Gary Namie and Ruth Namie, workplace bullying is “psychological violence” and a “mix of verbal and strategic assaults to prevent the Target from performing work well.” (They prefer to use the term target over the more commonly used victim.)

The control exercised by the bully is “typically a combination of deliberate humiliation and the withholding of resources that the Target requires to succeed in the workplace.” As a result of pressure from the bully’s campaign of unremitting stressors, say the Namies, the target’s health (both physical and psychological), social support network and career are jeopardized.

They assert that workplace bullies share many of the same traits as domestic abusers. Bullying is violence, but instead of leaving cuts and bruises, it can destroy a person’s health and career.

Beyond schoolyard bullying? Definitely.

Meanwhile, those who were targets of others in childhood show a higher risk of experiencing harassment from coworkers—the workplace bullies who developed their patterns of oppressive behavior as children.

Psychologists Ruth and Gary Namie, authors of The Bully at Work, launched a campaign in 1998 to end the bullies’ reign of terror in American businesses. Their founding of the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute launched the adult antibullying movement in the United States. The husband-and-wife team began to travel across the United States and Canada educating companies about the detrimental effects of office harassment and bullying. Their appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show and other television programs thrust them into almost celebrity status among office underdogs, and the Namies are now considered leaders in the fight against workplace bullying. Their work has opened a dialogue on the subject, an exchange that is gaining interest around the world.

In the United Kingdom, the Health and Safety Executive published a document listing causes of stress at work, and stated that bullying can be one of them. If employers ignore complaints of harassment from workers, the company can be sued for damages and be accused of breach of contract, in that workers are legally entitled to a feeling of safety on the job.

We’ve been led to believe that strength equals virtue, and that those who do not dominate must accept being dominated.

As common as bullying is on an individual level, whether at school or at work, it is no less a problem between nations. We’ve been led to believe that strength equals virtue, and that those who do not dominate must accept being dominated.

Social Darwinism asserts that “survival of the fittest” goes well beyond the animal kingdom—that it applies to races and cultures as well. In such a world, the weak or the less educated can only suffer. Bullying just helps the process along.

Our natural instinct to favor the dominant, despite feelings of sympathy for the underdog, runs contrary to the way of peace. If we desire peace in our daily lives, we must take a hard look at our own beliefs and practices. Do we oppress others to get our own way? Do we sit on the sidelines, watching the drama with a perverse desire to see some action? The capture of Saddam Hussein, a bully in his own right, was repeatedly broadcast on television, offering viewers a chance to gloat over the former dictator’s humiliation. Do we have an insatiable appetite for such scenes?

A History of Oppression

This fall from civility is not a modern phenomenon. While we can point fingers at the media, schools and video games, we cannot deny that oppression, in whatever form, has been around for millennia.

One ancient source detailing that ages-old story is the Hebrew Scriptures. The writer of Ecclesiastes, for example, wrote that he had seen too many human beings slip into patterns of oppression and domination: “So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter” (Ecclesiastes 4:1, King James Version).

Who comforts the oppressed in our modern world? Some believe that more regulations will bring us the necessary relief. For example, a document published by the California Department of Education decreed that “schools have a moral obligation to ensure that every student experiences a sense of belonging, respect, dignity, and safety.”

But should we really need public documents to tell us that belonging, respect, dignity and safety are basic needs for everyone? Has our world drifted so far from fundamental principles that civility now has to be legislated?

Further, can law change the human heart? Because our instinct for self-preservation and the will to compete with others come from within, change must occur from the inside too. And even the most well-meaning rules can’t bring that about.

We would do well to ponder some other passages from the Bible if we want to learn how to deal with our tendency to oppress others. The apostle James, for example, wrote: “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well. . . . For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:8, 13).

Turning away from oppression—from bullying others to get our way—can only produce positive results. In fact, extending mercy instead of oppression is one of the basic paths to peace. Consider the words of the prophet Micah: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).

Through these and other basic principles that we’re encouraged to live by, we can find not only comfort but the means to human dignity for everyone. The Bible provides a glimpse of that kind of world, and it tells us what we each need to do to make that world a reality.

We all want to live in a world free from the oppression of those who exert tyrannical power over others. Indeed, we cry out for justice and mercy. We cry out for a world in which our children feel safe and respected—where they can learn, grow and live in peace, without looking over their shoulders to avoid the attacks of others—a world without suicides and shooting sprees. We cry out, but it is a cry that will never end until we each assess and address the ways in which we may be oppressing others.