On Bullying

You, with your words like knives
And swords and weapons that you use against me,
You, have knocked me off my feet again,
Got me feeling like I’m nothing.
You, with your voice like nails on a chalkboard
Calling me out when I’m wounded.
You, pickin’ on the weaker man.
Well you can take me down,
With just one single blow.
But you don’t know, what you don’t know,

Someday, I’ll be living in a big old city,
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean.
Someday, I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me,
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean.
Why you gotta be so mean?

You, with your switching sides,
And your walk by lies and your humiliation
You, have pointed out my flaws again,
As if I don’t already see them.
I walk with my head down,
Trying to block you out cause I’ll never impress you
I just wanna feel okay again.

I bet you got pushed around,
Somebody made you cold,
But the cycle ends right now,
You can’t lead me down that road,
You don’t know, what you don’t know

~ Taylor Swift, “Mean”

David Brooks’ newly revived blog over at The New York Times provides a reliable stream of interpretations of psychological and sociological academic studies, highlighting their relevance to the layperson.

In this post, Brooks asks a question that I’ve been trying to find an answer to since childhood:  Are bullies thoughtless or careless? 

The study in question suggests the latter–from the abstract:

Relative to victims, both bullies and defenders showed advanced moral competence, integrating information about beliefs and outcomes in judging the moral permissibility of an action; victims showed delayed moral competence, focusing on outcome information alone. Paradoxically, despite the advanced moral competence of bullies, they were woefully deficient with respect to their moral compassion when compared to both victims and defenders.

In English:  Bullies may be able to tell the difference between right and wrong even better than their victims, but they don’t give a rat’s ass about how their actions affect other people’s feelings.

Having been on the receiving end of my fair share of bullying, this part seems obvious.  So let’s assume this is the case — kids bully because they lack compassion, not because they lack moral competence.  What should be done?

Brooks’ conclusion is:

This reinforces a growing body of research that suggests knowing right from wrong is not necessarily connected to behaving rightly or wrongly. Moral lectures don’t work well, but telling people stories designed to arouse compassion might.

This raises the question of whether compassion can be taught (as Brooks suggests), or whether it is instilled (or not) by personal experience, or even if it is something we are born with (or not).

My wife considers me to be a generally compassionate person. Could this be the reason I was the target of bullying? Or, did bullying result in my sympathizing with other targets, rather than with bullies and defenders (the cool kids)? Or, did my parents’ heavy-handed insistence on doing the right thing, the moral competence side of the equation, require compassionate behavior and thereby breed a compassionate attitude?

This chicken-and-egg causation may illuminate the discussion from a human development perspective, but I think the important takeaway from this research is that we need to better understand how to effectively educate all students about the consequences of bullying. In order to do that, aggressive actions need to actually have consequences for the bullies. If I came into work today and called a co-worker a faggot, I could be fired and/or sued for sexual harassment. But in a high school hallway, it simply comes with the territory — there are usually no consequences. Then we wonder why so many people in my generation are diagnosed with anxiety and depression and prescribed Prozac. Certainly not because we spent our formative years shitting on each other’s self-esteem, oh no.

The bullying I put up with in school back in the 1990s seems quaint and harmless compared to what I’ve read about in the papers — cyberbullying, sexting, spreading disgusting rumors via the Internet and cell phones, without stopping to think twice about the consequences. The technology automatic displays of aggression, discouraging compassionate reflection.  This 21st-century bullying has me genuinely concerned about teenagers today and in subsequent generations.  If stories like this one — a Western Massachusetts girl commit suicide last year after being targeted by ruthless bullying — don’t instill compassion, what will work?

Fortunately, schools and State governments are starting to catch up and address bullying more seriously. And, there is evidence that recent tragedies involving bullies pushing kids over the edge garnering national attention is prompting kids to develop more compassionate attitudes. But, we know bullies are with us to stay. Finding an answer to this question, how do you teach compassion, as well as ensuring that bullies incur consequences and accountability in their schools, is key.


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