November 22, 2010 | By | 7 Replies More

I’ve been hesitant to write about this, because the tendency to indulge self pity creeps in around the edges.   I’m hesitant because for me this is personal.   But in the past year we’ve seen a rise in attention being paid to a great human tradition—bullying.

A gay youth outed by his peers committed suicide.  Other gays under a microscope all over the country have found themselves driven to the edge.  National “movements” to deal with this problem have sprung up like mushrooms after a spring rain.  The last time we witnessed this level of discussion about bullying was after a couple of disaffected youths murdered several of their peers at their high school and then took their own lives, leaving behind ample testaments that what had driven them to do this had been years of bullying.

A recent episode of Glee dealt with the subject, the lone out gay boy in the school having come under the daily assault by an oversized pituitary case who, for no apparent reason, had decided to make life hell for the outsider.

I suppose it was this episode that prompted me to write about this.  Because it indulged some pop psychology, which I stress is not baseless, to explain the bully’s behavior—he, too, was a closeted gay who hated himself for it.  The idea being that we hate that which we are which we cannot accept in ourselves.  Rather than deal with it  in ourselves, we direct the anger outward and target the reviled trait in others.  This, of course, has much to back it up.  Some of the most rabid Nazis in the Third Reich turned out to be deeply closeted Jews.

In the most extreme cases, this passes as an explanation for bullying, and it has the charm of comforting most of us that, really, it is aberrant behavior, that the majority of us aren’t like that.

Well.  Bullshit.

Bullying is a set of behaviors a great many kids do indulge at some point.  Most grow out of it, some never do it, but to suggest that it is tied in all cases to some deep-rooted self-loathing overlooks the psychology of the playground at a fundamental level.  To see why this is true, you have only to ask two questions:

One—if the vast majority of kids are not so afflicted and are not bullies, why doesn’t the majority stop the behavior in the one or two who indulge it?  It’s not like kids don’t come together in groups to control aberrant behavior in other ways.

Two—if the vast majority of kids are not themselves bullies or at least in sympathy with the bully, why is the victim the one scorned and blamed for his or her state by everyone in the group?

There’s an old term which seems to have fallen into disuse when applied to school yard behavior—pecking order.  Humans fall into hierarchical relations naturally.  One’s position in the group is determined by a wide range of traits and behaviors, but one thing is clear—no one wants to be on the bottom of the pecking order.  Those who are receive the fewest opportunities for positive interaction with the group.  To determine who the low-rung members are, tests are performed, and one of them has to do with ones ability to deal with the rough and tumble of school yard physical confrontations.  Bullies actually perform the function of policing the group to weed out the—to use a once-common term used in these situations—wusses.  The majority will allow the behavior to see how individuals cope and whether or not their reactions merit any kind of respect.  In this sense, bullying is a function of group dynamics.

That’s the most value-free way I can describe it.  While the majority doesn’t actively encourage bullying, it does nothing to actively discourage it within the boundaries of a self-defined group.  If the behavior itself were utterly unacceptable, it could be quashed by numbers.  No bully is going to stand up to five, six, or ten others banding together to end his (or her) behavior.  How can I say this?  Because bullies who cross from one group into another often are met with precisely this group response.

I’ve seen this.

Now, here’s the part where I have to be careful not get weepy about water long gone under several bridges.

I was at the bottom of the hierarchy almost from the day I entered school until I went to high school.  Eight years of being bullied—consistently, spontaneously, at one time or another by just about every member of my class.  Why?  Because they could.

Here is what the psychoanalysis seems always to miss, what perhaps we don’t want to acknowledge about Our Children.  Bullying is in its most common forms a power issue.  It’s kids flexing their muscles, lording it over others, testing boundaries, asserting dominance.  It doesn’t always appear to be bullying, because often it doesn’t take physical form, at least not the form of punching and kicking.  Often it can just be labeling and subsequent ostracization.  But the pay-off is in terms of power.  The bully gets off on it.  It is fun for them.  They are not doing this out of some hidden self-loathing—they like watching the victim cringe or cry, they like hearing the laughter of others who are watching, and they like the momentary mantle of superiority knocking someone down confers.

The good news is, this is a phase that most grow out of.  The bad news is, because we don’t want to recognize the potential for any one of our kids to indulge this behavior, it doesn’t get dealt with except on the extreme level of pathological bullies, budding sociopaths who do have other issues.

I was passed from one bully to another for eight years.  There were a couple who were consistent in their treatment of me, but in truth most of my classmates took a turn at teasing, taunting, and torturing that Tiedemann Kid who cried at the merest slap and couldn’t fight back.  Most of them only engaged in the mistreatment for a semester or even one entire school year, then it got old and they quit—but they never apologized and they never acknowledged they were wrong and they never did anything to stop it when someone else started in.

Image by permission of Dreamstime.com

I was a perpetual outsider all through school.  In high school I stayed aloof and developed an early reputation of someone who punched back, so it simply never started, but I was rarely part of the major groups.  In grade school, however, it was eight years of misery, knowing each day I was likely to be someone’s punching bag or the brunt of a joke everyone was in on.  I could catalogue the abuses, but I won’t.  Suffice it to say that none of my peers saw me as anything other than weird and because I was physically unable at the time to defend myself effectively I was the class target.  They enjoyed it.

This is the salient fact of bullying that requires acknowledgment, because it plays into so much else that is simply accepted behavior in our society.    Let me give you one rather extreme example.

President Obama recently award the Medal of Honor to Sergeant Salvadore Giunta, who risked his life to save others.  He is, in fact, the first survivor of the action for which he is receiving the medal in recent history—most MOH winners are deceased at the time of the award.  Brian Fischer, who is “director of issue analysis” for the American Family Association, has publicly condemned the award, claiming “We have feminized the Medal of Honor.”

“So the question is this: when are we going to start awarding the Medal of Honor once again for soldiers who kill people and break things so our families can sleep safely at night?”

The only way in which this makes sense to me, coming from a so-called Christian, is in the context of the school yard, where hierarchy is everything and status is based on the willingness to hurt and inflict damage in order to keep the identity of the group consistent and outsiders consistently out.  Mr. Fischer, whatever else he may be, is a bully, and those who agree with his sentiments are the rest of the class passively approving his behavior because no one wants to be associated with the wimp.

Perhaps a stretch, but not much of one, and until we acknowledge that we reward and even expect such behavior even in our children—adults who tell their crying, hurt kids to “shrug it off” or “man up” and exhibit loss of respect for any child who can’t hold his or her own against arbitrary cruelty—we have little chance at dealing effectively with bullying and will have to live with “adult” manifestations of that mindset.  While there may well be some Darwinian advantage in the test of mettle involved, within the context of a society of laws it becomes a pressure cooker in which broken spirits and twisted psyches stew, waiting for a trigger that will unleash unexpected and unwanted reactions.

So while I appreciate the attempt at the public level to rationalize the phenomenon of bullying,  I believe such depictions are beside the point.  The self-loathing-as-motive has traction with certain people, there is much to be said for it, but it side-steps the broader problem, which is that bullying is a normal part of the group dynamic through which we all move.  And understanding goes only so far.

It is an unfortunate fact that bullying is most often stopped, at least on the individual level, with violence.  The day I finally belted a bully and knocked him to the floor was the day it all stopped.  All of it.  It was dramatic.  It was as if I had finally proven myself.  No one picked on me after that.

Want to talk about self-loathing?


Category: American Culture, Culture, Current Events, Education, Ingroup/Outgroup, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (7)

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  1. Cathy Sander says:

    I have to admit that I acted as one of the bullies back in high school…I constantly felt the need to prove my "superiority" to another person [names not revealed for privacy reasons] by using a variety of psychological tactics, like overwhelming the opposition with insults and slyly persuading overs to join my group, rather than someone else. It's schoolyard politics all the way down for me. Fortunately, though, both of us eventually stopped bickering.

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    I was the smallest, softest-spoken, prettiest kid in my class until my mid teens. Not a good thing for a boy. My approach to surviving the bullies was to delay and avoid, until some authority figure could catch them. When that failed, I found that lying there quietly until they got tired of kicking took away their pleasure. When they gave up, I proceeded as if nothing had happened. They moved on to a target who would show the scars. Taggers avoid a wall that won't hold their mark.

    Sure, I went without a few lunches, and had to keep a supply of spare writing implements and such. But by playing the unflappable omega, I stopped getting picked on pretty quickly by each new set of bullies.

    Of course, the damage was done. As an unaffiliated outsider, I also didn't have friends or other social support. But I was not aware that I needed such until well into adulthood.

    But bullying was not the sole cause of my isolation. I had trouble communicating with my peers, always puzzled by their lack of vocabulary and other understandings. This may be part of why I was a target. I was targeted as a "Kraut", a "Polack", a "Jew", and a "Honky". (My parents had unintentionally taught me to cloak our atheism, a worse appellation than "Jew"). By high school, the jocks called me "Perfessor", the brains thought me a "head", and the heads didn't care. Everyone could find a characteristic to use to set me as other. And I let them.

    Yet there is a bit of bully in me. My quick retorts can be unintentionally blistering. Words seem to be my Weapon Of Choice. It is not an appealing character trait.

  3. Zoevinly says:

    Many of the safeguards created by our American society, such as the Bill of Rights, the constitutional separation of church and state, and our criminal laws were put in place to curb bullying behavior. As you pointed out, bullying is a human behavior, and group dynamics allow weaker individuals – individuals with less integrity than yourself – to build and raise the bully pulpit. Unfortunately, schoolyard wars extend to national forums.

    To be sure, Bryan Fischer's declaration of "open season" against all animals in Yellowstone Park in response to a grizzly bear attack is paradigmatic of the bully-response that he has advocated repeatedly in the media. Bryan Fischer has taken advantage of his pulpit at the American Family Association to bully homosexuals, by claiming that Hitler and his ilk were all homosexuals, and to vilify Muslims, by comparing Islam to the Klu Klux Klan. It's hard to imagine that a Stanford philosophy major could come up with this type of inflammatory, baseless sound-byte until you consider the possibility that Fischer sees his role in society as the ultimate patriarch and arbiter of moral rectitude (bully). Characterizing Sergeant Giunta's Medal of Honor as "feminine" is Fischer's way of saying that only bullies deserve a war medal.

    Ironically, Fischer’s use of “feminine” in this context seems strangely appropriate. As a feminist, I take issue with Fischer’s obvious disgust toward the feminization of a war medal, and his hostility toward femininity in the public realm. But if he wants to call the decoration – of an individual who saved the lives of his comrades and emerged from battle with his own life intact – a feminine honor for a feminine act, I’ll go ahead and second that emotion.

    Mark, your analysis of group dynamics is right on. While I’m sorry you had to punch back and engage with the bully on his terms in order to end the bullying, it's clear from your post that you have the thoughtfulness and compassion to help human society rise above Hobbes' "war, where every man is enemy to every man," and life can be succinctly described as "short, nasty and brutish." Do you think that your childhood and teenage experiences contributed to your worldview and your ability to empathize with minorities?

  4. Zoevinly writes:—"Do you think that your childhood and teenage experiences contributed to your worldview and your ability to empathize with minorities?"

    Obviously. I have an overdeveloped response to fairness issues, a profound distrust of authority for its own sake, and a knee-jerk disdain for anti-intellectualism.

    But I think it should be noted that a lot of people growing up victimized in similar manner tend to idolize, secretly or otherwise, the institutions that seem to shut them out—it takes a further walk along the road of self-awareness to understand that wanting to belong to the club that barred you is in itself a kind of self-abuse and a contributing factor to the ongoing culture of "winners" that produces scenarios like the ones to which I refer. Even while I was being kicked around I very much wanted to be accepted by those doing the kicking and be part of their group. The value I placed on that "carrot" kept me in range of the "stick" much to their amusement. I didn't get over that aspect of things until well into adulthood.

  5. Zoevinly says:

    Mark, are your "overdeveloped response to fairness issues" and "profound distrust of authority for its own sake" a liability? Do you think it's unfair or unwise for you to harbor a "knee-jerk disdain for anti-intellectualism"? I only ask because you ended your post with a remark about self-loathing, and don't sound as comfortable with your humanist tendencies as one would expect.

    Perhaps there's another reason that I ask. Sometimes, my own words seem to provoke a knee-jerk disdain for young idealists. I am unsure how to react because I am guilty of being both young and idealistic. If you're professing discomfort with your thoughtful self, can I trust that avoiding the MacGuffin of acceptance is the best way?

    Forgive me for following the "carrot" of understanding you better. If nothing else, it is meant as a compliment.

  6. No, not liabilities. Not in the least, especially since age and experience have tempered my expressions in response.

    The self-loathing comes from having been forced to the level of the bully to end it. There is a saying by Isaac Asimov that I've always used as a guideline.

    "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent."

    I'm not sure it's entirely true—like any maxim it has exceptions—but I've found it largely true. At the time I ended my persecution, as it were, I was just not smart enough to do it without using my fists.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    I was one of those "good" kids who did nothing while 5-7 boys in my 6th through 8th grade classes tormented a girl whose sin was to try to push back when they taunted her. She was a bit gangly, wore glasses and worked hard to get good grades. She protested when she was bullied, and she was rewarded with ever-increasing doses of taunts. The nuns who ran the grade school didn't know what to do about it.

    Fast-forward almost 25 years. I became friends with that girl, by then a grown woman. She vividly remembered the hundreds of taunts. She ended up in a hospital for an extended period for depression as a teenager. I won't pretend that the cause and effect was that simple, but I remember the incidents painfully well, and in my mind, long-term damage was done by the taunts. I knew that I would be taunted too if I spoke up (even though I never joined in the taunting). I feel guilty to this day, that I didn't try to stop things. I should have done something. I should have talked to the teachers. I should have spoke kindly to the girl more often. The rule should be zero tolerance as to bullying and group taunting. There is no reason for any child to be bullied. It is not at all the joke it is claimed to be, even when there is no physical violence.

    Now for one other incident with a very different outcome. In high school there was a boy who punched some of my friends several times. He happened to be in my English class. And I just happened to place an order from a novelty company one time, and I brought my new fake vomit and handshake buzzer to school. For only an extra 25 cents, the novelty company added a bonus packet (the size of a sugar packet) of "itching powder." It had bits of feathers, dust, fiberglass and other things in it. I brought that to school too. It was the day of a big standardized test. The bully showed up and he very much was an ass, as always. My buddy (an extremely kind and courteous kid) was furious at the bully for yet another recent incident, and I had shown my buddy the itching powder. He noticed that the bully was not wearing his tie (per our dress code) and, in fact, the bully had his top couple of shirt buttons unbuttoned.

    My buddy walked up to the bully, behind his back, while the students mingled around prior to the class. He deftly emptied the little pack of "itching powder" into the bully's back, through the unbuttoned shirt collar. Nothing happened. We sat down and started taking the test. Nothing happened.

    Twenty minutes later, right in the middle of the test, the bully started scratching his back, or at least trying to reach the middle of his back. The scratching got more intense, and he starting moaning and vigorously trying to reach his back. This went on and on, until he got up and asked to teacher whether he could use the restroom "because my back itches."

    I doubt that we screwed up the bully's career by what we did. He got bad grades, as a rule. Then again, maybe I contributed to his academic demise. I do know that my focus was on all of that vigorous scratching and moaning–it lasted for at least 15 minutes. My buddy and I kept this a secret until after the bully dropped out of the school months later.

    Would I do it again? I don't know. Give me a bully and a packet of itching powder and we'll all find out.

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