Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Bullies on the Bus?
Once again bullying is making headlines and this time around it's a 68-year old bus monitor in upstate New York taunted by a pack of middle-school boys wilding from the back seats. "Making the Bus Monitor Cry," the video of the heinous behavior recorded on one of the boy's cell phones, went viral on YouTube. Over 2 million views. The public has donated over $650,000 in donations for Karen Klein, the grandmother and bus monitor, on indiegogo.com. If you've been unplugged for the last week or so you could be excused for missing the entire social media-facilitated saga not to mention Ms. Klein's appearance on the Today show or Anderson Cooper's offer to send her and nine of her friends and family members to Disneyland.
Yes the middle-school boys displayed atrocious behavior. Yes they cussed, threatened and relentlessly humiliated her. They tormenting her over her son's suicide. They should be punished. Their parents should be forced to watch that video over and over. Better yet they and their obnoxious offspring should be forced to endure Disneyland with Karen Klein and her possee. I'm thinking three days of non-stop giant turkey legs and It's a Small World.
However dreadful the bus incident it's worth asking whether it is in fact bullying as every news source has indicated though a commentator at CNN pointed out Karen Klein is "probably not the first face that comes to mind when you think of a poster child for bullying." It is an usual case. An adult verbally harassed by kids. An adult in a supposed position of authority. All captured on video.
Yet is it really bullying?
Do we want to call bullying any behavior that harms or even more difficult to assess potentially causes harm?
What constitutes harm?
How long does the defilement have to last? Several minutes? Days?
What about the status of people involved?
When does plain bad behavior turn into bullying? Where's the line?
The conventional stereotype of a higher status bully exerting power over a vulnerable lower status peer doesn't exactly mesh with the bus incident. As a social psychologist by training I see it not so much as bullying but a classic example of group behavior or Groups Gone Wild, in other words the atrocities that people commit as members of groups they would never dare or really much think about committing alone.
It's also worth asking if Karen Klein was "bullied" because there seems to be several different connotations evolving. There's the school yard bully using physical violence. There's the digital slanderer on Facebook. There's the mean prom-queen wanna-be jockeying for social position. To confuse psychological researchers and school principals there's the kid who is both bully and bullied. Also, the enraged individuals making death threats against the boys on the bus. Surely this so-called bullying is a complex, multifaceted net of behaviors not easily summarized no matter how outraged we may be nor how large our donations nor how much we'd like to tie it in to the current political climate.
So I have to disagree with New York Times columnist Charles Blow who says "bullying has become boilerplate." As in same old, same old. It's not a cut and dry model from the 15th century as I've indicated above but I do see his point that people have always harbored a propensity for cruelty. But Blow reaches in using the bus incident to argue we're seeing a spike of bullying in politics and American life (despite providing no evidence of this rise) because of our rapidly changing culture. Basically rich white people especially men being unseated and overrun by minorities. Social scientists have been proclaiming this the cause of discrimination, prejudice and aggression for decades if not centuries.
Ye olde Concern for Their Social Status in a Rapidly Changing World Explanation doesn't really fit with the bus kids.
Frankly, I'm finding it difficult to understand how 13-year old boys on their way to school would be fearing for their own endangered futures in the new global economy (i.e. smart, educated girls from Asia and Latin America stomping on their career prospects) though clearly they should be. Obviously bullying is not a one-size, one-motivation fits all.
Because I've recently visited the Tower of London and learned the meaning of hanged, drawn and quartered (don't look it up) the sentiment violence and hostility is more prevalent today in political affairs and elsewhere doesn't resonate with me. Nor deep thinker Steven Pinker.
Moreover, there are some researchers in fact who believe bullying hasn't increased. Some actually think it's waned over the last few decades but their opinions aren't dramatic enough to fit into the news story, especially not when there's the latest survey citing the number of kids bullied (though there's not room for the stats from 3 decades ago). Nick Gillepsie had an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal this past April suggesting there's no rise in bullying. Time's John Cloud also questioned an epidemic rise too in March, The Myths of Bullying.
BTW, as far as Mr. Blow's column Bullies on the Bus, I'm having a hard time squaring the bus monitor's harassment with Republicans booing gay soldiers or Newt Gringrich lamblasting the poor. Though clearly outrageous, these are quite different incidents. I hate to nitpick, he often makes good arguments but I think we need to clarify not muddy the definition of bullying. Point out the differences among scenarios, the similarities, etc. I don't think we can make much head way in addressing it if we don't know what it is or what motivates it. Or if we're talking about different animals so to speak.
I'm parsing over the definition (or many definitions) of bullying also because the media and the school counselor's summer reading list is teeming with reports of a resurgence of bullying, an epidemic of sorts. Your school counselor probably also has a bullying prevention handbook to memorize too. In addition to a relatively new industry springing up to teach educators and counselors how to prevent bullying (as well they should but it's unfortunately based on litte empirical evidence - if only we could learn how) documentaries are being filmed, organizations formed, songs written, op-eds written, laws written.
In most states the definition matters from a legal standpoint. Pinning down bullying is kind of like discrimination - we all think we know what it is until we try to define it let alone establish legal protection from it or ever more cumbersome, prosecute it. Personally I spent at least five years thinking, arguing and writing about the definition of discrimination and easily could have spent five more had I not mercifully finished my dissertation.
Go ahead, try. Better yet, try to define bullying.
New Jersey says it is not only a harmful act towards another child at school but as any behavior that "infringes" on another child's "rights" at school. So yes my state casts a wide, ambiguous net when it comes to identifying bullies. In fact The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights here in Jersey is considered to be the toughest anti-bullying law in the country.
What do you think constitutes bullying?