Bullying is the operation of the American normative code so that outliers can be ostracized and the majority can be kept in line.  Showing horrible outcomes of bullying actually drives home to kids the need to conform.

 

The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, March 14, 2011. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

Bullying Is as American as Apple Pie

Bullying is the operation of the American normative code so that insiders can maintain their control (often through surrogates), outliers can be ostracized, and the majority can be kept in line. Showing horrible outcomes of bullying actually drives home to kids the need to conform.

As with virtually all quick-track remedies for social problems, the White House conference on bullying Thursday failed to hit the mark. The President's reporting that he himself was "not immune" as a kid -- meant to be supportive of bullying victims -- will have zero impact.

The standard bromides are "Tell your kids not to bully or to allow bullying in their presence. Look how hurtful bullying is -- it drove this child to suicide! You don't want that on your conscience. Cool people like the President oppose bullying."

None of these message are useful. They have no impact. If they did, with anti-bullying program after program, admonition after admonition, warning after warning, why does bullying persist?

Kids don't usually bully people to hurt them, nor do they permit bullying in their presence because they're sadistic or cruel. They -- bullies and bystanders alike -- do it to feel good about themselves. And that's a tough feeling to tackle.

Furthermore, for kids to stand up for a victim would invite being ostracized and marginalized themselves -- which virtually no kids can withstand. In a sense, recounting stories of the horrors of bullying serves as a warning to children of what awaits them if they dare to intervene in the bullying process.

On March 7 NBC's Kate Snow produced a show for "Dateline," titled "My Kid Would Never Bully," involving students, hidden cameras and actors playing bullies and victims. The teens were told they were participating in a fashion (girls) or athletic (boys) exercise, while the cool-kid actors bullied the vulnerable-kid actors.

Oh, and the parents of the real kids (versus the actors) watched the proceedings with Snow. All of the parents expressed optimism that their kids wouldn't allow any bullying, because the parents themselves had told (admonished) their kids not to permit it.

And still, virtually all the real kids stood by while the "mean" girls mocked a girl with offbeat taste in clothing and a heavy girl, and the tough boys physically intimidated the geek -- including homophobic slurs. Very disturbing -- especially since the actors playing the victims had experienced exactly that kind of bullying.

One boy actually spoke up and objected. I don't know about his mother, but I almost cried. He was African-American and non-macho, so perhaps these traits helped him to identify with the victim. But none of the other boys stood up for the kid being attacked.

There was a worse tableau. The mean girls praised the other girls -- let them into the "in" club -- if they joined in the bullying, and one girl really got into it. (Later she was shown crying because she felt guilty for having done so.)

The mothers were chastened, like parents in court when their kids have committed some antisocial act like vandalism.

What this is about is that many -- if not most -- teenagers are walking around feeling acutely vulnerable themselves. Bullying gives one group of kids the chance to boost their self-esteem by belittling others. And the larger group passively consents -- sometimes even joins in, even if it violates their own values -- as a way to attain a higher social niche for themselves.

And nothing can combat the power of that kind of esteem-booster for most children.

In fact, the same is true for adults.

The sad news is that bullying -- demeaning outsiders and "others" as a sign of belonging and in order to feel better about oneself -- is as American as apple pie.