Tuesday, October 18, 2016

More thoughts on bullying

Last week I wrote about bullying on my Wednesday Factoid prompted blog, but I have some thoughts on its mechanics now. And it happens to be National Bullying Prevention Month, so here are my thoughts.

In recommendations regarding bullying, we usually see a lot of commentary on what you should do if you are bullied, and a little bit of weak commentary on how bullies shouldn't bully without much examination as to why they do. But I want to talk about the enablers.

The victim blamers.

I touched on this last week when I mentioned several times that adults assured me I was being picked on because a boy liked me. This goes hand in hand with any comment that responds to "I'm being bullied" with "they're doing this because of X." Trying to explain the bullying, and trying to either frame it as inevitable or frame it as something you, the bullied person, have a responsibility to handle properly. Or else it will just keep happening to you. You, who did not choose your bully, but were chosen by your bully. You, who presumably did nothing to deserve the bullying or negative attention, and you, who now get to deal with other people suggesting you have caused the bullying by one of your own actions or inactions.

The message this sends is that bullying is a natural occurrence that just "happens"--it, unlike whatever you did to deserve it, is not a decision. It's just Thing That Happens, and there's no use in addressing it at the source. Bullying will happen unless You Do Something About It, and it has to be the right thing, and it has to work, and if you won't handle it properly then hey, guess you'll just have to suffer.

I have been told as an adult and also as a child that the "answer" is "just ignore it" or "don't let him know he's getting to you" or "bully him back" or "laugh with him" or "stop letting it bother you" or "it's because you make yourself a target." Whenever I've had these things suggested to me as an adult (usually in more subtle ways), I instantly remember all the times I was shamed for not "handling it" as a child. It really hasn't changed, though I of course have these issues far less frequently. But even in adult life if I complain about a difficult work situation or discuss a bad experience with another adult talking to me in a disrespectful way, I still occasionally get told that it's because of something I'm doing to attract it.

I'm not sure if people understand they're essentially saying "You're not respectable, because if you were, people would respect you." I'm not sure if people understand they're reinforcing the bullies' ideology--that the bullying isn't something they make the decision to do, but something that happens to you if you're weak in a certain way. I'm not sure if people understand they're giving victims less power, not more.

In a different but sort of related situation, I had a recurring problem for a while in my young adulthood when I would visit someone else's home and get jumped on, scratched, and licked by a dog they would not control. I'm not really afraid of dogs (unless they are violent), but I don't really like touching them or interacting with them. I just kinda like watching them. But I do NOT like when they jump on me or lick me. I usually respond to this by turning around so the dog a) can't jump on my more tender areas and b) sees a signal I'm not interested in interacting. But during these times I was repeatedly told that the dog did this to me because I didn't preemptively say or do something I was supposed to do to stop them from jumping on me, or because the dog just wants to play awww why don't you just give him a scratch, or because the dog could inherently sense I was afraid (I was not).

Notice that the dog owner never acknowledged that it was okay for me to not like this behavior, and that they never acknowledged that they had the power to control their dog.

When you let someone undergo an experience they have been vocal about not enjoying, and you tell them it's happening to them because they did the wrong thing/failed to do the right thing/inherently cause the situation . . . congratulations, you're enabling bullying. Not that I would ordinarily want to compare a doggie to a bully, though. In human interactions, human bullies are making those decisions, and those with the power to put them on a leash don't do it. Usually it's because they either make noises about the bully's right to not be on a leash (irrespective of the bullied person's greater suffering) or because they don't believe or don't care that the bullied person is suffering at all. It's not that bad, I'm sure you've heard. And it's so inconvenient when we mind. If only we just liked or humored every dog that jumps on us and slobbers on us while ripping our shirts and leaving scratches on our skin. If only we said "no" in the right tone of voice that we were supposed to somehow know, or if only didn't attract enthusiastic dogs with our body language.

So my message isn't for the bullied people or the bullies themselves. It's for the enablers. The people who make bullied people feel there's no escape, or that they cause the bullying, or that they shouldn't complain about it if they're not willing to try (usually) impractical, superficial adjustments to their own behavior, or that they should fight the bully on their own terms so they'll never mess with someone again (ha, ha, ha). If you have advice, ask if they're looking for perspectives before you tell them what to do, and never phrase it as "why didn't you just X?" or "that's happening because you Y."

Express sympathy, and don't say anything that blames them for the behavior they're tolerating, even if you think you know why bullies react to it. Don't just tell them bullies are weak or are jealous of them or are interested in them romantically as an explanation of their behavior; this frames bullying as a force of nature. You might consider helping them look up resources, but don't dump judgmental advice on them in a way that makes them feel like standing up to bullying might be worse than the bullying itself. Or that you as their friend (or whatever you are) can't be trusted as an ally. You don't want to be one more person who wouldn't listen or wouldn't understand. You don't want to be one more person to tell them they're bullied because something in who they are is wrong, not because bullies decide to bully.

And yes, before anyone says it, conflict resolution skills can sometimes be helpful. It's not abusive or cruel to offer coping ideas or engagement techniques if the person is asking you what to do or seems open to your suggestions if you offer. What you want to avoid is making them feel like they deserve to be bullied unless they "handle it." You also want to avoid teaching them that they're a target, or that any trait they have is a natural magnet that they should just expect people to harass them for. People can get very self-conscious if they're trained to believe bullying types are instantly noticing something about them and zooming in on it to start torment. Not many people who are bullied react to this by "toughening up" or changing the traits that are changeable. Mostly they just end up losing more confidence, which--as you have probably noticed--makes them less prepared to handle if a bully targets them.

If you truly want to help bullying victims, don't make them feel responsible for their bullying. First and foremost, express sympathy and remind them they don't deserve this treatment, and secondly, identify the source of the bullying as the bully, not something they do to make it happen to them (e.g., "if you weren't so girly they wouldn't tease you," "your clothing choices make people think you're awkward," "if you didn't talk that way they'd have nothing to mock you for"). And if you're dealing with a child or someone who is being viciously bullied in a way that's potentially dangerous (e.g., it crosses the line into destruction of property, physically painful pranks, stealing personal items, or stalking), you might help them contact the proper authorities--supervisors, principals, or law enforcement.

And please, don't try some inspirational movie–inspired tactic like pushing them to show them who's boss by issuing a worse/more effective prank, getting the bully in trouble with a ruse to embarrass or shame them for something they didn't do, or harassing the bully yourself. This is not a good idea and doesn't help, even if movies usually show the bully getting theirs and then running away or swearing off bullying forever. Real bullies are vindictive people who hurt others for a variety of reasons, and not all of them do it because of lack of confidence, attempts at compensation, jealousy, or deep dissatisfaction with their own lives. You don't necessarily know why they do it, and you shouldn't pretend to know or prey on them for their weaknesses. Point is, if you try to get back at them, they will usually lose their temper and bully far worse, not back off forever and sit down defeated. People who retaliate in mean-spirited ways or use underhanded tactics also can't appeal to law and order as easily if a feud gets out of hand. The focus should be on stopping the bullying, not punishing the bully.

I don't care to offer specific anti-bullying instructions because a) I'm no authority on that and b) the situations where bullies bully are so individual and diverse, but I did want to say this for people on the sidelines. Do not become an enabler. The bullies are the perpetrators, but you, as an enabler, would be one of the people who makes the world safe for their bullying.

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