Entry from September 26, 2011

An interesting article in The New York Times by Danah Boyd and Alice Marwick about bullying makes the valuable point that it is a problem which is likely to remain intractable to adults at least until they learn to see it through the eyes of those most affected by it — and that those most affected by it often don’t see it as bullying. The authors say their research (and if it has been published the Times offers no citation) has shown that high school kids rarely see bullying as bullying. For emotionally self-protective reasons, both bullies and their victims prefer to think of it as “drama.” The authors believe that the precarious self-image of the teenager cannot easily withstand self-identification as either bully or victim so that, mentally, the former makes a kind of joke of it while the latter tries to minimize the hurt to himself.

Teenagers say drama when they want to diminish the importance of something. Repeatedly, teenagers would refer to something as “just stupid drama,” “something girls do,” or “so high school.” We learned that drama can be fun and entertaining; it can be serious or totally ridiculous; it can be a way to get attention or feel validated. But mostly we learned that young people use the term drama because it is empowering. Dismissing a conflict that’s really hurting their feelings as drama lets teenagers demonstrate that they don’t care about such petty concerns. They can save face while feeling superior to those tormenting them by dismissing them as desperate for attention. Or, if they’re the instigators, the word drama lets teenagers feel that they’re participating in something innocuous or even funny, rather than having to admit that they’ve hurt someone’s feelings. Drama allows them to distance themselves from painful situations.

It’s a persuasive finding, but if concerned adults have to talk kids out of this natural process of self-toughening in order to persuade them that they have been victims, some of us might be minded to ask if the problem of bullying is really as serious as it is being made out to be? So serious, indeed, that the state of New Jersey has lately attempted to abolish it with a law that went into effect on September 1st. “The whole push is to incorporate the antibullying process into the culture,” The New York Times quoted a New Jersey school psychologist as saying: “We’re empowering children to use the term ‘bullying’ and to speak up for themselves and for others” — even though, according to the Boyd and Marwick study, it is precisely not using it that kids find self-empowering. If even the bullied don’t think they are being bullied, why does it become an imperative of government to persuade them that they are?

I suspect that what the bien pensant really wish to incorporate into the culture is the sort of pacifist utopianism which imagines that conflict can be wished away or outlawed by some sufficiently clever social or legal arrangement, or by training children to think that fighting is not socially acceptable behavior. But conflict is a constant of the human condition and, as the Boyd-Marwick study reminds us, the psychological processes by which people learn to deal with it are as developmentally necessary for them as anything else they are likely to learn in school and help to equip them to live in the world outside the protected arena of state education. The state’s enforcement of a utopian, root-and-branch approach to anything that can be described as bullying not only short-circuits this educational process but, by lumping together the trivial and the serious, is likely to overwhelm ordinary disciplinary processes with the former and so make the latter more difficult to spot and prevent.

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