19 December 2011


Like many of us, I was bullied as a child ~ by an individual and by a pair of individuals.  The experience shook my self-esteem for years, until I received training in martial arts and the self-confidence that comes with knowing that you can defend yourself if need be.  The experience also contributed to my clear positions on social justice for individuals, groups, and nations.

Recently Hogan Sherrow summarized recent research in his Scientific American article "The Origins of Bullying".  The behavior has received increased public attention in recent years, as a result of the twin tragedies of victims committing mass shootings at schools, and victims committing suicide.  To understand bullying, it helps first to define it.  "According to psychological sources, bullying is a specific type of aggression in which (1) the behavior is to harm or disburb, (2) the behavior occurs repeatedly over time, and (3) there is an imbalance of power, with a more powerful prson or group attacking a less powerful one.  this asymmetry may be physical or psychological, and the aggressive behavior may be verbal (e.g., name-calling, threats), physical (e.g., hitting), or psychological (e.g., rumors, shunning/exclusion).  The key elements of this definition are that multiple means can be employed by the bully or bullies, intimidation is the goal, and bullying can happen on a one-on-one or group basis."

Sherrow goes on to establish that bullying is cross-cultural (not specific to any region or tradition), and that in fact it spans the entire order Primates ~ apes, monkeys, and humans.  Humans, however, carry bullying several orders of complexity further.  "Humans have taken an ancient behavior that used to provide an advantage in survival and reproduction, and altered its intensity and impact through language and culture.  While physcal bullying is a serious issue and targets of bullying are beaten all too often, humans have intensified and expanded the impact of bullying by incorporating language.  Language allows us to communicate abstract ideas, coordinate behaviors and express thoughts and feelings to others.  Language also allows us to gossip, and gossiping is a key psychological element in bullying and can have serious, lasting effects.  

"Language, combined with a phenomenal social memory that allows us to remember scores of individuals and their attributes, which we inherited from our primate ancestors, allows bullies to spread rumors about their targets, and inflict harm on them, without putting themselves at risk physically.  Text and online bullying are extensions of this behavior, and further remove the bullies themselves from immediate risk.  It is not anonymity that texting and online interactions provide, but rather the opportunity for individuals to distance themselves from potential conflict and risk that provides them with a platform to be cruel.

"Humans have further altered the impact of bullying-like behaviors through cultural practices and norms that celebrate violence and demand conformity to a narrow view of what is acceptable and normal .... the most intensive bullying is found in countries where violence and social intolerance are the most commonplace.  In the U.S., views on violence, sexuality and what is normal impact the actions of our youth, and play on our inherent tendencies to coerce others into conformity .... Still, cultures do not 'create' bullies, and bullies are not found only in those cultures that practice social intolerance and glorify violence.  The tendency to bully or coerce others is natural and deeply rooted in our evolutionary history, and emerges in any group of toddlers playing freely.  However, when cultures condone, and in some cases celebrate violence and aggression, while suppressing or demonizing aspects of humanity that are equally natural such as homosexuality, they unwittingly give license to and encourage bullies.

"Bullying was there during the birth of our species, having been inherited from the earliest of our social ancestors.  Species ranging from rats to chimpanzees regularly engage in bullying-like behaviors, and those behaviors provide advantages to the individuals who engage in them.  However, the combinatory effects of language and culture on bullying in humans have distorted its effects, pushing it beyond individually advantageous to socially venomous.  The result has been the crisis we see played out in our schools, shopping malls and social media websites ~ children and young adults bullying each other with devastating results.  While nearly all anti-bullying programs are well-meaning and can show progress in the short term, they fail to get at the root of the problem.  Addressing bullying through culturally-based social programs is like taking the flowerhead off a milk thistle.  You will slow the growth and spread of the plant, but not for long.  It is only through incorporating a deeper understanding of the antiquity of a behavior like bullying in our policies that we can hope to alter its impact on society.  Like milk thistle, bullying must be pulled up by the root if we hope to remove it from the fields where our children grow and develop."

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