William Golden's classic work on bullying
The rise of social media and well-publicized cases involving suicide by victims of cyber bullying has raised awareness of the problem of bullying to new levels. We hear almost daily of a public school, an organization, or an advocacy group that has begun working on an anti-bullying initiative. These efforts are largely applauded, probably because almost everyone has been bullied at one time or another.
When I was 9 or 10 years old a big kid in the neighborhood took a dislike to me and would beat me up when I was coming home after school. I had no idea why he decided to pick on me, but after a couple of assaults I learned to avoid the alley that backed up to his house, and I was careful to look around corners and survey the foreground before venturing into it.
I couldn't think of anyone who could help me out. If I told my dad he'd probably think I was a crybaby, and the big kid didn't go to my school so there wasn't a teacher I tell. I coped by taking the long way home for several months until the big kid's family moved away.
Lots of people have experienced workplace bullying. Many women in their 50s or older can certainly recall working for some clown with fast hands and snappy patter who made them feel uncomfortable, or worse. A friend of mine who drives a cab in Washington, DC, habitually sighs with weariness over his abusive employer. "I don't know what to do," he says. "The guy owns 10 cabs and thinks he invented transportation. How do you talk to someone like that?"
The short answer is that you can't. Most people put up with abusive employers because they need the job and accept it as part of the deal. Organizations often fail to confront bullying because the bully's aggression takes the form of enforcing rules, regulations, or procedures and laws, regardless of their appropriateness, applicability, or necessity--all in the name of preserving organizational integrity. In cults, leaders rely on peer pressure to enforce conformity and to redefine what is normal and real. Like the 10 year old boy, each victim develops ways to cope with the bully.
Despite an almost universal condemnation of bullying, there are actually few who will intervene on behalf of victims. In many cases, the bully is able to create the illusion that he represents the majority view, and bystanders become unwilling to risk the social fallout of siding with a "minority." Overtime, the bully becomes more empowered and bystanders accept the non-normative experience or environment as normal. Often, the apparent bully is really just a stand-in, or enforcer, for a silent and more powerful bully in the background who has a special agenda.
As many as 1 in 30 people may be a bully. Research suggests that bullying is a learned behavior and probably caused by the environment in which they grew up. Whatever the cause, bullies need to dominate others, think they are always right, and will redesign reality or change normative standards to conform with their world view, however wrong or strange. Often, adult level reality redesigns involve administrative end runs, filing frivolous lawsuits, and character assassination. Our present political parties are fairly obvious examples of how public servants are run roughshod by bullies, with the resulting redesign of economic and social realities and norms.
Intervening on bullies and bullying is difficult. In schoolyard settings adults can be aware of what's going on, condemn the behavior, and use the experience as a teachable moment. It is much more difficult in organizations, or in governments such as the former Soviet Union or present day China or North Korea. Organizations can find new management, and employees can seek better opportunities as economic conditions improve, but citizens in dictatorships often face imprisonment or death for standing up against bullies.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote what is perhaps the definitive book on the cost of standing up to bullying, The Cost of Discipleship. It opens with the now famous lines, "Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace."
The Cost of Discipleship is Bonhoeffer's interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, and describes how Jesus' teachings should play out in the life of a Disciple then, and now in the post-resurrection world of today. It is as straightforward a condemnation of bullying, by governments or by persons, as one might find. Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis in 1945, a costly grace.
Few victims of bullying pay Bonhoeffer's price, but common symptoms include loneliness, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, loss of interest in sex, and even suicide and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Robert Fuller, a leading authority on bullying, maintains a blog, Breaking Ranks, that discusses how to break the cycle of bullying in many settings and also provides links to books and articles on the subject. The site provides excellent advice for parents on how to identify signs that their children are being bullied, and for managers and administrators interesting in assuring that their workplace is a safe environment.
More excellent advice for parents and teachers is available at Education.com website.