Ending Bully Culture
It’s not just about kids

Posted on 14 June 2018

Broken Window

CC BY-SA 4.0 WiseWoman, 13 May 2013 Wikimedia

“I’m just beside myself with sadness because our president is a bully, our president is a punk, and he just doesn’t get it. I don’t know where he was raised but his family didn’t do a good job raising that guy.”
~Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney 2017

A scenario

A bully knocks a child over on the playground. A number of other children observe this youthful act of violence. They most assuredly feel empathy for the child who has been harmed. They are also now afraid of being the next target. They back away. They avoid the victim and are superficially friendly toward the bully.

The victim

The victimised child finds they have to pick themselves up and seek help. The playground supervisor glowers at all the children and tells the bully to stay away from this child. The supervisor feels they have done their job and leaves. However, a number of things remain unresolved.

The child who was pushed still has cuts and bruises that need tending to and has been left to sort that out for themselves. The other children are now even more afraid of this child because they brought in a threatening power of their own. The kids are now caught between a powerful adult and a powerful bully when dealing with the bullied child. This child is not only left alone, but positively ostracised.

The child now has more than just physical wounds to contend with. They must deal with the emotional wounds of someone wishing them harm and actively pursuing that wish, the wounds of realising none of their friends were willing to stand by them, the wounds of a supervisor half doing their job thereby leaving them open to even more wounding, and the wounds of being isolated.

More victims

The children on the playground have also been victimised by this exchange. The bully’s actions could have been done as a moment of emotional venting, or deliberately to assert control by making an example of one particular child. Either way the child audience is now in terror. Having a powerful adult come in and not resolve the issue, such that they can all feel safe, generates even more fear. They have no one but themselves to rely upon to create any sense of safety. They have neither resources nor experience to choose wisely and effectively on how to do this.

Victim and perpetrator

So far I have been describing the child who used violence as “the bully”. This is unfair, but we tend to focus in on either or both the bully and the victim as “the problem” and dehumanise both of them. They are both children. They are both people: young people who are just learning about what it means to be human in the world.

The child who was pushed can sometimes face adults who feel they somehow provoked the harm they received. The adult may express the desire for the child to not say anything and to stop complicating the adult’s life. “Why can’t you just let it go? These things happen. You should just stand up to the bully or ignore the bully. You are too sensitive.” And thus this child is diminished.

The child who did the pushing is often seen in isolation to their circumstances. They are just a “bad kid”. They may come from a difficult situation or set of situations. They may feel powerless at home due to poverty, family in-fighting, or abuse. So creating power at school is important to their sense of well-being. If a parent has found it effective to bully a child at home in order to control behaviour, the child will learn that as an interpersonal skill and take it to school with them. They may have tried it once with useful results. If using bullying repeatedly gets useful results, then the behaviour is reinforced.

The tangle

Shutting up a victimised child is often easier and less frightening than coping with all the issues that create a child who uses bullying tactics. Trying to shut up a bullying child makes things worse. The unadressed emotions with which they are coping become magnified. If it seems to them that the only thing they did wrong was get caught, then they may find more stealthy and subtle means to continue victimising others. The child who called them out may become the target for a sustained campaign of punishment.

Dealing with a child who chooses physical and/or emotional violence means addressing the child, their family, and the culture at large that caused all the choices this child made seem perfectly logical in their world. If poverty was the cause, then this demonstrates how we must address poverty. If a culture of domination was the cause, then this demonstrates how we must address a culture of dominance. How many hours of violence is this child exposed to on television, movies, games and the like that all help to normalise violence when they see it enacted by friends, family, and the wider community? Violent media may not cause violent behaviour, but it certainly backs it up once someone has gone down that path. Addressing bullying properly is hard. However, it is disastrous to not grapple with it.

When bullying has happened everyone has to be healed: the child who was bullied, the child who chose to bully, and all the children who observed the interaction. Everyone has to be reconciled…anything less and children learn they can’t trust one another, since they cannot and do not help one another; they learn they cannot trust authority because authority’s solutions often make things worse; and they find that interpersonal isolation is the safest path through life. Is it any wonder that people turn to social media and computer games to feel interpersonal connection? The problem is that these spaces can be so safe as to be sterile of meaningful relationships. Otherwise, they can be equally endangering.

We tend to treat this dynamic as if it only happens in childhood. It is established in childhood. It becomes entrenched in a generation’s culture as everyone learns skills in how to cope without changing anything. Children may learn they cannot use physical violence as adults, but they may learn more inconspicuous means to manipulate and damage people for their own benefit. We all have to take responsibility for this and early. By adulthood a person may no longer have any reason or desire to change. They may have learned clever ways to go underground when they are called into account, then continue enacting disastrous behaviour. As a society we should feel ashamed that we let things get so far.

What it means to stop bullying

If we truly want to stop bullying, then we need to start by ensuring everyone takes responsibility for the elements that made bullying an option.

The bullied should not be made responsible for being brutalised. However, their broad participation in changing bullying culture should, with everyone’s help, be a possible source of healing and empowerment.

Feelings need to be listened to and validated. Being “rational” can be disempowering and dehumanising in its own right. We have feelings, they get hurt, sometimes to such a degree that people seek to kill themselves or others. They cannot by any means be left out of the equation.

Punishment is often just more bullying, in which case it is not an answer. Rehabilitation wherever achievable is critical and part of the process of reconciliation.

Forgiveness cannot be forced onto victims or bystanders, because in fact what is being asked for is acquiescence to wrong-doing. The delicate web of trust must be rebuilt. Forgiveness happens when people feel sufficient empowerment to free themselves from internal pain and to extend compassion.

Contending with the problem of bullying is core to revolutionising our society so that we can live together harmoniously as families, communities, and nations. We can no longer afford to be bystanders in the effort to free everyone from its grip.

In peace and kindness,


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