Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Creating Non-bullying Communities

I am not a fan of programs based on 'anti' even if what they are against is something as horrible as bullying. It is reasonably simple to state what we are against, but without a positive goal to replace what are removing, we won't succeed. Thus what we need is not a better anti-bullying program, but communities that are non-bullying.

The only truly effective response to bullying in our schools and other venues is a community response. A community response is one in which all members of the community take responsibility for the health of the whole; and welcome both bullies and victims to fulfill their needs in a non-aggressive manner. It is impossible to eliminate bullying by eliminating bullies. We must instead help them transform themselves into healthy and content individuals.

Bullying looms large in public consciousness these days. Unfortunately suicides due to bullying are nothing new, but the immediacy of modern media means that we hear about a tragic death in Ireland at the same time we are learning about charges to young men who made public photos of a sexual assault. If we are going to seriously tackle the issue of bullying we really need to have a definition that is consistent and clear. The fact that we have no such definition makes addressing bullying that much more difficult. 

Defining Down Bullying in the New York Times, Emily Bazelon suggests that psychologist talk about bullying as “physical or verbal abuse, repeated over time, and involving a power imbalance.”[1] That seems as good a place to start as any. There are three characteristics then that we need to see in order to label something as bullying. It needs to be abusive, it needs to be repeated, and there needs to be a power differential. In her article Emily Bazelon argues that one of the problems that we have in dealing with the issue is that too many things are labeled bullying.

In her book Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Child Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear[2], Carrie Goldman, makes a similar point. Bullying is intentional. The bully knows they are being mean and chooses to do so. There are a lot of situations in children’s lives in which they are going to be disappointed or have their feelings hurt. They may not get invited to a party. They might get chosen last for a team. Not everyone wants to be their best friend. If parents and teachers react as if every set back is bullying, then children will not learn how to deal with the reality that they won’t always get what they want. We are not doing anyone a favour by trying to protect our children from the normal bumps and bruises of life, both physical and emotional. So it is vital that we help children to understand their feelings, but also to talk about the intentions of the other child.

The distinction of intention is especially important when we talk about bullying as opposed to teasing. Nancy Darling talks about the difference in Teasing and Bullying, Boys and Girls[3].  Teasing is a give and take. While it is often part of establishing hierarchies within groups of boys and girls it is free flowing and the person being teased reactions are important. Teasing is when everyone is laughing including the person who is the recipient. If the recipient takes the insult seriously, it has an effect on the next part of the interchange. With bullying the intention is to hurt, and it doesn’t matter what the victim’s reaction is, the bullying will continue. One defense that is taught to children who are victims is to turn the verbal bullying into teasing by responding with humour. Some stories from victims suggests that this can be an effective tactic in the right circumstances.

Bullying is repeated over time. There is a pattern. Being in a fight is not bullying. Being in a fight with the same child or group of children might be. Teasing may be very intense in a new situation, but once the hierarchy is established it drops to a low level. Bullying remains intense or increases over time. Verbal abuse becomes physical abuse. Personal belongings may be destroyed. The nature and frequency of attacks online become more upsetting. In listening to stories of bullying from the victims point of view, it is the unceasing repetition of the abuse that wears them down and creates the tragic circumstance in which suicide is seen as the only way of escape.[4]

The last part of the definition is the power imbalance. A large part of children’s interaction is about deciding who is higher than the next. Teasing, physical wresting in boys, and social circles in girls are all examples of how the hierarchy is determined. The common conception of bullies as oversized children on the fringe of the children’s social structure is wrong. There are two ‘classes’ of bully; the bully and the bully/victim. The bully will likely be of high status in the children’s social hierarchy. They will be liked by most people. Some bullies are both victims and bullies, they bully children with less power and are victimized by children with more. The bullies don’t often occupy the top of the hierarchy, but are one notch down.[5]

So having defined bullying, how do we go about stopping it? The place to start is with parenting. Bullies will tend to experience:
·         Frequent punishment that is inconsistent or ineffective
·         Parental harshness, rejection or neglect
·         Maltreatment and witnessing domestic abuse
·         Low parental warmth, low family cohesion, low involvement of parents in school[6]

Teaching parents better skills is the best way to eliminate bullying in the long run. Of course that assumes that the parents who need to learn better skills are willing to learn and are willing to take responsibility for their own behavior. In communities that are interesting in eliminating bullying, parenting skills classes in schools would disseminate the skills to the broadest range of potential parents, both men and women. Mandatory parenting courses would be a long term solution to bullying, taking at least a generation for the affect to be visible. How do we respond in the meantime?
Some schools have a zero tolerance policy. Any bullying behavior results in immediate consequences. There are a few problems with this response. The first is that it assumes that bullying will be visible and identifiable to the adults of the school. The sheer number of incidences of victims committing suicide is proof that bullying is not easily seen and responded to by the adults in the system. Even when the situation is brought to the attention of the teacher or administration, the child being accused is often one of the ‘well liked’ children and it is hard to believe they are capable of such negative behavior.

The next problem with zero tolerance is that it treats the bully in isolation, and it treats each incident in isolation. In every situation there is the bully, the victim, and the bystanders who are most often tacit allies of the bully. Taking the bully in isolation doesn’t address the system as a whole which in many cases rewards the bully for their behavior by moving them up the social ladder. It also doesn’t address the real need of the bully, which is to learn more appropriate ways of fulfilling their needs. Bullies tend not to have prosocial attitudes, to have high levels of anxiety and a feeling of paranoia.[7] What these tendencies mean is that they have no social awareness to hold them back from aggression, they are on edge constantly and they feel that the others around them are out to get them. An accidental bump from another child is an attack in the bully’s mind. Centering them out for punishing will feed into the tendencies that are already there rather than work against them.
Finally, whether or not punishment for the bully changes the bully, it will have no affect on either victim or bystander. The social system that allows for bullying is still intact and active. These problems with zero tolerance also are issues with other programs that target bullies. Some of the programs that are out there are designed to move the bullying from the victim to the bully. Anything that singles out a child for punishment or humiliation is not going to improve the community.
Some schools have anti-bullying assemblies and workshops. While this at least addresses the whole school community, it still puts the focus on bullying behavior and response to it. It is the bully’s fault and it is the job of the community to see that and stop it. Unfortunately the bully’s methods of coping with the world and their needs have become so set by the time the assemblies start that they aren’t capable of acting differently without help. 

Richard Tremblay started out to study aggression in adult criminals to learn the roots of that aggression. He found he had to study adolescents, and now he is studying two-year olds. He believes by the age of two how a person is going to deal with aggression has been set.[8] Habits that have been in place for decades are not going to be changed by posters and assemblies. The bullies use aggression to fulfill their needs in the short term. They often don’t have the ability to assess the long term cost of aggression. 

Of the three groups in the bullying equation - bully, victim, bystander – it is the bully who needs the greatest amount of help. Victims and bystanders will normalize and mostly get on with their lives by the age of twenty-one. Bullies, if not helped, are much more likely to be in abusive relationships and take part in criminal behavior. Any attempt to reduce bullying therefore must address the bully’s needs and help them learn healthier methods of fulfilling needs. 

Of the community responses to bullying Carrie Goldman of Bullied suggests that the idea of restorative justice is the most effective. Her argument is that it doesn’t isolate either the bully or the victim from the community and allows bystanders to accept responsibility for their tacit participation in bullying. Very simply stated restorative justice is a conversation that is guided and monitored about an incident or series of incidents. Every gets to speak and every one must listen. The emphasis is not on blame but on how to restore the balance and health of the community.[9]

How do we create a community in which restorative justice is possible? I believe there are three main components to this kind of community. First, this is a community that welcomes diversity. Secondly it is a community that values relationships. Thirdly it is a community that celebrates courage.
One of the main ways in which victims are ‘chosen’ is that they don’t fit into the community norms. They are disabled or socially slow or fat or ethnically, economically, or sexually different, or maybe they just have likes and interests that don’t fit into the community which surrounds them. When a community does not actively welcome the diversity of its members, it is tacitly making space for bullying and social exclusion of those people that don’t fit.

The best response to misfits of every kind is to welcome them and find them a place in the community. Every single person on this planet has value. When we acknowledge that fact and act out of it, we cannot allow anyone to be marginalized or isolated. There is no group that is homogenous enough that no one can be declared an outsider. This welcoming of diversity is not going to happen without some work. 

Joe is a boy with hearing aids. He wears an FM system that requires wires from a box on his belt to his hearing aids. He’s picked on for being different and called ‘hearing aid boy’ instead of Joe. His teacher and parents arrange for a visitor from the Hearing Society to come and demonstrate the hearing aids and the FM system. The children each get a chance to listen to the world through hearing aids and learn that it is hard work. The teasing stops and Joe ends up with the proud nickname of ‘Earpiece’.

Whether it is hearing aids or coming from a home in Africa, the way the teacher and adults acknowledge and affirm the value of difference will set the stage for how the children accept newcomers. It isn’t enough for the adults to just say ‘Hello’, they also need to set the stage for the children to value diversity for its own sake. Once diversity is truly important to the community, difference will no longer be seen as excuse for bullying.

Often bullies start off feeling excluded from the social structure of the community, in part because they lack social skills and awareness. Taking the time and effort to include even the bullies as a welcome part of the community will fill their need to belong and ameliorate the need to use aggression to fit in. Bullies often talk about starting as victims and using bullying behavior to change their status for the better.[10]

The second component of valuing relationship rises out of the bystander syndrome. Bystander syndrome is the often studied reality that people in a group will intervene to help another person much less frequently that a person by themselves. Where it comes into play in bullying is the reality that most bullying is witnessed by the peer group. What keeps the peer group from intervening is the fear of standing out. Bystanders are safe as long as they are bystanders. Once they step out of that role, they may become victims themselves or be ostracized for interfering. Keep in mind that bullies are usually high up on the social ladder. People in crowds want to stay in the crowd and not come to the attention of others. 

Bystander syndrome is also about responsibility. In a crowd it is easy to think that someone else will intervene. It isn’t our problem. It is the victim’s problem, the teacher’s problem, but not ours. It is this thinking that the problem belongs to someone else that is at the root of the emphasis on relationship.
When we value relationships, the problem becomes ours. The bully is not picking on just some girl, but our friend. Once we label the victim as a friend instead of a stranger, we are much more likely to speak up or intervene in other ways. Oddly enough this will hold true if we label the bully as a friend too. We can dare to take risks for friends that we would never take for strangers. 

Most of the stories in Bullied of communities that made effective responses to bullying situations are communities which developed a strong sense of inter-relatedness. Talking about bullying wasn’t saying ‘You shouldn’t be that way,” but saying “We shouldn’t be this way.” Neither bully nor victims were excluded and their needs became the concern of the entire community. 

I talked above about how bullies have learned aggressive behavior at a very early age. It is hard, but not impossible to change those learned tendencies. The best way to learn change is within supportive relationships. The relationship is a need of the bully and the cause of much of their behavior. Fulfilling that need in a way that encourages a new way of interacting will naturally decrease aggressive action. Bullies act on short term needs. Relationship with others who have the ability to see and act on longer term needs will teach them that skill. It is also as they get to know the community that their anxiety about status and acceptance will decrease and they will see that the occasional set back and bumps are not attacks, but a normal part of life.

The third and perhaps most important part of the equation is courage. Courage is not the lack of fear. It is not the willingness to take big risks by mountain climbing or skydiving. Courage is the ability to know and do what is right in spite of our fear of what the cost will be. I think it is tremendously important that we teach children from a very young age the true meaning and value of courage.
It takes a great deal of courage for the victim to label an experience as bullying, because that means they are taking on the label of victim. Yet it is vital for the victim to be able to say what happened and why it hurt. Victims are commonly over submissive.[11] For a child to step out of that submissive role to report a bully takes a lot of courage. 

It may take even more courage for a person to admit that they are a bully. The media has demonized bullies in the last few decades. We no longer see them as quite human. Research that shows how they differ from us in their perception of the world makes them less human. People don’t like victims, but they may at least pity them. We have no pity for the bully. It is that lack of regard that makes ‘coming out’ as a bully humiliating. It is easier to continue to blame the victim and justify behavior based on their difference.  Yet if we are going to create a community in which there is no bullying, we need to have bullies who will admit that they are bullies so we can give them the help they need to stop.
It also takes courage for the bystanders to admit that their silence was approval for the bully. Some of the toughest essays in ……. to read were the ones from bystanders regretting that they didn’t stand up and make a difference. They all had different reasons for their choice, but they judged themselves harshly for their failure.

It takes courage for a community to admit that they are allowing bullying to exist. It is very easy to blame the bully, but as we’ve seen that is neither true nor productive. If there is bullying it is because we have allowed a community to grow where bullying is possible. The only way to change bullying is to change ourselves.

Change is hard. Change takes courage, it takes supportive relationships, it takes a willingness to be different. Change is also possible. We are courageous every day, we have people who care about us and we are different.

To create a community in which bullying doesn’t take place will mean that we will have to talk about bullying and our connection to bullying in new ways. It cannot be dealt with in isolation. So we will talk about how to restore ourselves and our community. We will talk about how to include everyone, how we are connected and interdependent, and we will talk with honesty and courage. 

The best way to destroy your enemy is to make him your friend.
Abraham Lincoln

A Sermon on Bullying based on the Anointing of Jesus
The story from the Gospel this past Sunday was about Mary Magdalene anointing Jesus. It talks about how Judas took her to task for her actions. It was a waste of money, he said, money that could have gone to the poor. Or perhaps as the writer of John hints, into Judas's own pockets. Let's pause there for a moment.

We have a group of people who are an inner circle. They are aware of being an inner circle since they argue frequently about which of them has or will have more power. What they are all sure of is that they will have more power than anybody who is outside their circle; someone like Mary.

So Judas, who is the treasurer of the inner circle, complains, and complains in a way that is sure to make Mary feel terrible. After all he complains after the fact, it is too late for Mary or anyone else to do anything about selling the perfume. I get the sense that this was a common role for Judas, and the other disciples. They spend a lot of time in the Gospels complaining; complaining that other people are infringing on their power, complaining that other disciplines are claiming to be more important, complaining that these people that Jesus insists on talking to are making too much fuss.

If this is indeed the way the disciples were, than they were bullies. Bullying isn't about one fight in a schoolyard, or one mean comment in the lunchroom or on facebook. It is about consistent, prolonged use of power over someone else to push them down while hoisting ourselves up. Bullying comes from a place of power, like Judas, the treasurer complaining that this money should have gone through him.

Bullying seems to be embedded in us. We don't notice it much until we are the victims of it. Sometimes we hear a news story and we wonder how we can stop bullying. It means changing other people, because of course, none of us would ever be bullies. That is hard because we can't change other people, we can only change ourselves. So how do we change to stop bullying?

Like any change, we change in relationship, and most effectively in relationship with Jesus. We will see three ways that we can change ourselves to stop bullying. We need to be welcoming, we need to be family and we need to be courageous.

First we need to be welcoming. Look at how Jesus is. He talks to everyone. Even the Pharisees and the scribes and others who plot against him are welcomed to the conversation. The disciples themselves are an odd bunch and include fishermen, tax collectors, zealots and others. For Jesus, no one is excluded unless they exclude themselves.

This diversity of the people of God is reflected in Paul's letters. In First Corinthians he talks about how everyone is different and everyone is needed. There is no place of power in Christ's Church, because all are equal under Christ. The hymn to love in First Corinthians 13, you know: Love is patient, love is kind? We read it at weddings a lot, but Paul meant it for how we treat each other in our church communities. The only command that Jesus gave the disciples was to love one another. To be patient with each other, kind with one another, to not keep a record of how were wronged.

It doesn't matter how good we are, how special we are. If we don't have that love, we are lost. It is that love that allows us to welcome everyone into the circle, no matter how different they are. One challenge of our world is that we love to draw lines in the sand. We're Roughrider fans, or Bomber fans, we drive Ford, or Dodge, or Toyota, we vote NDP, or Conservative or Liberal. There is nothing wrong with any of these things, until we use our beliefs as a reason to exclude someone else. Just as Judas excludes Mary from really understanding what Jesus is about because she doesn't sell the perfume and give the money to the poor. It is sad how often Christianity is seen as a bully. Hardly a day goes past when we don’t hear of another person telling another group of people that they are terrible people. Far too often we just let it pass. We may not believe that, but we don’t speak up to say that all people are loved by God.

So Judas cuts Mary’s gift of love off at the ground but Jesus doesn't allow that to stand. He doesn't call out Judas, or get angry. What he does is affirm the love behind Mary's actions and turn it into something of beauty and power. There are no insiders and outsiders in this Dominion of God. All are welcome, all are loved.

Next we need to be family. There is something called the bystander effect. This is the sad reality that people who are alone are much more likely to stop and help someone than people in a crowd.  Bullies know this. They count on it. They can push people around and do all kinds of terrible things and be certain that the people in the hall will continue their way through their day.

We know that calling people names or destroying their belongings is wrong. We get angry at people who abuse others physically, emotionally or sexually. But in a crowd, we are most likely going to walk on past. This is because when we are in a group, it isn't our problem. It is someone else's problem. We might feel sorry for the victim; we might even wish that someone would intervene. But it will probably not be us.

We don't have enough relationship with each other. That other person might not be part of the right group. They don't look like us, pray like us, think like us. So their problems aren't our problems. 

For Jesus, everyone is family. We are all brothers and sisters. Paul uses this kind of language too. He makes it even more intimate. We are not just family, we are one body. The suffering of one person is the suffering of the whole body. If that person being yelled at, excluded, smeared is part of our family, then the situation is changed.

When people are our family we are going to step in. It is our responsibility. When we expand the borders of family to include everybody, we will act differently. Notice that Jesus doesn't single out Judas and berate him. Judas is family too. He just affirms Mary and corrects Judas's narrow view of what the world is about.

The people who have the most power to stop bullying are the people who see it; the peer group of both bully and victim. One person stepping forward and saying  "This is wrong. We shouldn't treat each other this way" has immense power to stop the bullying. Some studies suggest that it will stop bullies about 75% of the time. But it isn't easy. Not even for family.

So we need courage. Courage is hard. It means being afraid and acting anyway. What if we challenge the bully and we become the next target? Will anyone speak for us? What if we step outside of the circle, will they let us back in?

One of the reasons the bystander effect is so powerful is the anonymity of the crowd. Nobody knows, nobody cares, and we’re safe. When we speak up, we are no longer part of the crowd. We are exposed. Maybe we're wrong. None of the other disciples speak up for Mary. That doesn't mean that they didn't feel for her.

They were still learning welcome, still learning family. They didn't get it yet. They wouldn't get it until after Jesus hung on that cross; the ultimate victim of power and cruelty. They wouldn't get it until after that morning when the tomb was empty and Jesus showed them that the real power in the world is not with the powerful, but with the loving.

Courage comes from knowing that we aren't alone. We will never be the only person to speak about love. We won't be the only person to say that cruelty is wrong. Jesus will stand with us, speak with us. His marked hands will rest on our shoulder. Our courage will come from the same place our welcome does, the same place that family does. It comes from our love. As we love God, as we love each other, as we love ourselves we gain the ability to speak and change and challenge.

The more we love, the greater our courage. That doesn't mean that is gets easier, but it means it becomes possible.

There are bullies everywhere that there are people. Each of us has the potential to be bully as well as victim. As I researched anti-bullying strategies, I found that many of them bullied the bullies. It was a puzzle; until I realized that too much of the time we are trying to force change on other people. We try to reach out and change the bully. If they don't wish to change, we push harder. We become what we hate.

Whenever we make the other person the focus of our efforts, we may become bullies. Jesus spoke to everyone. Some he spoke to gently and kindly, some he challenged in words that we may find harsh. Yet Jesus left each person to decide for themselves whether they would follow or not, just as Jesus gives us a choice to follow or not.

The call to make a better world begins with allowing God through Christ to make a better me. In this season of Lent, that is our goal. To be shaped by God for the purposes of Love. It is in Easter that we find to our joy that Love triumphs. It is astonishing to follow the disciples after Easter. It is as if they are a different bunch. They still argue, but their arguments are about how to bring people in instead of how to leave people out.

Love has won the day and though they fall short, still their goal is that there are no lines to separate, no walls to divide. All people have a place in the Body of Christ.

So may your days be filled with love and courage, welcome and family, through the Grace of Christ.

End Note:
I did an adaptation of this piece on our local radio as my five day “Moments of Meditation” segment. I found myself musing that too often the Christian Church functions as a bully. We see ourselves in a place of power (or we used to) and we use that power to tell people that they need to change to conform to our expectations. This is not just a complaint about the ‘conservative right’ because I’ve heard as many more ‘liberal’ people do the same thing. We abuse people by telling them that only our way of thinking is correct and that if they don’t agree they will be excluded from the community. We do this because our short term goal is the preservation of the church.
If we stop drawing lines in the sand and pointing fingers at sinners or the unjust we will probably be a long way along the path to true evangelism.  The church should be the ultimate model of the radically welcoming community. We are far from that goal, but as we stop trying to save the church and work harder on being the community of Christ we will get closer.

[2] Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Child Needs to Know about Ending the Cycle of Fear, Carrie Goldman, HarperOne New York,2012, pg 118ff
[4] Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Child Needs to Know about Ending the Cycle of Fear, Carrie Goldman, HarperOne New York,2012, pg 101ff
[5] Ibid pg 90
[6] Ibid pg 115
[8] ibid
[9] Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Child Needs to Know about Ending the Cycle of Fear, Carrie Goldman, HarperOne New York,2012, pg 233ff
[10] Bullying Under Attack Edited by John Meyer, Stephanie Meyer, Emily Sperber, Heather Alexander. Teen Inc. 20113

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