The Tradition of Bullying

The past few years there has been more media attention on the issue of bullying then I ever remember happening in the past.  The death of Tyler Clementi as well as a spike in teen suicides in Michelle Bachmann’s district have reminded us that bullying can escalate into especially cruel behavior on the part of its practitioners and spiral into hopelessness for its victims. Not that all bullying, or even most of it, gets that bad but the root behaviors are the same.

Of course, whenever you discuss and try to deal with any social ill in this country you will have people who have benefited from that flaw fighting for its continued existence. I am not going to complain about reasoned, though in my mind somewhat shortsighted, arguments that question how much of a problem bullying is, or how it should be addressed. Especially when, as I do, they argue that the best medicine is education. My biggest problem is the “it’s always happened, it happened to me, why shouldn’t it still be happening” types.

I get that bullying has always happened. It happened to me just for being a quiet and slightly weird kid. I also get that when it is not too severe it can possibly help you develop into the sort of person you want to be. The quiet slightly weird kid grows up to be an outspoken and delightfully (to my way of thinking) weird adult. Just because it always has been that way doesn’t mean it should continue.

I never have understood that line of reasoning. Should we not aspire to making a better world than we, our parents or grandparents grew up with? We (ostensibly at least) don’t tolerate bigotry or sexism anymore. Not that bullying is on the same scale of social ill as either of those, but it is something we are better off without, and falling on that tired, old and frankly never very good argument “that’s the way it’s always been” is lazy and more often than not selfish. Selfish because the people saying it are usually people who are, or have been bullies themselves. I also suspect, though I cannot know, that some are former victims that, despite all the “sometimes life is unfair” rhetoric, think it would be unfair that they couldn’t escape bullying while a future generation might. It is sad but true: we treat so much of social interaction like a zero sum game.

No doubt bullying has been around longer than culture or even civilization. You only have to look at the animal kingdom to come to that conclusion. Once upon a time it likely benefited our entire species. We aren’t living in that world anymore though. Bullying, and bullying culture, don’t just affect the bully and his/her victim. It affects all of us. It is one of the things that keeps us in the aforementioned zero sum game mentality. It keeps us thinking that life has to be about winners and losers rather than everyone winning. With 7 billion of us competing for, rather than working together toward, resources that becomes less and less of an acceptable way of looking at the world.