Recent suicides by adolescents and children in the wake of ongoing bullying have got us all thinking about bullying. It’s an uncomfortable topic, because so many of us at one time or other have been a victim, a bully or a silent witness (another kind of victim). It’s a broad societal problem.
Challenging a bully involves risk. I once had a manager who ordered a colleague to do something unethical. When she challenged him, he discredited her with lies. When I tried to intervene, I became his target and we both were fired. He then turned on a senior professional who had supported me during the ordeal. That professional, having seen what just happened to me, simply resigned.
Many years earlier as a factory worker I discovered a flaw in a new product. When I told the factory owner, he raged at me about my being a stupid kid and an idiot to think that there was a problem. I was humiliated in front of the other workers, but his bullying tantrums were nothing new. The owner then made my recommended changes without acknowledgment.
In my last years of elementary school our new principal was an extreme bully. He ran the school through intimidation, his back pants pocket bulging with his “little black snake,” that is, when he wasn’t waving it around menacingly or actually using it on someone. I got the long end of his strap three times during his reign, never before or since.
I was little for my age as I was growing up, so I was an obvious victim of bullying in elementary school. But I was bigger than my younger brothers and I may have bullied them at times. I’m not sure; no one talked about bullying back then.
Bullying begins in families. Sometimes the man bullies his wife into submission. Sometimes the woman is the bully. Often one or the other is bullying one of the children. If a child at a young impressionable age sees one of his parents repeatedly attempting to control the other through intimidation and verbal violence, it’s very easy for that child to adopt either the victim model or the bully model… or both.
Furthermore, in the process of watching ongoing parental dysfunction, the child may fail to learn the social skills needed to get along in groups. He or she may also fail to get the support and help needed to do well in school.
Breaking the cycle of bullying requires much more than tackling bullying at school. Breaking the cycle requires all of us to identify and call attention to bullying wherever we see it, whether in a family, school or workplace, and whether local or through the internet. Whether the perpetratoris a schoolgirl or a head of state, bullying is bullying. Let’s change things.