First off, I apologize for the length of this posting (it’s my longest post ever at 2000 words!) … I just started writing and could not stop. Bullying is not a pleasant, feel-good topic and many people would prefer to change the subject (or quit reading this post) – but it needs to be addressed with vigor (in my humble opinion!)
The sad story of a freshman at Rutgers last week who took his own life after his roommate posted privacy-breaching and explicit videos from a webcam, symptomizes the insidious “bully” disease and it’s not new – it’s been around as long as humanity. It takes a death to propel the topic to the front pages of our consciousness, yet everyday millions of people deal with bullies at home and at work.
The internet is newly ablaze with opinions about proposed legislation to thwart cyber-bullying (just the latest flavor), and sadly, if history is any predictor, the tide will ebb and the bullying will go on.
Mean People are Real
Let’s face it, mean people are all around us, and bullies are mean people. They’ve always been a part of society, and regardless of the psychology behind their need to dominate or ridicule (their abusive childhood, poor role models, or whatever else), mean people are toxic and should be held accountable. They start out in our schoolyard, pervade our colleges and end up as mean bosses and co-workers. And the underlying character flaw doesn’t go away! They are like the mythical fire-breathing dragons that burn up our towns and leave a trail of scared (and burned) victims in their wake. And we give them power by doing nothing until they are legends in their own minds!
One of the new movie releases – You Again – chronicles a tormented teenager and her nemesis years later when the victim’s brother is engaged to the bully. (Naturally the bully has covered up her sordid past and has become sugary-sweet). The movie rings true as the bully again meets up with her victim and relishes in reminding her victim of the glory days (torture to the victim) and even plays a “We are the Champions” cd as a serenade (which was a part of an original high school bullying episodes). The snide comments and ongoing reminders tell us that the bully is really still inside the fiancée who will marry the brother. It was a crowning moment in the film when the bully’s true colors were brought to light (the bully videotaped herself years before bragging about being the “warden” of the high school and asserting her duty to bully others) at the engagement party. But, instead of punishment, the bully prevailed by repenting her “wayward ways” after the audience turned against her. In true Hollywood style, everyone made nice and they all lived happily ever after – and the meanness gene was exorcised on the spot. Does that happen in real life? Hollywood can magically turn vile characters into cupcakes and hope we’ll buy it. Not this time.
Head in the Sand Thinking…
Unfortunately, as supported by various philosophies spouted by self-appointed experts on the subject (ranging from ‘victims need to stand up for themselves’ to ‘victims often become bullies themselves’) – there’s a segment of society that simply cannot understand the situation. These well-meaning adults often cite that bullying is just a childhood ‘rite of passage’ (for who, the victim?), ‘bullying has been around since the dawn of time’ (so has murder and prostitution but we jail those involved), or ‘there’s not much that can be done about bullies’ (so isn’t it about time we do something to change this?)
Perhaps if bullying was properly classified as a mental illness (mean doesn’t go away), abuse (which it is), or torture (often insidious in nature – especially when it is verbal escalation over a period) – society would take a stronger look at its toll.
It is not only the victim who suffers from the abuse, but also family members (who withstand the worst of the victim’s depression or anger), friends (who don’t know what to do), bystanders (who don’t want to intervene for fear of becoming the next victim), and innocent third parties (who may be unwitting witnesses to cyber-bullying).
For some reason, the adult populations today, excluding former victims, seem to “forget” about bullying when they are no longer directly involved: child and teen bullies grow up; bystanders forget the incidents; and family members cope by redefining memories. That is, until they are affected directly at work or in life! Victims certainly don’t forget the toxic effects or the memories of bullying incidents. Moreover, while it would be “nice” to believe that bullies reform when they emerge from puberty, research shows that mean doesn’t go away once adulthood sets in.
When I first drafted this post a couple of days ago, I posted a link on Facebook to an article about dealing with meanness: HUMAN MATTERS: It takes commitment to put Mean People in their place. Today, a friend in Finland sent me the following email:
Subject: About Bullies
“I just have to comment about the link you shared. (Forgive me my grammar. I hope you’ll get the point…)
I used to work in one association before my current job. And believe me, I had no idea back then how really lucky I was to get out of my former job just in time! After I had left the association, a new managing director took over and very soon all hell broke loose. This man was not just a Bully or Mean, he was a Monster. Mean, unreasonable, unfair, aggressive, paranoid, and god knows what else.
Naturally, my former co-workers tried to get rid of him. They reported about the Monster to the executive board, but the board didn’t react for a long time. At last, a consultant was hired to assess the working atmosphere. Her report was anything else but flattering, so the Monster had to do something before presenting it to the board. Obviously, he had no other choice but to censor and edit it himself. And the board believed him.
At some point, employees contacted the Counsellor of Occupational Safety (or whatever it is in English), and – if I remember correctly – an expert diagnosed the Monster was a sociopath. In the mean time, the Monster continued behaving as usual. He sacked at least one person without a justified reason. Many others suffered from stress and depression. I believe this sacking finally even brought him to court. At least he had to resign immediately.
This impossible situation lasted almost ten years! I just have to admire the persistence and determination of my ex-colleagues. Of course, many of the employees left and others came over the years, but a small group of people decided that they wouldn’t give in to the Monster, and it paid off. But if they had known beforehand what agony lies ahead, would they have stood their grounds? Probably not.
I just can’t stop wondering how the board could be so blind! I don’t know, if they heard the employees at all, or didn’t they just care? On the other hand, a sociopath is very skilled in manipulating others… And naturally, the board didn’t want to face the fact that they had made a Major Mistake when appointing the Monster.”
The situation of bullies and sociopaths is a worldwide phenomenon – an aberration of human nature running wild and — too often, unabated. Just like the fire-breathing dragon, the bully scares people into submission. No one wants to be his/her next victim!
I volunteer with a not-for-profit organization where there’s been a bully for years. He brags to everyone about his Harvard MBA, purports to be the expert on everything, yet he has the behavior of a spoiled 8-year old. When he doesn’t get his way with an idea or when his opinion is challenged, he will literally huff and puff and turn red – and people are afraid he will explode. And when he does get angry, he spews verbal diarrhea on anyone within hearing distance. As an adult, he gets his own way 99.9% of the time, and I will have nothing to do with him. It is a blessing NOT to work with him!
In the 15 years I’ve known this person, he hasn’t changed – the only difference is that now he breathes fire less often, but more deliberately because of his age. Unfortunately, most people handle him by simply getting out of his way and allow him to misbehave. He should have been stopped years ago, and I, for one, take pride that I’ve stood up against him publicly (but not without fallout!)
Today he is a 65-year-old, arrogant and self-indulgent “industry expert”, who should have been terminated long ago. I still get emails from new organization volunteers who report that the bully remains condescending and raging, and he still snorts and puffs to get his own way. Meanwhile, the damage left in his wake is significant as there are standards in place (which are prescriptive and downright wrong) simply because the bully wouldn’t back down during the authoring process he was a part of – and no one wanted to take him on.
What is meanness? What is bullying? What constitutes abuse?
It all comes down to inconsiderate behavior and a lack of (in my opinion) the Golden Rule. Bullies do NOT do unto others as they’d like to have done unto them. They make and live by their own rules, and challenge us to defy them.
If you’ve ever experienced a bully first-hand, you may be as dumbfounded as I am to understand the perspective of people who do nothing when they witness bullying. I certainly do not advocate direct confrontation, but why not simply anonymously report an event underway to an authority?
I read a few news reports this week (about the Rutgers suicide) suggesting that the parties who posted the videos aren’t actually bullies, but rather teens who didn’t realize the harm they were causing (even though they boasted about a second video stream they would post). Others suggested that the teens were simply misguided (how can you attribute “meanness in character” to a misguided decision?) When people purposefully and repeatedly (more than once) denigrate the dignity of another human being, it is bullying no matter how you try to sugar coat it.
Victims can be your Brother, Sister, Mother or … even you!
At a recent charity event benefiting a battered women’s shelter, a celebrity guest spoke about her experience with bullying and abuse. She was a former high school track star, valedictorian, all-star academic achiever, who had a stable, two-parent upbringing. She told how she became an unwilling victim when she married someone who she didn’t know was a bully (aka an abuser). She showed how easily men and women, no matter how strong is their character, could end up being bullied when “love” or friendship is involved. The perpetrators turn to apologies to mask and even set the stage for future transgressions. She emphasized how bullying and abuse is never acceptable – no matter how insidious.
What can we do as a society to stop bullying and abuse?
We can continue to stand up and defend the rights of victims; enact anti-bullying laws; create a safe and easy way witnesses to report abusive behavior to authorities. May I suggest that we all err on the side of the victim when you come upon a situation that makes you feel uncomfortable and raises your intuitive red flags? Don’t let logic override your gut feel when you witness abuse.
A seemingly intelligent person I once knew told me that “bullies wouldn’t exist without willing victims” – and now that I know better, I emphatically disagree!
Bullies exist, meanness exists, and abuse exists – regardless of an available victim. Meanness is not contingent on a scapegoat – it exists in the heart of the perpetrator. Let’s stand up to toxic people and let them know that their behavior and thought patterns are unacceptable in modern civilization.
While tolerance and love are the keys to a positive future, I believe that our present must stand steadfast and intolerant of bullies and their behavior. We need to stand up to the dragons among us for the last time or live in fear and anarchy. Stand up for a victim today – just like bullies, they are all around us and could be ones you love.
Wishing you a civilized and stress free day!