The Missing Bullying Conversati​on

Bullying-related stories don’t seem to let up. A mother is suing a Las Vegas school for bullying her 10-year old daughter based on the girl’s race. Last month, Porterville, California Mayor Cameron Hamilton urged bullying victims to toughen up and “grow a pair.” Several states are even considering workplace anti-bullying laws.

Bullying is a chronic national problem, and doing anything to address it must be positive. But that’s not necessarily true. How bullying is discussed—and, most importantly, not discussed—is as much a part of the problem as bullying itself.

The Problem: Overly Focusing on Individuals

The problem starts with bullying’s common definition—unwanted verbal and nonverbal acts used to mistreat, abuse, or intimidate. Characteristics like race, gender, and sexual orientation are said to be reasons why people target others. Additional factors are mentioned, but the conversation reverts to creating policies, protecting targets, and exposing bullies.

This definition isn’t incorrect—individuals are, of course, at play. But it erases the complicated contexts in which bullying occurs, limiting the conversation and preventing change. What isn’t said is just as important as what is.

For example, nationwide, workshops and campaigns take this overly individualistic approach. People are trained to identify aggressors, stop the bystander effect, report abuse, and stand up to and manage bullies. Aggressors (presumably rotten apples) are the problem and can be stopped. Intervene. Take a pledge. Stop bullying now. It begins with one.

But, an individualistic “Just Say No” approach is incomplete, and it doesn’t work. Instead, including missing factors changes the way the problem looks.

As another example, research I’ve done with colleagues looking at women who bully women at work. Past research shows that while men target males and females equally, women target other women more than twice as much as they target men. Typical responses are to create laws, identify aggressors, discuss the damage, and develop managing strategies.

What’s Missing: Context

Considering context is key to bullying discussions. When exploring other factors and widening the scope, bullying actually isn’t surprising.

For example, women may bully other women because there is more at stake—fewer seats at the table, scarcer rewards, and more pressure to succeed “in a man’s world.” Feminine communication styles don’t “fit” with traditional (masculine) definitions of leadership. Women are judged differently for the same behaviors as men, leading to double standards, discrimination, and frustration. Personality features like perfectionism and urgency only add to the problem.

Most important, bullying diverts attention from larger issues. For instance, if women are dismissed as “cat fighting,” managers aren’t forced to fix stereotyping, preferential treatment, and lower pay. By turning their guns on each other (as they’ve been taught), women miss a chance to collectively battle gender discrimination, letting organizations off the hook. And because of stereotypes of women as “queen bees,” “mercurial,” and “bossy,” co-workers see bullying as an individual flaw rather than a result of structural inequalities.

Take another example—the recent story of a Florida father who kicked his six-year son down a skateboard ramp, a recent case that is, to many, clearly parent-child bullying and even abuse. When asked why he did it, the father said because the child “needs to learn.” Public response has been: Wow, what a mean father. Let’s investigate him. Is the child OK?

But, the father is actually doing what he’s been socialized to do in a masculinized culture: teach boys aggression, shut yourself off emotionally, and solve problems with hostility. Grow a pair. Of course, not all dads are violent. For some, it’s far more sublime or inadvertent, something that grows into hardness, non-emotion, or detachment. But, masculinity is still at play.

What Ultimately Goes Unsaid

Yes, people are part of the equation. Bullies have disturbing individual characteristics and do awful things, and targets experience extreme pain.

But, here’s what nobody’s saying: bullies are also operating from (often unidentified) fear, pain, and uncertainty. These forces that create bullies are often missing. Therefore, talking about bullying differently means asking new questions. Instead of demonizing individuals, how are bullies culturally created and condoned? The answer may be missing contexts such as aggression and detachment that are at the heart of U.S. American culture. Deep down, bullies are aggressive, disconnected, lonely people who hurt because they hurt.

This lets us see detachment, isolation, and aggression as causes. Many teens lack meaningful rites of passage and aren’t respected and listened to; yet we’re surprised when they express pain through bullying or suicide. And when an elected official tells victims to “grow a pair,” change feels daunting, because it means changing that mentality.

Cultural dysfunction is at the heart of bullying. To solve bullying, that dysfunction must first be tackled.