A Status Expert Tackles Bullying

It seems that we should be more than a little worried about bullying in American schools. In 2009 American Medical Association declared it an epidemic and defined it as:

. . . encompassing physical aggression (hitting, pushing, punching, or kicking); verbal harassment (threatening, teasing, name calling, or making faces or dirty gestures); and indirect or relational mistreatment (ignoring someone or excluding him or her on purpose). Daring a person to perform a dangerous, illegal, or inappropriate action under the threat of losing approval among the members of a group is also considered a form of bullying. What is understood as bullying varies according to human developmental stages and cultures.

Attempts to combat the bullying epidemic via zero-tolerance policies seem less than successful. In 2008 an American Psychological Association task force reported that 20 years of zero-tolerance policies show very little evidence of success. It would seem, then, that we are locked into a continuing social cycle.

Or perhaps we shouldn’t be so worried. In 2013, a Department of Education statistical report revealed that bullying had decreased 27 percent since 2011, with one in five teenagers then reporting being bullied in some way. A 2016 National Public Radio report observed of this report that “the most common [bullying] experiences reported were students being ‘made fun of, called names, or insulted’ (13 percent), and being the ‘subject of rumors’ (also 13 percent).

Cyber-bullying  was also found to be much less prevalent than also might be believed.  Approximately one student in 12 reported online bullying ranging from “hurtful information” to “purposeful exclusion from the online community.”

It might be tempting to regard the concern over bullying as simply a wave of media-generated hysteria, reflecting the concerns of adults over a coarsening culture. But as sociologist and Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture senior fellow Murray Milner explains, “Bullies have always been a problem. Part of growing up is learning to deal with them. But that does not mean that young people should be without assistance in [dealing with them].”

Just this brief survey of bullying reveals, if nothing else, that it is both a topic of extraordinary sensitivity, and one to which many separate disciplines can contribute understanding. Educators, artists, psychologists, technological experts, and even criminologists all contribute to defining the problem and offering solutions. But, given what we know about the role of culture in character formation, what assistance can we offer to young people in our era of hyperconnectivity and heightened bullying awareness?

First, recognize that “the old method of addressing bullying with a student assembly at the beginning of the school year just isn’t enough.” This method is based on an approach to culture change in which ideas and information are the most important motivation for and vehicle of change. However, lasting cultural change won’t emerge from merely transmitting information, however dramatic the means of transmission might be. The assembly might be a necessary first step, but it is only a first step.

Second, identify the social context within which bullying occurs. Often, it occurs through the exercise of what Milner defines as status power, used within status groups.

As he explains, status power is distinct from economic or physical power. For example, a teenager might know a lot about punk bands, but will not be accepted by other local punks if he wears khakis and a crucifix. Milner argues that high school, a social system imposed by adults on teenagers, has resulted in teens finding ways to create their own structure of status groups—what they, and we, call crowds and cliques.

Teachers and staff oversee teenagers in high school, but not as intensively as parents and other caregivers do in the home. In fact, contemporary teenagers have much more autonomy in high school than earlier cohorts. But, like earlier cohorts, they still have very little economic and political power. “In one realm, however, their power is supreme: They control the evaluations of one another.” Teenagers can be mean, a meanness often leading to bullying. For status to work, status groups must be “relatively inexpansible.” If one person moves in, another must move out; to stay on top, you must keep others down. Such social structures provide fertile soil in which bullying can flourish.

Thus, third, simultaneously give adults in schools greater knowledge, and confuse status groupings. Milner observes that respondents often report that teachers are oblivious to all forms of harassment and intimidation below the level of open violence. Why? Milner suggests that this is because our schools are so large that adults cannot reasonably cultivate deep knowledge. In small groups of students, however, staff and teachers can develop knowledge of not just names, but personalities. Moreover, in small schools it is more difficult for students to form status sub-groups.

In addition, Milner’s findings suggest the recent interest in “microschools” could be warranted as a means of enabling “adults to maintain a ‘caring watchfulness’ over all aspects of a young person’s maturation.”

Fourth, allocate more authority to adults in school settings, so that they have the resources needed to de-escalate bullying before it becomes psychologically or physically harmful. To an outsider observing the social structure of schools, it is surprising how little effective authority or sanction an adult can draw upon when bullying is observed. How might concerned parents and the broader community align with school leaders, teachers, and students to grant adults appropriate “additional positive and negative sanctions?”

For “if we expect teachers [and other adults in schools] to take more responsibility and better exercise the responsibility they have, they have to be given more effective power.”

Finally, the best anti-bullying program is a devotion to forming the moral lives of students in ways that allow them and their peers to flourish. As Ann Marie Gardinier Halstead advocates, “rather than focus on punishing the perpetrator and preventing contact between the ‘bully’ and the ‘victim,’ let’s focus on teaching positive social behaviors such as respect, compassion, and kindness.” We might also include courage among such behaviors, as the virtue that turns bystanders into what one expert terms upstanders—the people who intervene in something wrong to do what is right.