When the bullied becomes the bully

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

When I read this article from HuffPo this morning, I was not surprised by the findings. I admit to being bullied as a young person and I admit to being bullied as an adult. While I always thought that after public school bullying would cease, it never completely did. Mature adults do bully other adults, though the bullying is more matured (seems like a contradictory statement, I know) than the bullying of, say, a seventh grader. I’ve noticed that the bullying that occurs between adults is far different and I’ve witnessed multiple occasions where this has happened not only to myself, but to others I know, even in an academic environment where we pride ourselves on being open-minded, encouraging and thoughtful individuals. It happens in the underhanded comment, bullying disguised as humor, or outright aggressive behaviors.

Recently, I had to deal with bullying in my own classroom. During conferences, a student told me that one of the other students in her peer group made her feel “uncomfortable because of sexual jokes” and even going so far as to make fun of her last name. The student confessed that this individual had been in other classes with her and she had worked to mostly avoid this individual (who is another female, by the way, if that matters and I think it does). We talked about it and I have since talked to the student accused of the remarks who claims that is just her “trying to be funny.” I explained it wasn’t funny to her peer group members (I never said who lodged the complaint or made it obvious it was only one individual) and explained that during peer review one should stick to the work involved. I told her humor, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Though I didn’t disband the group, I thought about it, and if problems continue I will probably have to. But I feel that disbanding the group could make the bullying situation worse as I do believe the student who is the bully knows full well who lodged the complaint. But, at the same time, I can’t help but thinking if it is individualist ideology (solve your own problems) and a type of groupthink (we have to work with all kinds of people, so let’s practice now) that caused that decision and that best practice would just be to separate these students. But for now I am simply keeping a close eye on this group to make sure everything is comfortable for everyone and that peer group is productive and inclusive. I told the student who discussed the situation with me that if it continues, I need to know immediately and I believe she will comply with this.

But I can’t help but feel I could do more or that I have made the wrong decision, and I know it is the bullied individual in me that responds to this so strongly.

I want to tell you I am not a victim of bullying, or at least not the way we have read about it in the news. Think of the suicides that have resulted from bullying, which the documentary Bully in part focuses on. I realize media thrives on hype and groupthink, but the news is disturbing nonetheless. When the shootings were first reported in Ohio earlier this week, many suspected bullying where the bullied became the bully. This certainly happened with Littleton, CO in 1999. I remember when the news broke because I was “sick” that day and I was able to watch the events unfold on CNN in my parents’ living room.

In a way, I doubt many of us are not guilty of bullying to some extent, but there is evidence that suggests bullied kids become bullies as adults, or at least have a higher likelihood of bullying. Part of this is the revenge factor. A bullied kid does desire revenge and that is in part human nature. Another part is the self-esteem issue: we need to belittle someone else in order to raise ourselves, which is really ridiculous if you think about it. Either way, you would think the bullied would be more sympathetic or empathetic to others who are bullied, but not really because being a bully equals power. People like bullies. Look at some of the people who are popular or well liked in the media. I would argue a few of these are bullies. Look at some of the people at work or at school who seem to be admired. Some of these people are also bullies.

But, like I said, bullying in adults is different, much different. As an introvert, I am a keen observer of behavior. I have overheard almost whispered comments or things said under one’s breath about someone. I have seen bullying disguised in humor. I have seen colleagues leave a room laughing together at the expense of another colleague, though I hate to admit this here. This behavior is unacceptable.

I wish I had solutions, but I don’t and I think right now that is what many are searching for: solutions. This occurs through activism and non profit organizations geared toward helping others deal or work through situations regarding bullying. But do I have answers? No, of course not. As I told my friend Anthony recently, people suck. Though I admire people and have so much hope for the creativity and ingenuity of the other humans around me, I realize how cruel people can be. How thoughtless. And I have seen it throughout my whole life and sadly, I don’t expect it to change.

But I do expect we will keep talking about it and trying to do something about it as we build further awareness around it because let’s be honest, this is counterproductive to everything we as humans could achieve together.

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