Some reasons why
Emily Bazelon's Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy looks at bullying, among other things, from the perspective of someone who was bullied. In a Slate interview with Emily Yoffe, Bazelon discusses recent research suggesting that going after the weak had no benefit to bullies if their objective was ultimately social. But if they picked on someone near them in the social hierarchy who was a possible rival, that often had a social benefit. It's also valuable that she draws a distinction between physical and social aggression. I managed to get both: the Full Monty.
My experience mirrors Bazelon's idea that bullying is a failed social strategy. Concord was a very socially-conscious little city, and here's the first point on which I differ from what I've read of Bazelon. Her hypothesis is that adult intervention may harm more than help, by pinning the victim label on the bullied for life. Sorry, the adults are involved, or were in my school, before any bullying happened. It's adults (parents) who create the wider social context, and adults (teachers and administrators) who re-create that context in the schools. In my junior high, the social ladder some wanted to climb was a warped little mirror of the wider society in the city.
Consider my context. Every classroom in every grade had an academic status, and a social status that followed it. On paper this was confidential; in practise everyone knew their status, and presumably some aspired to move up, or were pressured to move up by ambitious parents. In Concord, there was an upper crust composed of the professional classes and bankers. The next level was occupied by state officers, an important element in a state capital, including my father. The aspiring usually were small businessfolk. My two principal tormentors (excluding their little band of enforcers) were a) the son of a furniture store owner and b) the son of a junkyard owner. Interestingly, both were Jewish in a town with more than its share of anti-semitism. All of us were in the class ranked #3 on the pecking order. Except that it was adults who created the wider social context, The idea of bullying equals holds up. As the son of a state official (one known to be aggressively opposed to anti-semitism, I later learnt) in the same class, I would have qualified as a suitable target.
I should comment here that my parents were not helpful. They stuck to the conventional bromides and largely were oblivious to my pain. My body was not: toward the end of the year, soon after the beatings were showing signs of getting out of hand, I came down with severe adenoiditis. Being hardly able to speak in class just added to my miseries, but it soon became bad enough that I was taken out of school for several weeks. By the time I came back, the worst of my travails with peers had ended: presumably an absent and sick target was of no use and they had gone for someone else.
Did this bullying succeed? Apparently not. My attackers were nobodies by high school, where the social puzzle was shaken up. In high school we had honours college prep, college prep, business, "general," and industrial arts. Home rooms were strictly alphabetical order, so twice a day the different classes had to rub elbows. My two little nemeses were far apart alphabetically. They were deprived of their goons, because industrial arts students spent much of the day in a separate building. Finally, their academic skills were not quite there (we'll get to that in a later post).
In After Newtown, an important point was raised. It is usually a media myth that teenage rampage killers are loners. More often, they are people who very much want to belong somewhere in the rigid adolescent hierarchy. I find this true. In seventh grade, I missed one important boat and nearly missed another.
In sixth grade, I had discovered a talent for choral music. (Something to do with the gene pool? Well duh!) I was good enough to be picked for a city-wide elementary school chorale. That should have been a cue for me, since the junior high had a very good music department, including a chorale, which like most chorales was frantic for good male voices. In my early adolescent mind, joining the chorale seemed like a slur on my masculinity, so I didn't audition. The irony of this was that the theme of my two little bullies and their muscle was that I was gay. Had I joined the chorale, I would have belonged to something out of the reach of the bullies, or at least had a social group to fend such clowns off.
I also turned down an invitation to what seemed to be nothing more than dancing lessons, for the same reason. Oddly enough its organisers persisted with me, and by eighth grade I yielded to parental pressure. What's germane to the discussion is that by joining this little coterie, I was on neutral--equal--ground with a couple of people who had at least been fellow travellers with my seventh grade gangstas. Back to Bazelon again: they surely perceived themselves as superiors in that group, and I was not inclined to contest it. At any rate, I began breaking the ice with people of both sexes and getting out from under the burden of social pariahdom. I don't recall that either of the main players were part of this group. Hindsight suggests no Jews were. Note, again, that it wasn't kids who organised these dance parties: it was adults. Had I joined the group in seventh grade, it would probably have inoculated me against this particular aggression. I would have been oblivious to the price tag then, but it makes me cringe in retrospect.
Last post, I made a snarky remark about whether we should require an adult level of sophistication of children as one preventive of bullying, at least by teachers.
Looking back, I also recall that nobody ever bullied those who exuded adulthood, i.e., those who could be perceived as social superiors. Last time, my example was a polymath who already lived for his music and was obviously intellectually miles ahead not only of any potential bully, but also of most peers and most teachers. He combined offhand brilliance with social competence that most adults could envy. He would hardly have noticed a bully.
By contrast, those like me who tried to take their time and size up this new environment seem to have been vulnerable. If one was also awkward and shy, the situation worsened. All these traits prevent impulsiveness, which grade 6-8 culture seems to value above all other behaviours. To be deliberate is to seem afraid. At any rate, Bazelon is on the right track here. When something signals superiority, the bullies back off.
Enough for the moment. I think next post it will be time to take a look at the role of adults. Bazelon may be right about the limits adults have in fixing the problem, but we sure as hell need to consider what grownups have done to create and enable it.