It’s generally understood that bullying is a problem, especially in schools. It’s talked about, games are made on the matter, people wonder what to do about it. However, I consistently get the impression that the bully people are trying to stop is the bully pictured in the image above. The stereotypical “school bully” – usually male, low self esteem, physically large, generally mean and disliked by everyone beyond other people similar to him.
As a person who has been bullied quite a bit in my life, well into adulthood, I want to say that my experiences of bullying have not fit into that archetype. My bullies were often popular, well liked, and charismatic. Often even the teachers liked them, certainly more than they liked me. I can remember one instance when a student was chatting and laughing with a teacher and saw me coming and said something cruel in my direction. The teacher simply laughingly said “that was mean!” and they went right back to chatting.
As for me, I was painfully shy, socially awkward, and I didn’t shower often enough. People found it easy to dismiss me and hard to value my concerns over their general like of my tormentors. So, predictably, I was dismissed and few people cared about what was going on. I had teachers look on and watch but do nothing while other students repeatedly spat gum into my hair. Or watch another student physically shove me out of a desk onto the floor, and then take me out into the hall to scold me. Teachers can be bullies too.
It’s much the same story in adulthood. I’ve been targeted, and frequently the person doing so was popular and charismatic, so everyone was far more interested in looking the other way than in acknowledging the bullying and maybe doing something about it. I have found that the unpopular person with low self esteem is usually the one getting bullied, not the one doing the bullying.
Part of the problem (beyond the ever-present social awkwardness and anxiety) is that I am, and always have been, quite vulnerable. I tend to be naive and I take teasing very personally – I have a lot of trouble with things like “friendly insults.” Sadly, this makes me a target. Again, not a target for your stereotypical bully like you might think, but a target for the charismatic popular person who happens to be really cruel to some subset of people. I can’t say it’s something I understand, but it’s real, it happens, and it’s a problem. While I’ve worked on my vulnerability quite a bit and it’s much better than it used to be, it’s still there, and it means it would be all too easy for bullying to happen yet again.
I do not actually have any real answers to the bullying problem. Mostly I want to see more acknowledgement that bullying isn’t about a type of person, but about behaviors. I want to see people understand that the awesome person they really like might also be acting a bully towards someone else. I want people to recognize that however much they like that person, just looking away because it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge is the wrong answer. Also, I want people realize that bullying is not something that “other people” do. It’s altogether too easy to engage in bullying, given that targets of bullying often have issues and are so very vulnerable. I want to see people be more willing to really look at their own behavior and see where they might be acting cruelly, and realize that however much they dislike the target, that kind of behavior is not ok. I don’t think the solution will come from watching the trouble makers and problem kids. It will come from looking at ourselves, and seeing how we might be contributing to the problem. And then, importantly, changing that.