How to stop bullying

Bullying has become a big issue in recent years especially very recently, so much so that the concept is in danger of losing its meaning. The media are getting great mileage out of it to the point one academic, Peter Gill, took the Irish Times to task yesterday in a letter to the editor, True Victims of Bullying, which is worth a read. It might reign in any excessive emotive reactions to bullying. To understand a concept, it’s useful to get a proper definition and aetiology. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English;

noun (plural bullies) a person who uses strength or influence to harm or intimidate those who are weaker.                                                                                                                   verb (bullies, bullying, bullied) [with  object] use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force them to do something.                                   Origin; mid 16th century: probably from Middle Dutch boele  ‘lover’. Original use was as a term of endearment applied to either sex; it later became a familiar form of address to a male friend. The current sense dates from the late 17th century.

The single word “bully” makes it all sound a bit too pat. What’s behind this little word are experiences such as harassment, intimidation, fear, physical assaults, humiliation, ostracization, dread, anxiety, forcefulness (hence lack of freedom) inferiority etc etc, all of which have long-term effects. So it’s about one person exercising power over another, whether it’s economic, psychological, political, social etc, not just educational. The question this begs is; why would someone wish to exercise (i.e. abuse their power)? Obviously they have, as an inadequacy, a personal need to exercise power – because they feel powerless – and/or the environment (such as school or workplace) robs them of healthy power. Do undemocratic institutions like schools deprive children of healthy power? Of course they do so schools are part of the problem if not the problem.

Thus bullying can be seen as a form of competition between people, the antithesis of co-operation and collaboration which are the normal means of learning and working productively and how children play. According to Prof. Peter Gray, in his book Free To Learn, age-mixed play is especially valuable in this regard. Gray goes on to say that no anti-bullying programme has been 100% successful as they don’t get at the root of the problem and they can’t without radically altering the structure of the school. Older kids are pretty effective at stepping in to stop a bully. This is why – along with empowering the children by being democratic – a school like Sudbury Valley has seen little bullying. The smaller children have a pacifying effect on the older ones and a student who feels harassed can “bring up” the offender before the judicial committee, which comprises school members of all ages. Since children make the rules and have the responsibility for enforcing them, they have far more respect for the rules than do students in standard schools.

There’s obviously a lot more to the word “bully” than I have suggested above; consider the word’s aetiology. The word has changed over the decades from a word of endearment, “lover”, to a term of address to a male friend and now implies a socially dysfunctional and unacceptable person. Maybe there’s something in that; from lover to b—–d!

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