We have just completed a week where our national focus has been on bullying. Our ABC has certainly placed a good deal of emphasis on this problem and has featured two of our great celebrities Ian Thorpe and Tara Moss to deal with this important issue. They both make strong cases against bullying including direct bullying and the modern dangers of cyber bullying. However, after years of combating this problem the simplistic approach presented fails to explain the complexity faced by those who have to deal with it on a day-to-day basis.
There are some particular points that need to be made regarding this problem. These are to remember bullying is a specific form of aggression. It is selective, uninvited, repetitive oppression of one person or group by another. It involves three elements – intent to hurt or harm; power imbalance; and repetition over time. It takes many forms and guises including physical aggression; verbal abuse; emotional aggression (or blackmail); intimidation; harassment and exclusion. The NSW Department of Education defines bullying as “repeated verbal, social or psychological behaviour that is harmful and involves the misuse of power by individuals or groups towards one or more persons”.
The simple solution to the problem is that we just stop the practice of bullying but the simple answer, like all simple answers ignores an insidious component that underpins the act of bullying. The complex factor schools deal with is mentioned in the definition above and that is the element of power. The failure to understand the importance of power in the practice of bullying has led to the huge problem we now face.
First look at the dynamics of a power tussle, there are three positions that will be taken in any clash. These are:
1. The Perpetrator
The perpetrator is the ‘obvious’ overt aggressor in the dispute. The perpetrator assumes the domination over his/her opponents and feels confident that they will not be damaged by some counter attack.
2. The Victim
The victim becomes the ‘obvious’ casualty in the dispute. They will not obviously retaliate at their opponent because it is assumed they will only receive more damage. When people do retaliate we are dealing with a dispute, a different problem.
3. The Rescuer
This is the ‘agent’ who is called on to protect the victim. In our modern system, for children this becomes the school staff. Of course schools do and have always acted to protect kids from bullies. Apart from some well-publicised cases in the past the vast majority of schools don’t need to be told of their responsibilities by celebrities. But it is the rescuer that holds the key to the complexity.
Now these three power positions interact in a way that makes what appears to be a simple issue complicated. In the first instance the aggressor has the one-up position. He/she has power over the victim. This is easily understood and reported on by the press.
The second phase is more complex. When the victim is identified they call on the rescuer to make the bullying stop. This act, in a sense means the victim exerts power over the rescuer to force them to act. Before we jump to any conclusion this is appropriate and should occur.
So we move to the third phase where the rescuer, through some position authority exercises power over the initial aggressor and in a sense the rescuer takes a one-up, power-over position. The aggressor becomes the victim and rightly receives the consequences of their initial action.
Now we address what can be a subtle manipulation of power. In some cases and schools will know of many such cases a student who appears to be vulnerable will covertly annoy a seemingly more confident child until that child reacts and asserts their rights to be left alone. When this occurs the action of the ‘professional victim’ will immediately call on their rescuer to punish the confident child. In the first instance this will be through the school but the professional victim will complain to their parents who go to the school and sort things out. The parent arrives at the school and demands the apparent aggressor be punished. The parent becomes the aggressor and the principal becomes the victim.
So now we have to look at the real power in this scenario. Sometimes the parent certainly does attack the school by taking a one-up position making the school the victim, the target of their aggression. This form of interaction underpins the problem of increasing teacher abuse. But, the real power lies in in the hands of the professional victim. They have asserted power over the initial child, the parent and through the parent the school.
The dynamics of the power triangle illustrates the complexity involved in dealing with bullying.
Bullying needs to be taken seriously. But we also need to be discerning about bullying behaviours. They are always underpinned by people’s need to have power over their lives. Until we learn that we can only have real power over ourselves and we should not attempt to get our power needs met at the expense of others will the issue of bullying be solved. The real solution is to teach the victim to assert their own power when confronted by bullies.
On the other hand when we observe the unhealthy distribution of power across the world is it any wonder kids continue to bully each other.