Bullying and Power
This is a follow-up to the first Newsletter and explains the connection between power and bullying. The vulnerability to be bullied is dependent on how a child or adult perceives their sense of power in relation to others. In regards to personal power in relationships this can be defined as ‘the ability or perceived right to control people or their environment’. It is the distinction of ‘rank’ within a set of domains that defines a person’s supremacy.
So in a broad sense it may well be appropriate for the community to invest power onto individuals or onto formal organizations such as the police, judiciary and parliament to adjudicate on disputes that affect community members. These organizations are intended to make precise decisions when specialist knowledge is required or use their power to protect citizens from exploitation or abuse.
The issue where bullying is concerned is where the distribution of power between individuals and groups allows those in a subordinate position to be hurt, threatened or forced to do something for no other reason than to gratify the bully. Those who believe they have power-over others are inclined to direct them to do their bidding.
In any dispute the person or group in the superior or one-up position usually takes on an aggressive stance to attack the other’s rights. Those in the lesser, one-down position are likely to take a passive position and tolerate their loss of ‘rights’.
People as a rule know where they stand in any group; it is the well-known pecking order. During my years teaching kids with behaviour issues I could randomly select about five students and get them to line-up from the most powerful to the least powerful. Invariably they would line up with only the occasional dispute over who was the least powerful. I never took this step lightly, I am aware that it is challenging and would be abusive if it was not related to a lesson about power and I will get back to this point later. I know I could also confidently do this with the teachers in the school.
The girls’ ‘Queen Bee’ phenomena described by Sussana Stern is another demonstration of the distribution of power and this is easily seen in most playgrounds with the queen, her lieutenants – second in command, wannabees, etc. all taking up their designated position.
Traditionally the factors that defined what position a person took in a dispute was governed by:
- Their position in the family and the influence of their relatives. This is the class structure we deny having in Australia just like we deny there is racism. Unless you are on the receiving end you are oblivious to its existence.
- The school attended will also define your position. This is one of the strong drives for people to get their children into ‘good schools’. It’s also a class issue and the practice and the result is children are becoming more tribal and isolated from their immediate communities.
- Gender is still a real concern in the issue of perceived power. The glass ceiling is not an imagined impediment to women and despite the protests by too many of our powerful community leaders being a female or a member of a gender-diverse group will automatically be seen as a one-down, lesser position.
In recent years another factor has emerged that reinforces perceived power and that is celebrity. In our modern, connected world just how popular you are is an indication of the power you have. Celebrities are paid excessive amounts to endorse products or organizations. Now we have celebrities telling us about bullying, about science and having their opinions sought on all types of issues. The ultimate outcome of this authorization of celebrity is that a person who had the three traditional advantages described above plus the additional benefit of celebrity has become the president of the USA!
Fortunately there is a way out; power-over in the sense of personal worth is a myth. This is the lesson I taught the students when I lined them up. You never gain any power over another; it must be given to you. I taught the students that everyone is unique; no one was better or worse. We came with different talents and characteristics. Comparisons can be about capabilities, I might be able to run faster than you but I will never be better then you. We give power to institutions because we believe they are there to protect us. We defer to them but only for issues we accept and we control them through the democratic process.
Teaching kids the idea of real equity is hard when society is saturated with examples of better, or less-then conditioning. The whole advertising industry exploits our natural fears of not being good enough to convince us into buying their products. Having a certain car, drinking a certain beer, wearing a brand of clothes, etc. all this will make us powerful. This is a difficult battle to win because advertising dollars funds the media and unfortunately modern media determines our culture.
The appointment of Trump, now the bully with the biggest arsenal proves that unless we come to terms about power it will be left up to teachers and parents to eliminate bullying by removing the element of unequal power distribution and that will occur when we bring all our children up to equity.