When It Comes to School Bullying, We May Not Be Asking the Right Questions
by Ronald B. Jacobson - April 02, 2012
In a bullying encounter, we ask why a bully bullies in the first place, but part of such an inquiry almost always includes a focus on the victim—that is, what is it about the victim that draws the ire of the bully? Researchers have spent great effort seeking to understand the motivations behind bullying, including why victims are targetable. Once we understand what causes a victim to be targeted, then, we believe, we can “fix up” the victim (to make him or her less targetable), and we can focus our work with the bully—helping him or her to be more tolerant of the “targetable” qualities held by the victim. But research also indicates that we may actually be asking the wrong question. Although bullying involves a victim and a bully, the literature also describes bullying as a social event, most often enacted within the purview of onlookers, accomplices, and bystanders. In this commentary, I argue that the victim is often incidental to the bullying encounter (i.e., the bully typically isn’t annoyed with, angry with, or threatened by the victim). Rather, the bully’s focus is on those watching the encounter—seeking to gain status with peers through the public domination of a classmate.
In a recent school shooting in Chardon, Ohio, preliminary reports indicated that the shooter, who had been attending a nearby alternative high school, had not been bullied and had targeted classmates at random.1 It is interesting that when school violence raises its ugly head, we immediately ask Why? (e.g., why were the intended victims targeted?). In understanding the target, we feel as though we can begin to unpack why the perpetrator did what he or she did. Our response to the violence (physical, emotional, or relational) of school bullying typically follows a similar pattern.
In a bullying encounter, we certainly ask why a bully bullies in the first place, but part of such an inquiry almost always includes a focus on the victimthat is, what is it about the victim that draws the ire of the bully? Researchers have spent great effort seeking to understand the motivations behind bullying, including why victims are targetable. Once we understand what causes a victim to be targeted, then, we believe, we can fix up the victim (to make him or her less targetable) and we can focus our work with the bully, helping him or her to be more tolerant of the targetable qualities held by the victim. This makes good sense and certainly is part of a valid bullying response matrix, but I would argue that it can sidetrack us from what the bully is most often doing when he or she targets a victim.
As we try to understand who gets targeted by a bully, we naturally notice the relational power imbalancethat is, that the bully is more powerful than the victim in some way, whether physically, socially, emotionally, and so on. We also quickly begin to focus on the victims qualities that place him or her in a targetable position (e.g., a lack of friends to stand up for him or her, annoying or unacceptable habits, and qualities or skills that may threaten the bully). Here we argue, for example, that the fact that a victim is gay, or wears the wrong kind of glasses, or stutters, or has the wrong body type is the reason for the bullying. This list of differences can go on ad nauseam. It is this difference, we conclude, that is crucial.2 Thus, we conclude that the bully is homophobic, or has a problem with skinny or overweight people, or is afraid of being identified with the very qualities he or she is attacking (a more psychological view). Again, all of these certainly may be true, but important evidence seems to point elsewhere. Research indicates that we may actually be asking the wrong question.
Although bullying involves a victim and a bully, the literature also describes bullying as a social event most often enacted within the purview of onlookers, accomplices, and bystanders (Salmivalli, Lagerspetz, Bjuorkqvist, Osterman, & Kaukiainen, 1996; Sutton & Smith, 1999, appendix). In fact, studies indicate that 85% of all bullying episodes are publically enacted (Pepler & Craig, 1995). This means that even if bullying is accomplished alone in the school bathroom, the bully is quick to broadcast his or her prowess to friends and classmates. If the bully were simply annoyed, threatened, or angry at the victim, one might ask why the public-ness of the activity is necessary and prevalent.
In a recent bullying example, Jake began to target Matthew (both sixth graders) in a playground bump game, recruiting the 2030 other children involved in the game to target Matthew, always working to knock him out first. The real bump game became focused on humiliating Matthew. Of course, the bullying moved to other public avenues (Matthew soon became a pariah at the school), but it began with this very public recess game. This is not atypical. Most of the subsequent bullying of Matthew by Jake was also carried out within the purview of any number of classmates. It is interesting that Jake began the bullying of Matthew at a point when students were gathered in the members only bump game. He recruited Sammy and Jeff, his best friends, believing that they would be interested in such an endeavor. And, one might contend, he calculated that the larger bump crowd would roar with laughter each time Matthew was eliminated. In fact, one might argue that the real pointthe salient aspect of those bump encounters between Jake, Matthew, and the watching crowdinvolved the knowing glances, the smiles, and the high-fives Jake collected as Matthew left each day in tears. The public humiliation of Matthew brought status to all who participated in his demise (Jacobson, 2010).
We often believe that bullying primarily has to do with the victim, the target of its activity. In this view, the bully is labeled homophobic or intolerant. Of course, the bully may be just that! But the nature of how we typically see bullying being played out (i.e., in the purview of watching peers) would suggest that something else, perhaps something more fundamental, is also afoot. Here, I would suggest that bullying has more to do with the perception of others. The bully does not truly care what people think of the victim; he or she is not always angry or irritated with the victim.3 In fact, the victim and his or her quirks may be quite incidental. Instead, the bullys actions are aimed at manipulating what others think of him or her, the bully. The public tears of the victim solidify the status of the bully (Jacobson, 2010).
Here, though the site of humiliation is focused on a target (victim) that has some weakness that the bully can publicly expose, a weakness that others will recognize, it is that last detail (i.e., that others will recognize) that becomes salient. Because for both the bully and those watching, the public humiliation of another (regardless of who he or she is), lowering the targets status, becomes a means of increasing his or her own status. Status, established publicly before a watching bump crowd (the whos who on the Southside campus), provided Jake, Sammy, and Jeff with notoriety, a valued sense of self offered by the watching crowd. Status was secured, solidified, and displayed in the tears of one who could not stand as an equal before Jake. Jake became somebody of importance, along with Jeff and Sammy and the entire bump crowd as they roared with laughter at Matthews elimination. They were not him; they were better (Jacobson, 2010, pp. 443444).
The difference that counts, then, is not whether the victim is gay, or has a speech impediment, or is too skinny or is overweight. The point of bullying is that those differences are sites relevant to the watching eyes of the crowda crowd that is almost always present in any bullying encounter. Asking why the bully is homophobic leads one to try to convince the bully that gay classmates have feelings, are important contributors to society, have every right to live hopefully and without hate, and so on. But I have argued that it just may be the case that the bully has no real beef with a gay student; it may be that his or her eyes never really focus on the victim at all, except in a cursory way. Instead of hating his or her victim, the bully may simply love the applause of the watching crowd. That the victim is gay or stutters is incidental. Here, then, we ask a different question: How does humiliating a classmate, using difference as a point of reference, become a viable vehicle to engender status in the eyes of ones peers within the culture of schooling? This leads us down a significantly different path of response, one that I would argue fits better with what research has shown us and one that offers real hope in limiting the kinds of bullying activities that continue to plague our schools. As with any problem we face, asking the right question is indispensable.
1. This is not about bullying; this is not about drugs, said David Joyce, the Geauga County prosecutor. This was an effect of one lone gunman. He chose his victims at random (Tavernise & Preston, 2012).
2. It is interesting to note that for a popular kid, difference can make him or her a trendsetter rather than a victim. Social perception is crucial in the line that divides the two.
3. Salmivalli and Nieminens (2002) research found that emotional arousal or feelings of anger are not necessarily involved in bullying behavior. No external provocation is necessarily present either. Rather, bullying can be seen as an institutionalized habit, or cool aggression (p. 32).
Jacobson, R. (2010). On bullshit and bullying: Taking seriously those we educate. Journal of Moral Education, 39(4), 437448.
Pepler D., & Craig W. (1995). A peek behind the fence: Naturalistic observations of aggressive children with remote audiovisual recording. Developmental Psychology, 31, 548553.
Salmivalli, C., Lagerspetz, K., Bjuorkqvist, K., Osterman, K., & Kaukiainen, A. (1996). Bullying as a group process: Participant roles and their relations to social status within the group. Aggressive Behavior, 22, 115.
Salmivalli, C., & Nieminen, E. (2002). Proactive and reactive aggression among school bullies, victims, and bully-victims. Aggressive Behavior, 28, 3044.
Sutton, J., & Smith, P. (1999). Bullying as a group process: An adaptation of the participant role approach. Aggressive Behavior, 25, 97111.
Tavernise, S., & Preston, J. (2012, February 28). Portrait emerges of suspect in fatal Ohio school shooting. The Seattle Times. Retrieved from http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/ 2017620219_ohio29.html