The Rise (and fall) of Bully Culture

The last few years the national discussion about bullying has heated up.   After Columbine, the media pounced on the idea that the two shooters were bullied and that their attack on the school was motivated by revenge.  This, of course, is a myth that was shattered in Dave Cullen’s meticulously researched Columbine.  But the conversation about bullies had already begun.  What started as a movement to prevent future shootings morphed into a suicide prevention strategy as the news media reported story after story of young people who killed themselves after enduring bullying at the hands of their peers.  Recently the conversation has broached the topic of bullying in sports after the Rutgers basketball coach was fired and the departure of Jonathon Martin from the Miami Dolphins after his claims of being bullied by fellow teammate, Richie Incognito.

There is an anti-bullying movement that is being put forth in schools across the country with varying degrees of success and 49 states have passed anti-bullying legislation.  There have been academic and governmental studies undertaken  There have been movies (feature films and documentaries) and novels for both adults and children created addressing the topic of bullying.  But what is really changing?  Books about bullies in the workplace have been a staple of business books for quite a few years; but, mostly we think bullying is a youth problem.

Is it really a youth problem?  I don’t think so.  This is a case of adults acting poorly and children following in their footsteps.  Bullying is learned behavior.

This is how I see it.  It is like when I see adults riding bikes with their kids.  The kids have helmets on; but, the adults do not.  Basically, the lesson here is that you have to wear a helmet until you are old enough to ride without one.  How is this related to bullying?  Look at our culture.  We love bullies.  We adore them.  We root for them.  We think they are funny and we support them in ways that make them a lot of money.  We elevate their social status and make it very clear that bullying is rewarding.  Yet, our rhetoric is that bullying is bad and should be stopped.

Chris Christie reeks of bully.  The way he conducts himself and the way he carries himself clearly spell out: bully.  He has been floated as a presidential candidate and he is (or was) very popular among NJ voters and beyond.  People frequently smile or even chuckle and say things like:  He just says it like it is.  Really, that’s what he does?  The New York Times has published an article chronicling some of his finer moments as bully.  He once told journalists to “take a bat” to one of his political opponents who happens to be an older woman, Loretta Weinberg.  Did you know that Chris Christie got one of the toughest anti-bullying law passed in the country?  I find that curious.  I find that a case of “do as I say, not as I do.”  While “apologizing” for the recent bridge scandal, he stated,  “This is not the tone I have set over the last four years in this building,” he said. “I am who I am. But I am not a bully.”  Really?  Because if he had set a different tone in his office, this most likely would have never happened.  I think that is exactly the tone he set, despite his anti-bullying rhetoric and legislative successes (NJ has some of the toughest anti-bullying legislation.)

And then there is problem when masculinity and bullying get confused.  When the recent NFL bullying scandal broke, there seemed to be two camps.  One thought that Martin should just toughen up and take it like a man and the other seemed to think that things had gotten out of hand.  The whole notion that any sort of harassment is acceptable because it is sports is absurd.  Professional football players may be sports figures entrenched in a sport known for violence; but, they are also employees.  If you took Incognito’s behavior out of the locker room and put it in an office, we would all be collectively appalled.

We are sending contradicting messages to young people.  We are telling them that bullying is bad and then we are creating bullies into heroes.  Reality television tops the charts not because everyone is nice to each other.  We watch to see the predators and their prey.  It really is that simple.  We tell them that bullying is bad; but, then create exceptions to that rule (bullying in the context of athletic training or fraternity hazing is character building).

Bullies are not tough.  And that is what children should be taught.  There is no exception to that rule and there is no bully behavior that should be celebrated.  Bullies are not tough; they are cruel.

There is a vast difference between toughness and cruelty.

We need to begin a national dialogue, not on bullying; but, on how to cultivate kindness and compassion in our young people.  Children learn from us.  They watch us and they mimic us.  If we bad mouth coworkers in front of our children, they hear us.  If we make fun of a weird neighbor in front of our children, they hear us.  If you gossip about an other adult, while children can hear you (in the library or classroom), they are learning something about how adults act.

We need to begin by cultivating compassion and kindness in ourselves.  The best way to get someone to understand the importance of wearing a bicycle helmet is by wearing one yourself.  Chris Christie is the highest leader of the State of New Jersey and a nationally recognized figure.  He has a history of bullying and retaliating against those who disagree or fail to do what he wants.  I personally do not believe that he didn’t know about the toll closures on George Washington Bridge.  It’s a Christie move to do something like that.  He spent his press conference talking about how betrayed he feels, as if he is the victim.  He can declare all he wants; but, he will continue to be judged by his behaviors.  He needs to do some major soul searching if he wishes to change that perception.  We need to stop supporting politicians that are bullies.  Stop supporting television shows and entertainment that glorifies bullies.  What do you think young people are learning from the bridge fiasco?

It is past time to end this madness.  What is to become of our society if we don’t begin to change?  You can start the movement right now.  You can cultivate your own compassionate life and practice it everywhere you go.  What will your impact be in this world?  Are you spreading goodness?  I’m going to let you in on a secret:  it feels better to experience moments of compassion and generosity than it does to one up, gloat or even cheer for the bully.

Let’s make a commitment to try a little bit harder to soften our hearts.  Our world really does depend on it.

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