The Problem with the Anti-bullying Bandwagon

Miss Blackflag via Flickr CC

“If you want to make a difference, the next time you see someone being cruel to another human being, take it personally. Take it personally because it is personal!” –Brene Brown

The anti-bullying movement is certainly well intentioned.  There is no denying that.  My problem with the anti-bullying parade of legislation, media stories and programming is that there is a self-satisfied bragging about it without any self-reflection.  Look at all the things we are doing to stop bullying!

This post was motivated by a Facebook post from one of my dear friends, who teaches in the NYC Schools.  She told a story about talking with kids in her class.  She created a space where she could safely challenge the kids and they could respond honestly and share stories not only of being bullied; but, occasions when they have actually done the bullying.  Her post responded in a litany of folks congratulating her which is well deserved; but, when I tried to steer the discussion towards how we could model the behavior we expect to see, nobody took the bait and it got me thinking.  My friend mentioned how some of the students who were the biggest anti-bullying advocates were actually bullies.

New Jersey now has the toughest anti-bullying laws in the country and Governor Christie has been quick to congratulate himself for its passage.  But, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that New Jersey is also a state which has a bully for a governor.  Do you think that the children of New Jersey would be better served by the anti-bullying legislation or by adults in their lives who do not bully, judge, gossip and instead choose to cultivate an atmosphere of kindness and compassion?

I think it is safe to say, without referencing scholarly articles, that bullying is a learned behavior.  I’ve seen gossip and bullying in every workplace I’ve worked in.  My school teacher partner comes home and tells me some disturbing stories about teacher and administrator behavior.  In Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: popularity, quirk theory, and why outsiders thrive after high school, author Alexandra Robbins follows several students around at schools in different parts of the country.  In one instance, the reader is a few chapters into the book before you realize that the bullied, weird girl who suffers at the hands of a mean girl and her clique is actually a teacher and is being bullied by other teachers.  Where do you think kids are learning bullying behavior?  From us.    We have created and sustain a bully culture.

It’s all well and good to discourage bullying in children; but, what are we doing about the bully inside of us?  Oh, sure, I’ve seen articles and books about bully coworkers and bosses; but, they are almost exclusively about extreme bullies and fail to capture the subtle, everyday bully.  Ask yourself the following:

  1. Do you gossip?  Do you listen to or spread stories about coworkers, neighbors, or other people in your life?
  2. Do you exclude a person from group activities?  Do you participate in group activities after work when one or more coworkers have purposefully been excluded from invitation?
  3. Do you go home and tell stories about your coworkers that include judging or name calling?
  4. Do you make fun of people in front of your children?
  5. Do you tell mean jokes?  Do you crack jokes about coworkers?
  6. Do you tease any of your coworkers?  Your friends?  Your family?  Any other people in your life?

Are you now thinking, this doesn’t pertain to me, I’m nice, I’m kind.  What are you doing right now to cultivate compassion and empathy in yourself?  Oh, I agree that we need Anti-bullying campaigns and programming; but, it starts from within.  It’s not easy.  People piss us off and do stupid things and sometimes people make themselves irresistible targets.  The library field is saturated with odd folks and sometimes it is difficult to refrain from making an easy joke about a person’s style, personality quirks, weird hobbies or social awkwardness.  I know this because there have been too many times when I have not refrained and contributed to a culture that ultimately I wanted to see disappear.  Can you go one day without talking about one coworker in front of other coworkers?

“What we know matters but who we are matters more.” ― Brené Brown,

My friend, the teacher in the story at the top of this post, is one of those rare folks who is kind and thoughtful and nurturing.  She is not perfect.  None of us are perfect.  But, she gently taught those kids something that day.  She taught them something about assessing their own behavior and how it affects others.  And she gave them a safe place to talk about it.

Do that for yourself.  Is there something in your own behavior that needs to be changed.  Do you act towards others as you wish to be acted upon?  Do you have someone in your life that can be your sounding board?  I have a few people in my life that I trust and feel safe telling things that make me deeply vulnerable.  These are people who are also on a similar path; so, I know that they understand that I don’t want some behavior I’m describing to be easily condoned with a “that’s okay” response.  They also don’t judge or use the opportunity to feel superior.  They are my partners in this quest.

“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”  –Brene Brown

What kind of person do you want to be?  Do you want to be the person people feel comfortable gossiping with or the person people trust NOT to gossip?  Do you want to be the person that makes harsh judgments about people because of appearance or some other detail about their lives? Do you want to be the person who is kind to a person even when they annoy you because you are capable of EMPATHY?  Who erases the annoyance with a gentle attitude?

  • Little by little remove the bully from your heart and mind.
  • Surround yourself with people who want to be better.
  • The Golden Rule is made of awesome.  If it is the only rule you follow, you will lead a good life.
  • Commit.  (I’m yelling, arms raised to the sky)  Commit!!  Commit to the person you wish to be in the world.

Commit to kindness.  Commit to opening your heart.  As you move through this world, leave love in your wake.

Note to Self: I forgive you.

What would your day be like if you forgave yourself?

There was recently a dust up about non librarian bloggers and the number of ARCs they were taking at ALA.  I’m not really going to get into the nitty gritty; but, one post caught my attention.  Go read that post and click to your heart’s content to get caught up on the issue if you are interested.  For this post, all you need to understand is that a librarian who happens to write a blog I read regularly, tweeted something that upset people and that she most likely regretted.  She apologized on her blog and then I’m guessing there was a pile up of chastising and shaming.

We’ve all done, said, written, tweeted, and/or reacted in a way that we’ve sometimes instantly, sometimes later regretted.

This is how to handle it:

Take deep breaths.  I mean it.  Try to think calmly and rationally and deter any panic you feel.  When you feel that you can make a calm and rational statement, apologize without excuse.  Just apologize sincerely.  Have a friend look it over if you want it double checked before you send it.

Now is when the fun begins because humans love to pile on in a big shaming scrum.  It won’t matter that you apologized.  Especially in the digital world, folks will weigh in on why you are mean, stupid, insensitive, wrong or a horrible person.  If you can, try not to read and respond to any of it.  If you have a trusted friend/colleague have them review the responses in case there is one that is insightful or worthy of response.

Some folks would think because perhaps you ignited the fire, you should stand in the flames.  I don’t agree with this at all, especially when there is little value coming from the response.  I think it is a completely legitimate and reasonable choice not to read it.

Next:  forgive yourself.  If you are spending energy going over and over and over in your head what is happening and feeling shame and regret, you really need to forgive yourself.  You need to have empathy and compassion for yourself and accept that you did it, reflect on how you would handle it differently next time and move on.  MOVE ON!  One technique for this “letting go” is to mentally label.  When ever you feel tempted to read the flame war or your mind starts fueling the shame, create a label you can say in your head that will trigger you to move on to thinking about something else.  You could follow up your label with a question:  what would I tell my friend if she were in this situation?  Whenever I suspect I’m judging myself too harshly, I always wonder what I would think if it happened to someone else.  I catch myself having more compassion for others.  I would never subject others to some of the judgey thoughts I think about my own behavior.

I think Jenica Rogers, author of the post in question, handled this quite nicely.  She apologized, took some heat and then wrote a post officially ending her participation in the discussion.  This second post is an excellent idea and her example is a good reminder that you are in control of how long you participate in the discussion.

Shame is only a powerful force if we allow it to have power over us.  One of my favorite TED people is Brene Brown, a researcher at University of Houston who studies, writes and speaks about vulnerability and shame.  She has created a shame resilience program that is being adopted by mental health practitioners.   She has spoken, what I consider to be brilliant words about vulnerability:

“Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”

And on the flip side, remember this:  People do things, say things, write things that they regret.  Let them apologize and refrain from shaming.  Shaming is the modern day stoning.  It is hurtful and divisive to all parties involved.

Participate in discussions that create and build connection, inspire ideas and heal wounds.  I guarantee that you will find more joy in life and work.

Everyone is Welcome.

I’m fascinated by the level of security at NYC academic libraries.  Notice I didn’t say disturbed by.  I understand the reasoning on many levels.  Here at Pace, most of the downtown school is housed in the same building.  This includes dorms.  So, you  have to get past two security guards to get to the library or anywhere in our building.  I get this.  There are multiple floors of dorm rooms above us and if I were a parent with a kid here, I’d want the campus to be very careful with my child’s safety.

NYU’s Bobst Library is notoriously tough to get into unless you are a student, staff or faculty member.  I say tough; but, really it is almost impossible.  I have heard Columbia and the various other schools here all have similar policies.

My first job out of library school was at South Dakota State University in Brookings, SD.  Anyone could wander in there and use the resources, get help from the reference desk and generally hang out.  I suppose that still holds true today.  My only rebellious thoughts on the prevalent policies of NYC libraries is that I sense that it sets the library staff up to be suspicious, questioning and stingy with their resources.  I haven’t witnessed that attitude but I have heard some stories, even prior to working in NYC myself.

Even in public libraries that deal with the safety issues that come with urban libraries we must find ways to balance caution with a willingness to help openly.  I think this is most difficult in libraries where there is an expectation of safety and orderliness.  I worked in one urban public library where we all just had a slightly heightened awareness of what was happening at all times.  In an odd way, this allowed us to serve everyone equally.

This open door policy is something about the public library world that I will miss.  While at Middletown,  a man complained to me about another patron because he claimed she was hogging all the newspapers.  I offered to retrieve any issue he wanted and he kept saying, “That’s not the point.”  What  bothered him was that there was a regular patron, who had an appearance and some behaviors that were outside the norm of what he expected in our community and she liked to sit with a pile of papers and read them.  I suspected he felt uncomfortable approaching her for the paper which is why I offered to retrieve it.  He thought she should be banned from the library for paper hogging.  But, he just didn’t want her in the library because she made him uncomfortable.  I was able to gently tell him, “This is a public library.  Everyone is welcome here.”  I’m going to miss that.

Fakin’ It

photo: mmlolek via flickr cc

I recently had an awesome experience.

At our library, we are starting up a wellness team to think up and plan health and wellness programs for staff. Our township does not provide any health and wellness activities so we thought it would be a good idea to start some in-house.

At our Annual Staff Day, I got to introduce the idea of having a wellness team, some of the initial ideas we had, conduct a survey to see what staff actually want and I taught a class on 2 different meditation techniques. It was a lot of fun and I enjoyed sharing some of the things I’ve learned over the years about meditation. The theme of the day was “Civility” and I took that idea and applied it to my meditation class by choosing to teach them Loving kindness Meditation. I was a bit nervous at first because I understand that people sometimes don’t like activities which they perceive as touchy–feely. I asked them to open their hearts to the technique and give it a try and I asked them to give me the space to talk about love and kindness openly.

The class went well and there was a lively discussion. One of the things that kept coming up for people is that it is hard to do loving kindness meditation for someone who is their “less than favorable” person. One person asked me point blank how I do it for someone who has angered or hurt me. That it is impossible to be sincere. What do I do?

Fake it. That was my answer and I think it was a pretty good one. Repetition breeds habit. I also said that I sometimes need to try it on, to think about WHAT it would really feel like to have these wishes and love and compassion for this person. I think faking it is also part of that process. But what about the insincerity of it? If the intention is sincere, the motivation behind the practice is sincere, then I think faking it is just practice. Practice that eventually leads to meaning and sincere feelings. Even if you are thinking of the worst, violently abusive person, you can wish them health and happiness. Why? Why would you? Because if their suffering is lessened what would their impact on the world be?

Plus, I think faking it, practicing it, leads to a softening of your heart and that benefits you and lessens your suffering.

I think this technique is particularly useful in the workplace. If you do loving kindness meditation for a toxic coworker and your heart softens towards them, you are helping to heal the workplace and that is always good. I guarantee that there are NO negative side effects to loving kindness meditation!

Yesterday, one of my coworkers called me on the phone to tell me that she was thinking about the empty boat story and that it was hard but she was going to help me carry the torch.  This is win/win all the way around.  She will have less suffering. She will provide better customer service.  She will spread joy to other people.  I feel inspired by her.

Cultivating Compassion Takes Practice not Magic

I think there is a belief that a person is either “nice” or not.  There is a belief that people don’t change.

This is not true.  People do and can change.  If you want to be a nicer, kinder, calmer person there are things you can do to cultivate that.  Years ago, I met a man who told me that I was one thought away from changing my life and in some ways he was right.  Maybe the thought is:  it doesn’t have to be this way.  Or maybe the thought is:  I really hate when I get angry and say things I end up regretting.

Compassion requires the ability to let go of preconceived ideas and perceptions.  It requires you to open your heart and to see another person’s suffering.  You can cultivate compassion through a sustained effort, a practice of focus on other and a practice of seeing other as you.

Ode Magazine in 2007 published an article on cultivating compassion that included the following exercise:

Practising compassion

Compassion can be practised anywhere: at airports, on beaches or in shops, whenever we are together with other people. Try this five-step exercise around friends and strangers. Do it discreetly and try to do all the steps with the same person.

With your attention geared to the other person, tell yourself:

Step 1: “Just like me, this person is seeking happiness in his/her life.”

Step 2: “Just like me, this person is trying to avoid suffering in his/her life.”

Step 3: “Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness and despair.”

Step 4: “Just like me, this person is seeking to fill his/her needs.”

Step 5: “Just like me, this person is learning about life.”


I really love the simplicity of this exercise.  I think it an excellent practice to begin cultivating compassion.  You can use it with strangers and you can use it with coworkers who are toxic and with family members who are annoying.  In my previous post, I called for some compassion for the two college students who bullied Tyler Clementi.  Let’s try using Mr. Ravi in our exercise:

Just like me, Dharun Ravi is seeking happiness in his life.

Just like me, Dharun Ravi is trying to avoid suffering in his life.

Just like me, Dharun Ravi has known sadness, loneliness and despair.

Just like me, Dharun Ravi is seeking to fill his needs.

Just like me, Dharun Ravi is learning about life.

I think the last one particularly resonates with me in this case.  I think that he is learning very hard lessons about life right now.

There is no magic in developing compassion.  There are no secrets, no special skills, no barriers outside your control.  All that you need to develop compassion is within you.  Start your practice today.  The pay off is enormous, as described in this well known quote of the Dalai Lama:

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”


Tyler Clementi and the Seduction of Revenge

The media is rabid over the death of Tyler Clementi.  I have a self imposed limit on news filtering into my life and even I have been bombarded with headlines, chats between DJs on the rock station and my Facebook News Feed has been a steady stream of “It Get’s Better” videos and links to various newspaper articles on the events leading up to Tyler’s suicide.

The two Rutgers students who are being charged with invasion of privacy, Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei have been vilified as gay bashers who should be additionally charged with hate crimes and/or manslaughter and defended with the argument that they were just being typical kids.

We’ll never really know what motivated these young people to secretly tape another student in the privacy of his own room and  stream it to the Internet.  They have been quieted by lawyers and fear for their futures and fear for their own safety in the aftermath of these events.  The media has turned it into theater and aren’t really interested in a quiet analyses of how we got here.

I won’t pretend to know what led these kids to do something so hurtful and stupid; but, I’m going to propose something radical.  Let’s stop yelling for one moment and consider treating Ms. Wei and Mr. Ravi with a bit of compassion.

But, we want revenge.  We want revenge because then Ms. Wei and Mr. Ravi become other.  They are now steps removed from us because the higher the punishment the less they are us.  We want revenge because we’ve all been bullied in our lives by someone and somebody should pay.  We want revenge because some of us are gay and we’re sick of being targeted and picked on and we’re sick of being fearful.

Revenge is not the answer.  Compassion is.  I do not think ruining these two people’s lives is the answer.  I don’t think a sustained effort of harassment and shame and threats is the answer.

I think bullying is a complex problem that can’t be dissected in one blog post or even in the mainstream media.

It does bring up a topic I think about a lot, which is, where is the kindness?  Where is the empathy?  Instead of putting all of our energies into anti-bullying laws (which 45 states have done) we should be developing a plan to cultivate compassion and empathy into children asap and this training should be long and sustained.  Empathy can be learned.  Compassion can be cultivated.

And we have to turn the focus on ourselves.  Here in the United States we have a bully culture.  That’s why the  greatest reality television heroes are the bullies.  Does anyone even remember the names of the people that win?  No.  We love the bullies.  We are bombarded with images and plots where the bullies win and we have little tolerance for the weak.  We love Simon Cowell and his snarky commentary.  We love Jerry Springer and Jersey Shore.

If these kids had stopped for one second and thought about how THEY would feel if this were done to them, they wouldn’t have done it.

And here we have it, the Golden Rule, a rule that is upheld in almost every religion that I know of and is a common lesson taught in secular society.  Treat people the way you wish to be treated.  Most of us abandon it in the heat of the moment or when we feel we’ve been wronged or when we’re over-tired, stressed, hurt, immature or a host of other reasons.

If you had done something stupid and cruel when you were 18 or 25 or even yesterday, how would you wish to be treated?

Ultimately, we are responsible for our own mark on the world.  I know people who are vigilant about packing out the minutest piece of trash from the wilderness; but, think nothing of being rude or careless with their words and behaviors in their interactions with other humans.  It is a different kind of pollution they are leaving behind.

We are not that far removed from Ms. Wei and Mr. Ravi.  Now is not the time for revenge.  Now is the time for reflection and action that builds a sustainable culture of compassion.