Blowing bullying out of all proportion
US expert Israel Kalman says it is mad that everything from eye-rolling to the Holocaust is now called ‘bullying’.
spiked asked Israel Kalman, creator of the American organisation Bullies2Buddies.com and an expert on how to deal with bullying, about the verbal assault on New York bus monitor Karen Klein and whether it can really be described as ‘bullying’. Here is what he told us.
‘Is this bullying? It depends upon the definition you use. According to the new academic definition, which informs all of the bullying literature, research and laws, the answer is “yes”. That’s because all negative behaviour has been redefined as bullying. This academic definition was created by the founder of the psychological field of bullying, Professor Dan Olweus. He literally says that all negative behaviour is bullying - even not doing what someone wants you to do. Thus, we have the absurd situation where if I try to force you to do something you don’t want to do, I am bullying you. But if you refuse to do what I want you to do, you are bullying me.
‘Everything from eye-rolling (I am not making this up) to the Holocaust is being called bullying today. Whenever a young person commits rape, theft or murder, it is called bullying. So yes, these kids were bullying her - according to the new definition.
‘And regarding whether it is possible for children to bully an adult who is not their peer, the answer is “sure”. The “imbalance of power” part of the definition of bullying sounds good, but is really a logical fallacy. It is obvious that often people torment people who are more powerful than themselves. The bullying experts deal with this problem in two different ways. One way is that they say, “Yes, there must be an imbalance of power. The bully is the stronger one, but the bully can also be the weaker one.” (Again, I am not making this up. This is in the bullying literature.) But this explanation is absurd because it means if I am a coward and pick on someone weaker than myself, I am a bully. If I have more courage and pick on someone my own strength, I am not a bully. But if I have even more courage and pick on someone stronger than myself, I am a bully again!
‘But it is common knowledge that so-called bullies (I hate the term “bully” because it is not a diagnosis but an insult, and it no longer means what it used to) will often pick on kids who are stronger than themselves. There is a good reason for this. We no longer live in nature. If we live in nature and I pick on people stronger than myself, I am insane. They will beat the crap out of me or kill me. But now we live in civilisation. We have the rule of law. We are not allowed to injure each other no matter how angry we may be. So we don’t have to be afraid of each other the way we did in nature.
‘Today, if I pick on someone weaker than myself, I look like a jerk. No one is going to respect me for it. Today, if I’m smart, I’ll look for the biggest kid in the class. I will insult him and his mother; I will drive him mad. He will want to put his fist through my face, but he knows he’s not allowed to. And if he does dare to lay a hand on me, he’s the one who gets suspended. So if I’m smart, I pick on kids stronger than myself. This way I look tough and cool and my peers all admire and respect me.
‘So yes, it is absolutely possible to torment people who are stronger than oneself. It has nothing to do with imbalances of power. If you’ve had children of your own, you know what it can be like. And do you think there are no bosses who are tormented by their employees or teachers who are tormented by their students?
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‘A second (more common) way that the bullying experts deal with the fact that weak people often pick on stronger ones is that they say the imbalance of power can be due to a psychological advantage, not just a physical one. But how do they determine whether I have psychological advantage over you? They say that if I am making you feel bad, then I have a psychological advantage over you. But this is tautology - circular reasoning. If I am tormenting you, how do we know that it is bullying? Answer: if you are feeling tormented by me, then by definition I have a psychological advantage over you and it is therefore bullying. So this whole imbalance-of-power idea is really a red herring.
‘You suggest that the problem is really a decline of adult authority. That is a good point. Let me elaborate. It is important to realise that the appalling incident on the bus happened despite the fact that kids have been taught about the evils of bullying - and that it won’t be tolerated - ever since preschool. They have had an endless stream of anti-bullying assemblies, activities, books, movies and bracelets. Their favourite celebrities have publicly added their voices to the anti-bully movement. Forty-nine states - including New York, where this incident occurred - have tough school anti-bullying laws.
‘And bullying continues nonetheless. It’s because the anti-bullying education cannot change human nature. People will look to experience power over others and occasionally be cruel, and this is especially true of young boys in a group. And it’s ironic that this was done to the school-bus monitor - the very person who is responsible for making kids behave on the bus. I admire her. She did a remarkable job of controlling herself and telling herself (correctly) that they are just boys being mean in a group (we must realise that it wasn’t going on all year long - it was a one-time incident on the last day of school, when kids are more likely to feel free, like throwing off the yokes of authority) and that all she wanted was sincere apologies and appropriate punishment (consequences) for their behaviour.
‘But this incident could have been stopped in no time. All that was needed was for the driver to stop the bus and say “This bus is not moving until you kids keep stop tormenting Ms Klein and apologise to her”. Unless the kids are psychopaths, they would have done so immediately and, if they hesitated, the other kids on the bus would have told them to shut up and apologise. And if they still kept harassing her, the driver and/or monitor could have called the police to remove them from the bus. That would really have taught them a lesson, and they would have “gotten it” from their parents as well.
‘Unfortunately, bus drivers are no longer allowed to stop the bus. It is against rules created by their unions so that they don’t work any longer than they have to. Thus, the single most powerful tool they have to control kids on their bus has been taken away from them and their hands are tied from being able to take immediate and effective action. It makes it easy for kids to flaunt authority on the bus as they continue to be driven home regardless of their behaviour. Then the school administration is left having to deal with an incident that happened the day previously and which they didn’t witness (unless, as in this case, someone actually filmed it). Investigating and finding witnesses after the fact is a difficult and time-consuming process, and the parents of the accused parties are likely to take the sides of their own kids. Ironically, bus drivers today are being included in school anti-bullying training and are being taught not to tolerate bullying on the bus, yet they are given no real tools to deal with it, other than filing reports.
‘I would like to make another point about this incident… The media loves such incidents. They love reporting on these horrific stories of kids being bullies because they need titillating stories. The only thing that would give the media more traction would be the discovery that vampires actually do exist and walk among us. The next-best thing are the “emotional vampires” (I didn’t make up this term, it is often used by bullying experts) that infest our schools and prey on defenceless children and old people.
‘Without bullies, the media would need to find some other terrifying thing to write about. However, all this media attention is unwittingly making the problem seem more horrific and widespread than it really is. One incident of atrocious children’s behaviour is reported on all of the world’s TV channels and newspapers, so it seems like bullying is ever present. No, it is the media that is ever present. Yes, the behaviours we are calling “bullying” do exist, but the plastering of each incident on the news greatly magnifies the reality. Imagine: Ms Klein has received over half a million dollars from anonymous people. It is the mass media that has made this possible, too.
‘And we have also taken incidents like this out of proportion. Yes, what the kids did was despicable and it was understandably upsetting to Ms Klein. But she is mature and resilient enough to get over it. It wasn’t rape or murder. It wasn’t even assault and battery. Incidents that are far worse than this happen on a daily basis and the victims don’t receive massive outpourings of public donations. It’s because “bullying” has become the number one fascination of society, and we forget that most of the acts being called bullying are rather minor.
‘Kids are taking their lives not because they are being attacked by violent gangs with knives and guns but because they can’t tolerate being insulted. And the schools, under the guidance of the bullying experts, are unwittingly encouraging kids to get upset by insults: they have replaced the ending of original “sticks and stones” slogan with “...but words can scar me forever” and “...but words can kill me”. So when they get insulted, are they going to think, “No big deal; it’s only words”? No. They are going to think, “Oh, no, I’m being insulted! Words can kill me!”’
Israel Kalman is the creator of Bullies to Buddies. The article above comes from correspondence between Kalman and spiked‘s Nancy McDermott.