Sunday, May 22, 2011

Bullying - the dialogue doesn't stop until the violence stops!

The topic of bullying is a hot one, and has been for quite a while now. Hopefully, it will continue to be addressed until we as a society understand what it is, why is is so harmful and what the results of bullying behavior is for victims, their families as well as bullies and their families. Sometimes I wonder if we are blurring the issue by using the word "bully" to describe the kind of controlling, aggressive, damaging behavior that it represents. In legal terms, it is called assault. Violence. Criminal.

Using the term "bullying" too often softens the edges and makes the behaviour seem more benign than it actually is. Bullying brings to mind school children being mean or rude to each other. Although it is being taken seriously more often as we begin to see the devastating effects it has on our children, I think that until we identify the behavior for what it is, violence and aggression, assault and battery, we will not be able to grasp the full impact of this problem on our society. For the purposes of this note, I am going to use the term bullying because it identifies aggression in specific situations. The term bullying should not refer to the seriousness of the assault, but the circumstances in which the violence or assault takes place.

We also need to acknowledge that it is not only children who bully and are bullied. As adults, we need to define which behaviors are acceptable in intimate, social and work relationships. We need to develop clear boundaries, knowing within ourselves and communicating to others what we will and will not tolerate.

Bullying is about control. It is entirely selfish. When we have determined for ourselves what is acceptable behavior in our relationships, bullying is also easy to spot. Any aggressive interaction is unacceptable. The threat of physical violence is also unacceptable. Threats of damage to property, reputation, relationship, pets, employment are all wrong. Anything that restricts movement, physically blocking someone from leaving a room, for example, is bullying. Often, in debates, discussions and arguments, people become passionate and voices can be raised. Whether or not a raised voice is bullying depends on the purpose and result. If raising one's voice is meant to silence another, it is controlling and aggressive. If it has the effect of silencing another even if the intention is not there, and one becomes aware of the result, a time-out may need to be called so that calm can be restored. We have the right to refuse to listen to what another is saying. We do not have the right to stop them from saying it. Naturally, throwing, smashing and destroying things is violent and constitutes bullying when it frightens another person into submitting to one's will. The whole idea of bullying is to make someone else feel, think or do something against their will.

Is it possible to have two people yelling at each other in an argument and have it not be bullying? I think it is. Bullying requires an imbalance in strength or ability to control. Two strong-willed people yelling their views at each other may be wasting their time, but if neither one of them feels intimidated or frightened, I don't think bullying is taking place. People argue all the time. Whether it accomplishes anything is debatable, but bullying requires that one person is dominating or over-powering another. The intention is not to avoid all conflict.

I willingly enter into conflicts about issues that I feel are important and worth discussing, but as soon as personal insults, threats and/or aggression start, I walk away. If you don't like the way I live out my faith, or if you don't believe what I believe and you want to discuss it, I'll gladly partake. When the insults begin, the conversation is over. If you don't like the way I parent my child, I can accept that. Make fun of me or her and threaten us and the door between us closes, quickly.

One distinct characteristic of bullies is that when a victim defends themselves, the bully sees themselves as the consummate victim. Gather a group of spouse/child abusers together, especially ones who have had to face the consequences of their actions, and just watch the self-pity flow. I have seen men physically harm their wives, and then maintain that the women deserved it because after the attack, she lashed back at her abuser. Is it logical to assert that your behavior was caused by something that happened as a result of your behavior? Of course not. Logic plays no part in bullying. Therefore, there is no point in trying to discuss the issue with the bully until they are 100% willing to take responsibility for their own behavior.

Boundaries must be set and maintained. We need to find people who understand and support our need to set boundaries. Sometimes, practicing the verbal exercise of setting boundaries with a friend or relative can be helpful. Knowing that not only is it okay to expect to be treated w/respect, but it is also okay to refuse to engage with someone who is violating our boundaries is important.

Standing up to a bully may create more conflict for a time. If physical harm is a part of the dynamic, our safety must be a priority. Violence is a crime, and it's okay to treat it as such, even with a loved one. We do our family and friends no favors when we do not take abuse seriously. Legal consequences for abuse belongs to the abuser, not to the victim. The abuser may think differently, their inner circle may think differently (no one becomes an abuser in a vacuum), but we must know deep within us that where there is choice, there is responsibility. We cannot control whether another person commits a crime, and so we are not responsible for the consequences.

I believe it is important that we continue pondering and discussing these issues. Doing it out-loud, by writing and speaking about it, helps others to know that they are not alone. We can help each other, by supporting and caring for each other. It takes tremendous courage to deal effectively with abuse, and no one can (or should have to) do it alone. By speaking out, we invite others to speak too, and for those wounded hearts listening and reading, we present ourselves as safe places to seek help and encouragement.

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