Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Some thoughts on anti-bullying day...

I came across this quote from Mother Teresa on Facebook this morning. It seemed fitting, as today is Anti-bullying Day. One of the most devastating effects that bullying has on it's victims is the tragic, gradual acceptance of the bully's definition of the victim's self.

Adults struggle with this, in relationships with spouses, bosses, parents, siblings, and others. Days and weeks and months of being told that we are weak, useless, stupid, inferior, and worthy of continuous criticism and hate can begin to tear at our sense of who we are. If these relationships are not ones that we can easily escape, we try to cope the best we can and may not even realize that our confidence and hope are being gradually eroded.

If bullying is difficult for adults to cope with, how much harder is it for children who are being bullied? One of the things I have always struggled with is the use of the term "bullying" for acts that are clearly abusive and even criminal. If one child shoves another child into a locker, it is considered bullying. When an adult shoves an adult into something, it is assault.

Still, I recognize the value of the term "bullying" in that it highlights a specific kind of assault. As an adult, I have been bullied and I have been assaulted. Bullying refers to the insults, intimidation, threats of harm, verbal and emotional "punishments" for not complying to the bully's will, concerted efforts to create an environment of fear and discomfort, the effort to intimidate friends and family, etc.

Assaults are the physical attacks that are often a part of bullying. Being pushed, shoved, tripped, dragged, pinched, hit, punched, poked, and kicked. Death threats, threats to or destruction of pets or property, having things thrown at you, having a physical condition or disability exploited (for example, intentionally frightening someone who has anxiety or heart issues, in order to trigger an anxiety attack or angina),sexual assault, these things are all considered assault and are punishable under the criminal code.

The line is blurry, and we need to get better at seeing violence against children by other children as what it is - assault. We also need to ask ourselves why children are being violent like this.

Bullying is about intention. It is the intention to diminish the victim. I believe it what differentiates bullying from a regular conflict is a power inequality in the relationship.

Two people shouting insults at each other are having a fight. It may not be an appropriate way of dealing with things, and they may be attempting to diminish each other, but if they are equally involved, it is unhealthy and unpleasant, but not bullying.

One person threatening and demeaning another person who cannot escape, who cannot or will not fight back, is bullying. What often happens, and I think this may even be a distinguishing factor in bullying, is that if the victim finally does rise up and defend themselves, the bully uses the vicitm's defense as proof that the victim is also abusive, and that they deserve the physical, emotional and mental assault that they were enduring when they struck back.

This is different than what happens when two people get into an argument. Once apologies are being made, there is a consensus between the two that they both said things that were hurtful and unwise. There is a sense of responsibility for one's own actions even if the other person has also been rude or hurtful.

There is also an awareness that there are lines that must not be crossed in regular arguments, and when one is crossed, the offending party is aware of it and accepts responsiblity for it.

Bullies don't care about lines. In fact, they look for lines to cross, because their intention is to cause pain and once they get going, there are few limits. They are, on the other hand, very aware of their own lines, and will actually accuse their victim of cross lines that don't even exist.

I was told, once, by someone who kept trying to start debates with me on many different subjects, that because I was better at debating than he was, I was "destroying him with my words". When I suggested that if he wanted to continue having debates with me, he should "get better at it", he was horrified. I didn't even like debating. I tried to avoid it. He accused me of being abusive in my assertion that if he wanted to get to the point where he could beat me at a debate, he should work at it, gather more facts and improve his techniques. Or stop trying to start debates.

There is no question in my mind that his intention in debating me was to diminish me, and when my skill made that difficult, he chose another way of doing it, namely accusing me of something that he knew was against my heart's desire - abuse. If he was not smarter than me, then he was more moral that I was. Either way, I was supposed to be diminished. I refused him, on both counts.

Bullies draw lines for themselves that can leave their victims dazed and confused. It took me a while to figure out that there was nothing wrong with asking someone who wanted to debate me to improve their skills, stop pitching fits if I did well, or stop trying to start debates. He drew a line that made no logical sense, but he did it with so much emotion and tragic woundedness that he was even able to convince others that I was a wicked abuser.

These things apply to childhood abuse as well. The bully who routinely torments others becomes tragically victimized if they are accidently bumped up against in the hallway. The victim who talks back is believed to deserve all that they have received in the past as well as what is coming.

I have written before about the circle of support that often surrounds both children and adult bullies. They are surrounded by people who do not believe that the bully is capable of healthy, mature, moral behavior. They make excuses, they accept the lie that the victim that finally stands up to the bully deserves everything they have received, and they condone abuse directed at others that they would never allow for themselves or their own children.

So, today is anti-bullying day. Today is the day for us to say that we will be the circle of support and care for victims of bullies. We will stand up with them against violence and aggression. We will not let them be diminished. We will build them up, accept them, care for them, and in the process we build up ourselves as part of a community of safety and love. Today we recognise that no one else defines us but our God and ourselves. We make a conscious choice not to allow ourselves to be diminished, and with that, to not allow others to be diminished.

We choose to be the ones who surround victims with support and love, and who call bullies to a higher place. By saying no to bullying, we not only refuse to allow victims to be diminished, we also invite bullies to stop diminishing themselves with their behavior. No one is built up by bullying. Victims are wounded and scarred. Bullies remain emotionally fragile, volatile, unable to forge healthy, stable relationships. No one wins.

The time is now.

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