Why Talking About Bullying Doesn’t Work

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that
we belong to each other.” – Mother Theresa

When I was younger, I used to get bullied quite a bit. In elementary school I was taller than most, bigger than many. I stuck out. And when you stick out, you become a target. And it sucked. But there wasn’t much I could do to stop it. I told one of the moms on the playground that these kids were making fun of me and I wish they’d stop and she said I should “grow a thicker skin.”

I was 8 years old.

Flash forward a few years and here we are. We see anti-bullying campaigns left and right. Too many teenagers have decided they couldn’t stand being bullied and so they decided it would be better to be dead than alive, and they killed themselves. It’s tragic. So we keep talking about bullying. We tell teenagers they shouldn’t be bullies. We also tell them that if they’re being bullied, the solution to that problem is to tell an adult. But here’s the problem…

Nobody uses the term “bully” inside a high school.

In the high school social setting, nobody uses the term bully and bullied. Once someone is tagged with that label, they stick out. And when you stick out, you become a target. No matter what people do, one thing they will refuse to accept is the title of bully. Listen to a high schooler talk about all the “drama” going on in their school day. Often times it’ll be trivialized. As in, “Oh don’t worry about that. It’s just some drama.”

By using the term “drama” the people involved are exempt from moving up or down the social ladder as would surely happen if they were stuck with the label “bully” or “bullied”.

This is why all kinds of anti-bullying efforts don’t work. Nobody is willing to stop being something that nobody will own up to being in the first place. You can tell me to stop being a bully all you want, but if I don’t see myself as a bully, your pleas will fall on deaf ears. This is why anti-bullying doesn’t work.


Don’t focus on what people shouldn’t be. Focus on what they should be.

Instead of telling people to not be a bully, it would be much more effective to teach respect. Mother Theresa was once asked why she never participates in anti-war rallies. Her response was telling. She said she would keep her promise to never participate in an anti-war rally, but as soon as someone hosted a pro-peace rally, she’d be the first to sign up. It’s an interesting way to tilt the conversation.

Another contributor to this conversation was the “It Gets Better” campaign. Check this link out for more info about that campaign. It is specifically geared toward GLBTQ youth who have been/are being bullied. The more I thought about “It Gets Better”, I liked the initiative, but something was lacking. It essentially tells people who are being bullied to weather the storm and trust that it gets better. That doesn’t sit well with me.

Enter the Make It Better project. This is the “pro-peace” alternative to It Gets Better’s “anti-war” stance. Don’t get me wrong, both campaigns have great goals and strategies to work toward. But there’s a disconnect.

Instead of going back and forth on the topic of bullying, why don’t we tackle these “dramatic” situations, name what is actually happening, and then promote a move toward empathy and compassion? Is this overly-simplistic? Perhaps. But when we are so dead set against bullying, we miss out on all the things we can be encouraging and promoting in our schools, churches, and neighborhoods.

Talking about bullying doesn’t work because nobody recognizes their behavior [or identity for that matter] as falling in line with the “bully” or “bullied”. We need to empower people to speak out and name what is happening in their own experience before it’s too late.

It might also be helpful for adults to abolish the suggestion to “grow a thicker skin”. But that might just be a personal preference.


A Great New Yorker Piece on Bullying & Teen Suicide

In the latest New Yorker there’s a great article about a very sad situation. It’s about a Rutgers freshman who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after being harassed by his roommate and another friend. It’s a tragic story, but I won’t sum it up here. I wanted to share a paragraph from this article that represents some of the best stuff I’ve read to come out of research around adolescent relationships and bullying. Again, the full article can be found here.

A recent paper by two scholars of new media—Alice Marwick, of Harvard, and Danah Boyd, of N.Y.U.—describes the tendency of teen-age girls to categorize even quite aggressive behavior as mere “drama,” in the same category as online gossip and jokes. Policy-makers and television anchors talk of “bullies” and the “bullied,” but teen-agers tend not to, in part because “teens gain little by identifying as either,” the scholars explain. “Social stigmas prevent teens from recognizing that they are weak, and few people are willing to admit that they purposefully hurt others. . . . ‘Drama’ also implies something not to be taken seriously, to be risen above, while the adult-defined ‘bullying’ connotes childishness or immaturity to teenagers.

How is “drama” defined for a new generation of young adults? It seems to me that young adults use the term “drama” almost as a way to rationalize some of the horrible things that are either said about them or done to them.

The key question I’d like to see from this study is… What can be done about this? How can we join adolescents in moving forward through the “drama” and into a meaningful life?

These are the million dollar questions of the people, like us, who work with youth. I wish I had those answers.


Great Argument for Marriage Equality

Last February, a video began circulating around the internet that showed a man speaking in an Iowa court defending the right for same sex couples to be married. I didn’t get a chance to post or comment on it back then. It’s now making a resurgence around Facebook and Twitter, so I want to post it and say just how much I appreciate his articulation of his experience of family. Check out the video below.

It’s well articulated. Persuasive. And I already agreed with him before watching the video.

This guy used a courtroom to tell his story. It’s a story that still needs to be heard.

How can we help kids who are being victimized or struggling with these issues of sexuality (whether their own or with their parents) so that they don’t take the route so many have by harming themselves? How can we, as a society, foster an environment for growth and holistic health for everyone in our communities? Not just white, heterosexual males with proper documentation of citizenship.

These are the questions that keep me up at night. And probably will continue to.


Bullying & the Church

So Apple released their contribution to the “It Gets Better” project last Friday and it really connected with me. I felt the need to share it and, in particular, one quote from it that spoke to me and really transcended the boundaries of sexuality and gender identity. So watch the video. The quote is underneath it.

“The bullies seem like the powerful people and the successful people, and the secret of the real world is they’re at the peak of their power at 15 and 16. And there will come a time when the bullies are not successful and the people they bullied are. And you just have to out-survive them.”

I dealt with bullying quite a bit when I was in elementary school and junior high. Not because of my sexuality, but because I was a chubby kid with weird glasses and a speech impediment. Some of those wounds take years to heal. I still need to hear this message and I’m 25. I guarantee there is someone in your life, maybe even you, who needs to hear this. It’s one of the reasons I’m going into ministry. The church has been so woefully silent, even so much to be perpetrators, in establishing who’s in and who’s out in society.

I want to be a pastor who says everyone’s in. Everyone’s welcome.

And I want to actually mean it.


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