A New Series on Bullying: The Desire for Social Power
By: Joe Newman
In 1975 I was in the 7th grade. I’d just moved to a new city and a new middle school. I had just a few friends. Everything in my social life and at school seemed precarious. Puberty had set in for some but not yet for me. Everyone was trying to figure out how to impress the girls and each other. We all pretended to know everything about sex, but I for one knew almost nothing. I felt a constant anxiety that at any moment everyone would realize I was a fraud, and not at all cool, and they would suddenly turn on me, laughing.
I was on the playground for the recess after lunch, standing with a group of boys at the edge of the blacktop. A girl named Lee was walking towards us from the other side. She was about 30 pounds overweight, wore cloths that were a bit too provocative, cursed more than was necessary, and had allegedly gone to second and third base, maybe all the way, with a few different boys.
As Lee walked towards us I started yelling, “Here comes the Goodrich blimp! Look how she floats. Like an elephant balloon at a parade!” I continued with a litany of insults and crude jokes as the boys standing with me laughed and egged me on. Even as I was yelling the insults I could see the pain in her face and her struggle to keep up a strong front. I wanted that little bit of approval I was getting from the other boys so badly I swallowed down the noxious taste of the pain I was inflicting. It remains one of my clearest memories of that entire year.
My desire for social power had been stronger than my empathy and sense of compassion.
All bullying is driven by a desire for social power.
Bullies aren’t children who lack empathy, compassion, or understanding of the consequences of their actions, but rather ordinary children who want social power so desperately they will swallow guilt and ignore empathy to get it.
Unfortunately, many of the most common interventions adults use to try to stop bullying only increase the social power of the bully and often make the situation worse.
Typically the first response to bullying is a lecture. It can be in the form of a teacher telling a student why what they did was wrong and how remorseful they should feel. Or it can be in the form of a bullying awareness week where a team of therapists and presenters is brought in to talk to students about the effects of bullying, teach empathy, and offer suggestions of alternative pro-social behaviors.
The natural instinct to defend the bullied and stand up to and educate the bully serves to further exacerbate the root causes of bullying.
This is because there is no better way to gain social status than to show your peers that you don’t need the approval of adults. When a teacher or parent publicly tells a child that they disapprove of what they are doing, this becomes a perfect opportunity for the child being reprimanded to gain social status by demonstrating that they aren’t fazed by the censor of an adult. And because the adult, who is not a peer and therefore not cool, intervened on the bullied child’s behalf it reaffirms the weak social position of the bullied child.
If we’re going to stop bullying we must begin by understanding that its root cause is a desperate desire for social power. Attempts to confront bullying will succeed or backfire based on our understanding or misunderstanding of this one element.
In this series on bullying I’ll cover insights, tools, and strategies to prevent and stop bullying that inlcude:
- Why lectures and conversations often backfire and action consequences are effective against bullying
- Responses to bullying that lower the social power of the bully and create effective motivations for it to stop
- How an adult’s instinct to defend the bullied and stand up to and educate the bully often exacerbate the root causes of bullying
- How cutting programs like Art, Music, and P.E. create conditions in schools that promote bullying
- How teachers and parents can regain the respect and authority needed to effectively stop bullying
- What’s happening culturally to feed the rise in bullying and what we can do about it