When we think of bullies, we often think of the big, mean kid on the playground who terrifies someone smaller and weaker than he is. But by thinking of bullying on the schoolyard level, we neglect the much more pervasive and painful systematic bullying that occurs throughout human society.
The dictionary definition of the word bullying cites using superior strength or influence to intimidate or to force someone to do what one wants. The American Psychological Association defines bullying as aggressive behavior that intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. Bullying can take the form of physical contact, words or more subtle actions. It can be face-to-face or carried out through digital media.
While these are useful definitions, a glance at the synonyms, which for bullying include words like tyrannize, terrorize, torment, harassment, oppress and persecute, clearly shows that bullying is far more than two children having a social issue.
According to the definitions above, anyone who uses a position of greater power to hurt and denigrate someone weaker or less powerful is a bully. Yes, a big kid can bully a smaller kid, but so can a parent, a teacher, a team captain, a coach, or anyone who has governance over others. On the larger stage, this can include community leaders, business owners and corporate executives, politicians, police, military officers, and government officials.
Being aggressive and forceful is often downplayed once it leaves the school yard. Adults with power should have learned to use their position wisely so as not to injure others. Right?
In fact, many of the manipulative techniques of a bully are often the same skills that we honor and hone in our leaders.
Bullies use name calling, teasing, verbal abuse, and racial/ethnic slurs. They also use group pressure, social isolation, superior positioning or touching (such as a pat on the rump or head), physical intimidation (the threat of possible injury or punishment), and if necessary, outright physical violence.
We do not have to look far for examples of adults in leadership positions doing any and all of these things. Think of the stereotypical drill sergeant, the must-win Little League coach, the police officer dealing with a prisoner.
Bullying behaviors have been with us a long time, and we have come to expect aggressive behavior from people in these positions. Bullying in institutions may be called harassment and mobbing, but it is still bullying. While there may codes of conduct that leaders are expected to follow, excuses are made, for example, where a leader steps over the line as part of their job or as just a momentary slip up or because they need to win or because the victim might have escaped.
Parents, schools, teachers, and church leaders have been teaching children for years about bullying. Most children in American classrooms can explain what bullying is and why it is wrong. There are a multitude of wonderful programs out there. Many do reduce the number of bullying incidents occurring in those institutions that use these programs and techniques.
But these programs can never stop societal bullying, because outside the classroom and schoolyard and church group, children see bullies being rewarded with positions of power.
They learn that to be successful and to win, whether in sports or business or politics or even in academics and medicine, and rise to the top of their professions, they need to be aggressive. They need to intimidate their subordinates. They need to threaten punishment or firing. They need to lord it over others and they need to rid themselves of or threaten those who are weak, unskilled, and inefficient.
So it is time to take anti-bullying rhetoric and education beyond the school yard and look at ways to change how people and organizations function in our society. This is our goal. This is a our mission. So let's begin.
The following Infographic produced by the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild lays out the multiple ways employers and people in power can bully those who have little say in their work environment such as employees and immigrants.
2. Divide into 8 groups and assign a different spoke of the wheel to each group. Allow time for them to read the actions listed.
3. Ask each group to match the workplace actions with the corresponding bullying behavior.
4. Follow up with a discussion of what they discovered. Were they surprised? Have they ever experienced any of these things in the workplace or in sports or any other situation.
5. Challenge them to come up with ways to address some of the ways people are bullied in the workplace.
Read more about workplace bullying.