bullying = "childish"?: some reflections

Last week, Hanna found this story from the UK-based Independent on bullying at Universities and sent it to me (on the premise that I'm always interested in the education beat; see yesterday's rant about "liberal" academies) and, indeed, I was interested and started drafting a post about the problem of bullying and what folks who report on and attempt to combat bullying might learn from feminists who talk about "rape culture."

That's still a post I might write, since I think the analogy -- while imperfect -- helps to illuminate the way in which bullying is a systemic problem, one that continues because it's actually supported by a culture that condones and rewards bullying behavior.

But in the meantime, I kept coming back to the original Independent article because I was bothered by the way the problem of bullying was framed.

We all know bullying occurs in children’s playgrounds, inside and outside of secondary schools and sometimes even in the adult workplace, but what about University?

This supposed sanctuary of like minded scholars has become just another place in which people compete with each other for respect and social order, and bullying has followed with it.

A psychologist specialising in bullying, harassment and inter-personal relationships, Dr. Pauline Rennie-Peyton, recognises the possibility of being bullied in all stages of life, and confirms University is no exception.

“If people are taken out of their element, they become children,” she says.

“The problem with Universities and Colleges is that if we’re not careful, students there also become children. Just because bullying in Universities is not talked about, it doesn’t mean it is not happening. I have students [come to me] and they have to deal with racism, sexual and even intellectual jealousy.”

I think they get it right emphasizing that bullying behavior happens in many social environments and at all stages of life. What bothers me is the equation of bullying with a return to childhood. “If people are taken out of their element, they become children,” Dr. Rennie-Peyton says. And bullying is the natural result? Something just didn't sit right with me there, and it kept getting in the way of the whole "rape culture" argument I was trying to make.

Luckily, a few days after the post had stalled, Idzie @ I'm Unschooled. Yes, I Can Write came to my rescue with a well-timed blog post on being "childish."

When people use that word, when they say "childish", what they mean is that anything a child comes up with, any thought, opinion, emotion, is absolutely worthless and discard-able. To be a child is to have nothing of worth to show for yourself. It's an expression of ageism at it's very worst!

So when someone tells me that I'm being childish, they're not only insulting children everywhere, they're also telling me that my opinions are worthless. That they're short-sighted, uninformed, unimportant, and simply not worth paying any attention to.

So here's what I want to say (for now) about bullying, about bullying being framed as a child-like behavior, and about the idea that "becoming children" being a bad thing.

We choose, as a culture, to de-value being child-like, and to denigrate those who we believe are being "childish" (that is "short-sighted, uninformed, unimportant, and simply not worth paying any attention to"). It's certainly true that children can exhibit all of these behaviors -- just like any human being. All of us are, at times, short-sighted and uninformed. We all walk into situations where we feel out of our element. Yet these human qualities become strongly associated -- through language like "childish" -- with childhood. And because they are qualities our culture looks down upon (and experiences that make us feel uncomfortable: most people don't like to feel out of their element) children themselves become targets of suspicion, ill-temper, and blame simply for being young.

(The flip-side of the bundle of negative connotations associated with "childish" is, of course, that infants and children are also the venerated objects of adoration by our culture: the near-universal signifier of all things cute and precious, when in fact they are simply human. It's the childhood version of the virgin/whore dichotomy: children are either angelic objects to be cherished and protected or unruly demons to be feared and controlled -- neither approach considers children as human beings worthy of our individual respect as fellow-persons).

Bullying isn't something that naturally occurs in childhood -- it happens because young people learn that they can get what they want by manipulating power relationships. And that shrewd manipulation of power relations wins them respect and authority -- not just among their peers but among adults as well. Bullying is successful because our culture as a whole -- not just some segregated "childish" culture -- rewards bullying. We reward people who abuse their authority, and anyone who professes shock that bullying exists in grown-up spaces like university or work environments has really been deluding themselves.

This doesn't mean I don't think bullying is simply "human nature" and that speaking up or acting to prevent is will be ineffectual. After all, human beings do horrible things to each other that it is clearly in our "nature" to do (that is, we're capable of doing them), but which it is also in our "nature" to resist and condemn. People of all ages are capable of small-minded, vicious, and even evil acts; we are also all capable of empathy, compassion, love, and healing. Let's quit dividing the full range of human capacity up into artificial categories by age, just as we've started resisting the divisions of "masculine" and "feminine" attributes that pigeonhole multi-dimensional people into cramped boxes of gender-based expectations.

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