All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


09 April 2012

Bullying: A Thought Experiment

I was, just this morning, reading this excellent blog post by Dana Goldstein. Now, one of the things I learned while reading that post is that at least some schools think that one form of bullying is, supposedly, excluding students from lunch tables. This seems consistent with some of the other things I've been reading lately on the subject.

This got me thinking about bullying rules, the recent anti-bullying crusade, and whether what we're really trying to control is conduct or attitudes. Anyone familiar with my thinking knows that I'm presumptively against any attempt by government organizations to institutionally control attitudes. I don't personally mind people who don't like me because of my race, so long as they aren't allowed to beat me up, and I'd rather have somebody hate me because I'm Latino (which is true) than because I'm a socialist (which isn't true).

Now, some anti-bullying advocate are probably very frank about the fact that they're out to control attitudes. But some might think that they're just trying to control conduct. I offer the following thought experiment, designed to let you know where you stand.

Let's say we have some fairly specific anti-bullying rules in our school, bordering on the ridiculous. Among the rules are the following:

* Students may not exclude each other from sitting at lunch tables
* When a student sits down at a table with you, you must smile at them and greet them.
* When a student sits down at a table with you, you may not get up and move to another table.
* Students are not allowed to insult each other at the lunch table, and should be polite, kind, and respectful to each other.

Now, given these rules, I want you to imagine the following scenario:

Sarah, a somewhat shy, unpopular girl, comes out of the cafeteria line and decides (perhaps because it's the only open seat) to sit down at the table with Megan, Madison, Cassidy, and Jackie -- four popular, somewhat cruel girls. As Sarah sits down, all the girls assume obviously fake smiles, and fold their hands in front of them in uniform fashion. Megan says the following to Sarah:

"Hi Sarah. The rules say that we're supposed to smile and greet you, and that we can't exclude you from the table, so on behalf of all four of us, we welcome you to the table. The rules also say that we're not supposed to get up and move to another table to avoid you. We want to, but we can't. So it looks like we'll stay sitting right here until we're finished with our lunch. The rules also say that we're not allowed to insult you; isn't that interesting? Could you please pass the salt?"

Sarah -- traumatized -- bursts out crying, drops her tray, and runs out of the cafeteria.

Now if you think that what Megan (and perhaps the other girls) did was something that should be punished as bullying, ask yourself what they should have done differently, and for what -- exactly -- you'd like to see them punished.

Are they being punished for pointing out the rules and the fact that they're choosing to comply with them? (Probably not.)

Are they being punished because Sarah took it so hard? (That would be an odd rule.)

If so, are they being punished because Sarah's not stupid enough to believe they were trying to be nice? (Again, an odd outcome.)

Are they perhaps being punished because they didn't do a good enough job in pretending to like Sarah? Might things have been different if they were still all "in" on the joke, but managed to convince Sarah that they really appreciated her presence?

Or are they being punished because they failed to genuinely be nice to Sarah?

Perhaps because they don't like Sarah?

If you think Megan should be punished, and if you can answer the question of why, you'll have gone a long way to finding out what you really think of bullying.


For my part, I'm inclined to punish Megan, and it's on the basis that she didn't do a good enough job of pretending to like Sarah (the fourth question, above). Indeed, she doesn't even seem to have tried to pretend. Now that might seem to put me in an extremely odd position. Some might say that I'm rewarding and encouraging deceptive behavior. And perhaps they have a point.

But my response is that it's only "deceptive" if you think that your not liking someone must be a reason to treat them poorly in order to be genuine, if you think that somehow your every whim and caprice must find obvious outward expression.

If one group of students doesn't like another individual or group -- I confess that I'm not interested in forcing them to like each other. I mean, it's a nice goal to work towards, but not something that warrants punishment as a coercion.

I'm satisfied if they learn to act genuinely civilly towards each other. And being genuinely civil -- which Megan was certainly not -- does not mean liking the person. It doesn't even mean pretending that you like them. It means learning how to be impartially pleasant. That can sometimes feel like it's deceptive -- but I think it's really just polite, and I think there's a difference. As a (future) member of civil society, Megan has a job to do: to put forth a reasonable effort to make Sarah feel welcomed at the table.

I'm concerned with student conduct, not student attitudes. But I am also concerned that students learn to divorce their conduct from their attitudes.

And if despite reasonable efforts at genuine civility, Sarah still feels left out, isolated, and alone, if she despairs because she knows that Megan and the others don't really like her... well, that's on her. I don't think Megan has a duty to like Sarah, and I strenuously object to any sort of rule that would seek to mandate it.