Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Bullying Experiment: An Exercise in Shame and Fear

I just viewed the youtube video, TheBullying Experiment.  In it a young man pretends to be a bully while another playacts the bullied. The bully is relatively big and wears tough guy clothes. He physically manhandles the victim who looks like he’s ready for prep school. It is shot live, presumably on a quiet part of a college campus. The intention of the video is to show how most people do not try to stop bullying and how by not intervening we are part of the problem. The video has had over 6000 hits. While I agree that we are complicit by not acting I have some issues with this video, specifically its underlying message of fear and shame.
After each fake altercation the “bully” confronts those who ignored the situation. Why didn’t you do anything, he asks. However valid the question the methodology is both shame and fear provoking. Imagine witnessing someone aggressively manhandle another and then have that same person turn to you and demand why you didn’t act. One bystander apologized. I would have done the same. But instead of being remorse for my non-response it would have been to avoid being pummeled by this guy. It reminds me of being confronted by an angry and authoritarian parent: damned if you tell the truth; damned if you don’t. Shame and fear are powerful inhibitors.

That said, some degree of shame is effective. This shame, however, must come from within rather than without. Internal shame propels us to change our behaviour and make amends. External shame, on the other hand, quickly becomes another form of bullying, an ostracization that alienates and decreases the potential for pro-social behaviour. 

That is what I feel the video has done. These bystanders are forever shamed and for what purpose? Shaming someone for their lack of courage or even indifference is not effective. Perhaps if the pretend victim rather than the bully had approached those who passed by the results would have been different. Instead of provoking shame and fear, there may have been empathy. Both parties could then have talked of their fears. When people share a common feeling they are more likely to be proactive.* This, of course, would not have changed their first reaction but perhaps encourage a more pro-social response in future.

It is easy to sit in one’s armchair and judge those who do not act. But ask yourself, would you have really gone in and stood up for the man being assaulted in the video? The pretend bully was scary. I applaud the young woman, physically smaller and presumably weaker, for doing so. But it doesn’t always end happily. Three years ago a young woman was killed in Vancouver’s Gastown while trying to break up a fight. She didn’t know the men fighting; she was only trying to help. 

I have both responded and not responded to bullying. Once, when seated at the back of a bus, I was surrounded by young men and their homophobic talk. While it wasn’t directed at anyone in particular, it was offensive and intimidating regardless of your sexual orientation. I felt too scared to speak up. I still feel some shame for that. Another time, however, I did speak up. It wasn’t easy and was not received with open heart but I felt good about it, after I stopped shaking, that is. I don’t know what made me act then and not the other time. Every day we experience life from different perspectives and varying degrees of security. Can I predict if I will step in another day? I hope I will but I cannot say it will definitely happen. I do not think anyone can. 

Fear for one’s own safety is only a small part of the equation. What about fear for our family’s safety, social conditioning or previous trauma? I think back to an October 2011 news clip where a toddle in Foshon, China, was run over not once but twice and then ignored by eighteen people.  (The scene was captured on street surveillance camera). Some commentators chose to use this as a forum for racism but one astute reporter, Mark McKinnon of the Globe and Mail, gave two possible reasons why this tragedy occurred. 1) The legal system [in China] is unpredictable and unfair to those without money and political connections. Getting involved can often get you in trouble.” 2) An authoritarian state, such as China, instils fear in its citizens from acting, doing and /or getting noticed. 

Were those bystanders in The Bullying Experiment newcomers to North America? Had they had previous experiences where getting involved cost far too much, i.e. their family was negatively affected? Was their English comprehension limited in that they consequently interpreted the scene as political in nature? 

Here is another thought: In emergency response training the first thing you learn before approaching an incident is to ensure no danger. Perhaps, just perhaps, some of those bystanders were going to get help. They knew their physical limitations and chose, as unobtrusively as possible, to leave the scene so to contact those who could be more effective. Many would say that is the wisest choice.

On the other side of the coin, one must also mention the “bystander effect”. This is where “[t]he mere presence of other bystanders greatly decreases intervention.” We witness this about half way through the video where one person stops to stare but moves on when he sees others walk by. This is a well documented and researched phenomena instigated by the horrors of what happened to New York’s Kitty Genovese. I am not saying this is appropriate but it seems to be part of human nature. 

I write these bystander excuses not to say it is okay to do nothing but so that we lay down our judgments, forego becoming another form of bully, and work instead to finding solutions. It is also important to remember that solutions need not be grandiose. In the book Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels subtly weaves themes of morality and complicity in her poetic book of a young Jewish boy who, saved from certain death in WWII Poland, finds sanctuary in Greece.

Michaels writes:

In those days, to be moral required no more than the slightest flicker of movement —a micrometer —of eyes looking away or blinking, while a running [Jewish] man crossed a field. And those who gave water or bread! They entered a realm higher than the angels’ simply by remaining in the human mire.” 

We need to teach our children that a helpful response to those in need is not only important but vital to our humanity. Bullying, however, will not be stopped by further bullying. Let us not shame the bullies into change but bring them into the fold and create change from within.

I close with a CBC excerpt about Nelson Mandela, a man who will forever remain one of our best models for compassionate humanity.

In prison he meditated every day while seeking signs of common humanity even among white guards — some of whom later became close friends. He discovered … a willingness to respect all and an ability to make even old foes feel better about themselves. At the same time he made it clear his core values were unshakable.

* If you Google “empathy and pro-social behaviour” you find that the majority of studies show a positive correlation between the two. However, one recent study showed that this correlation fell through if the subject felt they were in a lower socio-economic status. As the researcher states, the literature is complex.

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