The bully in the mirror

Peter Jackson
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There will always be bullies.    

  There, I’ve said it. Let the outrage begin.

“How dare you!” scream the experts and the concerned parents. “We must stamp out bullying completely. Zero tolerance!”

Good luck with that.

I agree, in fact, that something must be done about bullying. It is a scourge — albeit one that has been with us as long as humans have walked the Earth.

My point is that stopping bullying is like stopping crime. You can crack down as hard as you want, but you’ll never eradicate it.

I was bullied as a teenager. It was horrible. I was reluctant to even go to school. Eventually, I developed a kind of truce with my tormenters. I was smart — I became friends with the king of the bullies.

But not everyone can finesse their way through it. You may be a nerd, or overweight or wear funny glasses. And bullying can drive you into a shell. In extreme cases, it can lead to suicidal thoughts.

In the past week, there’s been a cluster of bullying stories in the local news. The worst was not so much bullying as raw violence: a teenage girl beaten up by two others as someone else captured it on video.

It’s shocking, though not unprecedented. And it shows how diverse the problem of bullying can be. Getting a beating is clearly traumatic. But emotional scars can be even more devastating — being mocked or shunned, online or in person.

Bullying is complicated. I don’t think excessive public hand-wringing or calls for legislation does much to address the root causes.

Schools and parent groups are on the right track: awareness campaigns, and trying to nip things in the bud before they escalate.  

But there are more subtle cues in our society that feed a child’s natural instinct for meanness.

TV shows, in particular, are rife with cynical humour and loose ethics. This is not a strictly religious argument. It’s a matter of creating expectations.

Here’s an example.

Last month, Science Daily reported on research that showed romantic relationships are more likely to fall apart if one or both of the people involved watch television frequently.

The study, out of Albion College in Michigan, found that the more a person followed television portrayals of romance, the less likely they were to be committed to their relationships.

Pretty obvious, really.

Think of any sitcom or drama that involves relationships. Infidelity abounds — often without consequence.

Jeremy Osborn, lead researcher of the study, puts it this way:

“We live in a society that perpetually immerses itself in media images from both TV and the web, but most people have no sense of the ways those images are impacting them.”

Similarly, TV’s cynical humour — the putdowns, the zingers, the negative attitudes — is so prominent in everyday discourse that no one really notices it anymore. It’s gone well beyond good-natured ribbing, I think.

Long before they’ve passed the impressionable years, kids are enveloped in this sort of communication. And by then, it takes exceptionally astute parents to mitigate it.

I’m not being self-righteous here. I’m probably one of the worst offenders for snippy humour. All I can say is that I try to be conscious of the effect it’s having.

Of course, parents can always turn the channel — but then they risk stumbling upon a political debate. No lessons in good manners to be gleaned there.

Bullying comes naturally. I can even recall jumping on the bandwagon myself as a child. It creeps up on you before you realize it’s happening. It’s a peer thing, untempered by learned patterns of civility.

So, let’s combat bullying the same way we’ve always fought it: education, vigilance, and punishment if necessary.

Most importantly, let’s try to set a better example.


Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. Email:

Organizations: Albion College

Geographic location: Michigan

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Recent comments

  • Herb Morrison
    October 11, 2012 - 07:09

    What is equallly disturbing is the fact that, during the bullying incident, which occurred in Blaketown, several students had their cell phones, which the students used to record the incident in question, seized by police. The fact that bullying is regarded as a spectator sport, if you will, within the context of the Blaketown incident, raises questions which need to be answered if tbullying is to be dealt with effectively. Bullying cannot be eliminated entirely simply because each and every bully could have factors in their personal history, which motivate them to want to become bullies. The best that those faced with dealing with bullying in schools can hope to do is to find a means to control bullying.

  • Sarah Colborne Penney
    October 10, 2012 - 09:18

    Excellent editorial, Peter! I agree with your assessment.