An All Too Familiar Scenerio
Imagine walking into class. You’re a kid, you’ve yet to master the subtle nuances of surviving the Hunger Games styled world that is large group social dynamics. Maybe you’re new, maybe you’ve been there for a while, but the story is typically the same. You want to fit. Notice I didn’t say “fit in,” but rather, just fit. Because maybe you aren’t looking to be the most popular kid in the class; perhaps you’re just going for the much simpler role of being “a kid in class.” Maybe you want to be the athlete or the funny one or the artistic one or the smart one. Regardless, as that kid, you’re looking to have some sort of place in the grand scheme of things. Sometimes though, you wind up filling a much less desired role, the pariah.
Maybe you can’t play sports well; perhaps you just flinch when the ball comes your way due to a natural reflex that you can’t control. Maybe you just don’t have the developed social skills yet to tell funny jokes or produce witty comebacks. It could even be your physical appearance, something that society has yet to grasp is often times a product of self that the individual has no control over. Those crooked teeth could be the result of a family too poor to afford braces. The same could be said for the bargain rack clothes or the discount haircut. You might even find yourself in a situation where you’re challenged to a fight, but you don’t want to fight. It could be because you weren’t taught self defense, or it could simply be because you’re mentality is wired to avoid physical conflict.
In your vain attempt to find a solid place in the pecking order of the classroom, you now find yourself at the bottom. You’re the butt of the jokes, the victim of the pranks and a stepladder for other’s self esteem that you have no say in. You’re a victim of being bullied.
The teacher is of little help. Laws and school regulations these days are very tight on what teachers can and cannot do to actually correct children’s behavior. School boards are terrified of lawsuits, teachers are afraid of terminations. The bullying behavior is more than often reduced by school staff as “kids being kids” and brushed under the rug. Unless you’re getting pummeled the staff seem to just sit back and let it unfold. Your parents can’t do much either. They call the school and are told that the issue is being addressed; yet week after week the problems continue. Once again, due to legal restraints, the school cannot even give you the contact information for the bully’s parents, and with phone books being phased out, it’s harder and harder to just get someone’s phone number and give them a call. Even when that happens though, the bully’s parents are often times defensive. They tell your mom or dad that their kid isn’t a bully, that he or she wasn’t raised that way; because perhaps them admitting that their child is a bully reflects as a failure to their parenting in some sense. What if the bully’s parents do believe your mom, what if they ground their kid? Is the bully going to have the maturity to take the life lesson and adjust their horizons? Likely not, because you’re a kid and so is your tormentor. More than likely the bully will come back with a vengeance making the previous abuse seem like a blessing.
So, with limited options and few places to turn, you fall back on the old adage that it will get better. School isn’t forever and you’ll eventually grow up and become an adult. You know, those kind-natured and responsible people that always smile when you walk by, tell you how big you’ve gotten, ask you about school and sometimes even give you a small gift, a candy bar or a can of Coke. Most of your interaction with adults has been positive after all, right? Your teacher wants you to be smart, your parents’ friends seem to take a real interest in what you do, you’re uncles and aunts all seem to love you, clearly adulthood will be your time to escape the day to day harassments of your bullies. No more paper balls bouncing off of your head as you try desperately to ignore it. No more verbal or physical abuse. No more being outnumbered because bullies seem to run in packs. You’ll be free and clear of it, because adults are compassionate and well developed members of society that value your input and celebrate your differences, right?
For many, the above assessment is correct. Sadly though, my little motivational pop doesn’t apply for everyone. While the documented numbers of how many adults are bullied in the workplace varies from survey to survey, I was able to compile a reliable set of stats conducted by workplacebullying.org in 2014. These surveys were conducted across the board in various professions and fields.
27% of adults surveyed reported being directly bullied in the workplace.
21% of adults reported witnessing workplace bullying.
72% of adults reported being aware of workplace bullying. From this group, .5% admitted to being bullies themselves while 19% stated that they’ve never witnessed it in person but do believe that it happens. Only 4% of those polled stated that they feel adult bullying is simply a matter of people being too sensitive or taking normal playful behavior as a sign of aggression.
Around 50% of adults surveyed reported never experiencing bullying in the workplace.
Personally I have been rather lucky as an adult. I was bullied as a child, as many of us were, but like my little example from before, I clung to the hope that with age would come maturity and that eventually the damaging and often criminal behavior of bullies would fade from my life. It did, and I like to consider myself to be a fairly well adjusted and happy adult. However, as the numbers above state, not everyone is lucky enough to outgrow and essentially outrun the common abuse of being singled out and harassed by our peers. I have personally seen it happen throughout my professional life though, so I can count myself in the numbers of those 21% that know adult bullying is in fact a very real problem in our society. I’ve been a long time supporter of anti-bullying campaigns in schools, such as the WWE’s “Be a Star” program. There are many great organizations dedicated to ending schoolyard abuse at the hands our peers, but adult bullying is a bit of a different animal. John Cena isn’t going to come down to your job as a Market Manager and tell your co-workers that bullying is wrong. As adults, we have to hope that our company actually lives by those cute little corporate platitudes that they call their “core values.” We have to bank on our company having a proactive Human Resources Department that will actually step in and take real steps to end workplace abuse. Sometimes this can be done. If the abuse is in fact coming from a peer, a manager can often times sort it out. Most adults don’t want to have write-ups in their files, and most jobs don’t want to run the risk of opening themselves up to harassment lawsuits for allowing the abuse to go unchecked.
However, there are cases where the lines become blurred and the victims often find themselves in a no-win situation. The bully may be a well-liked executive, a personal friend of the boss or perhaps a great worker who makes the company a lot of profit. Perhaps the victim in this case is a low-level worker who doesn’t generate profit for the corporation. While most reasonable adults will agree that those factors shouldn’t matter, the fact remains that they do play a major part in the decisions that management will often make. If the bully is close to the boss, perhaps being childhood friends or just golfing buddies, there is a good chance that said boss will downplay the victim’s complaint. Instead of actually following the company’s mandated policy, the boss might jokingly pull the offender to the side and gently tell him or her to “knock it off,” all while smiling and followed by making plans for after work drinks.
When the situation comes down to dollars, such as the high-earning bully versus the non-profit generating line level worker, the lines can become even further blurred. Most large corporations owe their loyalty to their shareholders and investors, or in the case of non-traded companies, perhaps they’re just loyal to the bottom line, cash. In this case, those in charge may look at what they consider to be the larger picture, determining it to be simpler and more cost effective to transfer, or in some bleak cases terminate the victim in order to remedy the situation. In states like my own beloved Louisiana, private employment is classified as “at will employment,” essentially meaning that an employer can terminate a member of staff with no articulable cause. Something as shallow as “you’re just not working out here,” can be used to terminate; and while the fired employee can attempt to seek justice through the civil court system, the burden of proof will fall on the victim to explain why they were unethically terminated. In cases of massive corporations, it may still be cheaper and easier for the company to just settle such a complaint out of court rather than keeping the victim on the payroll and potentially losing their high earning abuser.
When Bullies Become Bosses: Film by Richard Santiago
Recently I was contacted by Documentary Film Maker Richard Santiago and asked to take part in his anti-bullying campaign “When Bullies Become Bosses” by writing an article on the subject of adult bullying in the work place. His personal mission was inspired by his time spent working for the United States Postal Service and the toxic environment that he was allegedly subjected to throughout his time there. I also worked briefly for the USPS, and upon leaving the position of City Carrier Assistant, I wrote an article entitled: USPS CCA--My Year from Hell, detailing my time working in that position. As the title suggests, I didn’t have the best time as a postal carrier assistant. However, my gripe with the job had nothing to do with bullying, as I stated in the article itself that management at my office was always professional and actually did me a few favors now and then, like helping me get a long weekend (which for a CCA is almost unheard of) or making sure I got off at a decent time if I informed them of any priorities off the job I might have to deal with. My fellow carriers, the CCA’s as well as the seasoned Regulars (full-time carriers with far more rights and a much better contract) were always friendly and helpful. There were lazy people of course, carriers who’d bring their mail back early which would force the CCA’s to work late, or even the angry woman who was complaining that help was sent out to assist a CCA instead of her. Overall though, I was never bullied at the Post Office and left due to the insane workload and essential invasion of life that is being a City Carrier Assistant.
Santiago tells a different story however, documenting his time with the USPS and providing candid footage of employee abuse by postal management and union representatives. The trailer is available on YouTube and I highly suggest viewing it, as much of what it exposes was filmed in secret, as it is footage that no one in top positions of the Post Office would want the public to view. It showcases documented proof that policy is often ignored in the face of productivity. That the pages and pages of rights and regulations that are designed to ensure a workplace free of harassment and abuse can be easily ignored when those in charge feel that they aren’t being watched.
This behavior though is not limited to the United States Post Office or any field in particular, but rather exists across the entire spectrum of any company where multiple people are expected to work together side by side. Bullies and “cliqs” will always form, making many modern American places of work seem far less like halls of professionalism and integrity and more like a scene from Mean Girls. The intent of this article is to try and define what adult workplace bullying really is, why it happens and what we can do to stop it. My greatest hope here is that people will read this, watch Richard Santiago’s movie and do their own research on this epidemic and take a proactive role in removing abuse at the hands or our peers and superiors from our workplaces, schools and lives.
What is a Bully?
Now, anyone can look up the definition of a bully and would likely come up with a similar answer. The word bully is defined as a person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker.
Bullying is defined as use of superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force him or her to do what one wants.
These of course are rather cookie-cutter definitions that don’t succeed in conveying the real damage that can be done to someone by a bully. However, looking at the common synonyms for the word bully can and does cast a bit of light. Nouns such as oppressor, tormentor and even tyrant are all included as other uses of the word bully.
During the course of my research for this article, I reached out to a professional Psychotherapist, Whitney L. Walker. Walker is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a National Certified Counselor who holds degrees in Psychology and Professional Counseling. Walker works as a therapist in Georgia and was kind enough to assist me in answering some of the more basic, as well as complex questions about the mindset of the bully.
I asked Walker what she feels defines workplace bullying. She explained:
I consider bullying in the workplace to be subtle or overt hostility from a coworker, which may be conveyed, in both physical and psychological methods, with the ultimate goal of exerting power over a victim. This power may be utilized as a means to gain other perceived advantages -- whether it is a better parking space or the belief that he or she is at the top of the workplace pecking order.
Take note of the key word here, power. We will come back to that. Next I asked her, in her opinion, what separates an actual bully from just someone who may be a jerk or lack social awareness?
With so many different personalities represented in a particular workplace, it is likely impossible to avoid occasional conflict between employees. However, I believe a bully’s harassment differs from normal conflict in few ways. There may be a more defined pattern of aggression, which is exerted towards a target person, rather than diffused amongst the group of employees. Also, the aggression may escalate over time, while the behaviors of an “office jerk” may dissipate as he or she gains insight to the impact of the behavior upon others.
This answer sums up what I’ve believed is the line between jerk and bully for a long time. Someone who is just grouchy or perhaps a bit too sarcastic will usually spread their particular brand of annoyance to most around them. They don’t target anyone in particular for any extended period of time, and their goal is never to gain power or any upper hand. They may just be anti-social or perhaps, like the character Michael Scott from The Office, may simply fail to see their behavior as negative; instead finding their antics amusing and accusing anyone who doesn’t laugh along with them as having no sense of humor or needing to “lighten up.”
Many actions of the office jerk can be defended by the person simply lacking good social graces or failing to develop a good sense of where people’s personal space and boundaries begin. The office jerk can often be reasoned with and is usually willing to curb their behavior once they realize they are offending or alienating themselves from people.
The office bully however is someone who is goal oriented in his or her path of destruction. While the jerk may be shocked or even saddened that the Internet memes he shares all day aren’t as clever as he thought or that constantly hiding his co-worker’s stapler is not in fact the height of humor, the bully is generally fully aware of what he is doing and can even be propelled to go further when he sees the damage that his actions are causing.
As I stated before, power is a key word here. Bullies aren’t out to make people laugh but seem more interested in simply entertaining themselves. If other people happen to join in with their abuse, even if by simply laughing along with a prank gone-to-far or similar behavior, this too can fuel the abuser’s behavior. However, in many cases the bully needs only to witness their actions taking power away from their victim and transferring it to them in order to feel accomplished.
My final question to Walker was one that always puzzled me a bit when I first began learning about adult bullying and the “why and how” behind it. To echo my opening paragraphs, I return to the illusion that many children have towards adults. Adults are safe, kind and wise. Adults do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. After all, this is the typical way trusted adults are explained to young children. So, I asked Walker how the bullying could continue at all. It would seem to me, at least based on the perception of the adult intellect that I explained above, that any reasonable two adults, the victim and the bully, could simply sit down and have an educated discussion about the issues. An adult bully, a man or woman who has a full time job, who perhaps has a college degree, who perhaps has children who they love and thrive to teach ethics and morals to, would surely be able to listen and understand that their behavior is damaging and undesired. That should be all it takes, right?
Well, clearly that isn’t the case. Walker explained the above quandaries as such:
It is likely that both genetics and environment influence an individual’s tendency to utilize more hostile methods to gain interpersonal control in the workplace. Neurologically, we would be examining the role of the limbic system, which is an area of the brain implicated in aggression, and which is believed to be particularly sensitive to an individual’s experience of adverse, traumatic events during its development (for example, witnessing chronic domestic violence). Similarly, much of the social behaviors we display are learned. In this sense, bullying behaviors may be a learned means of communicating with others and obtaining that, which is seen as necessary or desirable. An adult bully may have learned early in life that power, control, and resources are important, and that harassing others is a legitimate means to these ends.
Walker brings up an interesting point here, in that nature versus nurture may very well play a major role in the shaping of the adult bully. Her description of the limbic system playing a role in the cycle of bully and victim lends discussion to the severity of developing such habits at a young age.
While this article is intended to focus on adult workplace abuse and harassment, it is impossible to not draw at least a partial parallel between childhood bullying and adult bullying. This dynamic can become rather complicated quickly if I were to try and draw each individual line from all possible childhood instances.
For example, a bullied child can indeed grow up to bully, just as an abused child can grow up to abuse. A bully in school may outgrow their behavior. On the same note though, a bully who finds the practice of power playing others during their school days to be effective or pleasurable may simply continue this practice into adulthood.
The bottom line seems to be the same though. Despite all the different paths and outcomes, the essential message here is that bullying in any form at any age is not productive and will produce far more negative results than anything that could be seen as positive.
The Many Myths of Bullying
When it comes to addressing bullying, everyone seems to have somewhat of a different point of view. One of the most common trends I find among friends of mine when the subject of anti-bullying comes up is this:
Teach kids to stand up for themselves instead of creating a generation of weaklings.
Bullying will help kids learn to defend themselves.
Bullying is part of the experience of growing up.
I was bullied as a kid and my dad bought me a pair of boxing gloves and made me learn to fight….”
The list goes on and I think you all get the point. Now, I’ll admit there is always a part of us that will read such statements and seek a gleam of truth. After all, no one wants to think of their son or daughter standing there being hit and refusing to defend themselves. However, it only takes a bit more digging into these thought processes to start to see the flaws in that line of thinking.
Now, before we go deeper, don’t get two different concepts confused here. The anti-bullying movement, at least to me, is not the same as saying, “be a victim.” I’ve told my son many times that if another kid hits him that he has all the permission in the world to defend himself.
Anti-bullying is about far more than avoiding fights on the playground. To me, it represents taking down a culture that is set up strictly for the abuser to win and the victim to suffer. That is essentially one of the tenants of bullying after all; the house always has the favor. Remember when Whitney Walker stated that bullying was largely about power? Well, that is another dynamic that cannot be ignored, yet under the “kids will be kids” thinking that I referenced above, giving bullies power and control is an almost guaranteed result.
Let’s break it down though. School is designed to prepare children for the adult world by giving them knowledge and skills such as reading, writing and math. The other intent is to teach social dynamics. A classroom is essentially a training camp for a workplace. You’re often put in teams, grades are sometimes given on a curve and the idea is often pushed that teamwork is a pathway to success. The idea of going to school, the base intent of it, is to become wiser and better rounded as a person. When a child nervously walks into Kindergarten they have almost no knowledge of life outside of their parent’s home. It can be terrifying. By the time that same kid is graduating high school though, they are essentially transformed; or at least that is the goal. If the system works correctly, said child should now be equipped with the essential knowledge and wisdom to go forth and be successful members of society. The books provided them with the facts and answers and the social setting set them up with the ability to interact with new people in an organized setting. The lessons learned in school, combined with those taught within their family should have them ready to take on the world.
However, the system is flawed.
Going back to the opening of this chapter and the common thought of “let them learn to defend themselves” we can already start poking holes in that theory. For one, we talk about control and power. Now, there are two sides to every coin and thus there are essentially two logical paths behind every action. An easy way to look at the concept here is through this paradox:
If I ask you, are all ravens black, you’d likely say yes. This is an easy start, we’ve all seen ravens, they have black feathers, black little eyeballs, the birds are clearly black. Here is the twist though, when you say that all ravens are black, you’re also saying that any bird that is not black cannot be a raven. Now you might start thinking that some ravens out there could have a few white feathers, or what about the beak? Are all ravens really black?
The purpose of that little paradox is to demonstrate that we are never actually just saying one thing. To say that it’s night is to also say that it isn’t day. To say that you’re happy is also to say you aren’t sad.
So here’s the point, the logic of “let the kids learn to defend themselves instead of trying to stop bullying” as I stated above, almost sounds reasonable. However, using the raven example, you can now see that you’re also saying something else, something that the good old red-blooded American father who thinks bullies are no big deal would likely not agree with.
You’re also saying:
“If another kid wants my child to fight them, my child has no choice, the only option now is to fight. The bully has complete control over the situation.”
“If another kid wants to insult my child, my child has no choice but to respond back with insults, hoping with each breath that they’re funnier or more brutal than what the bully is saying. The bully has complete control over the situation.”
“If my kid wants to focus on his studies in class, but another kid is throwing paper balls at his head, he has to react in the same fashion. My kid isn’t allowed to study until the bully is dealt with. The bully has complete control over the situation.”
These are just a few examples of the two sides of choice and action. By allowing bullying to happen and claiming that it will somehow strengthen the victim, is also essentially rolling the dice on the kid’s ability to go to school and function and develop. In my opinion, preparing children for the adult world is about teaching them to make good decisions based on their own knowledge and understanding of what is going on around them. However, ignoring bullying and attempting to normalize it as just part of growing up is also teaching children that the bigger kid, the meaner kid, the kid with more friends to back them up will always control the situation.
The issues go deeper than that though. The idea of pretending that bullying is acceptable is also teaching that personal choice is just an illusion. What if the child being bullied doesn’t want to fight? Perhaps they can tell just by looking at their harasser that they won’t win in a fistfight. Perhaps the victim knows that the harasser will simply bring a group of their pals along to make sure the fight goes their way. This is an example of a child using real logic and smarts to make an educated decision. However, under the idea that bullying is somehow part of character building, we’re also saying that logic and reason come second to pressure and abuse. Also, as stated above, the child shouldn’t need an excuse not to fight. If the child simply doesn’t want to fight, that should be enough. However, with the flawed logic of permitting abusive behavior among peers, the child will unfortunately learn instead that personal choice and consent only extend as far as a thrown punch. These are not the lessons that children should be absorbing.
Furthermore, kids in today’s school system are receiving massive amounts of mixed messages. Parents tell them to stand up for themselves; teachers tell them that fighting will result in punishment. In many schools now, the idea of “he started it” no longer applies. Both children are typically punished for fighting. This can be very confusing, as the same parents will also tell their kids to follow the rules and do what the teacher tells them. This can be a lot of conflicting thoughts for an adult, so imagine what it feels like for a child to try and process this.
The logic of allowing peer abuse also tends to shift blame and focus in all the wrong directions. The bully, who should be the one receiving the repercussions for their actions, almost becomes a non-issue in the discussion. Angry dad gets angry because he feels like the system is creating a society of victims. Angry mom gets angry because she feels like the teachers have no control over the class. Angry teacher gets angry because they feel that the school system has clipped their wings in their ability to discipline the students that they are paid to teach. Pretty soon you have an entire circle of anger and blame with the attention directed everywhere except towards the bully themselves. These lessons process into both the bully and victim’s minds that what is happening is somehow acceptable, because there are no real consequences on either side. The teachers can’t address the bully because that might set off his/her parents and that leads to complaints to the school, which can lead to a damaged career. So the bully feels their actions are justified, since there seems to be no consequence. The victim will feel abandoned and hopeless because the system is doing nothing to stop the abuse. Victim tells the teacher, teacher can’t do anything. Victim tells father, father says to fight, but victim doesn’t want to fight, well tough.
This is going on all across America, everyday in hundreds of classrooms. By establishing a real anti-bullying campaign, we are not raising a generation of victims, but rather teaching a generation that abuse is wrong. If this still seems like just child’s play, just the things that all kids go through to make them stronger and build their character up, let’s take it a bit further and look at how some of these bullying traits carry over in adults.
Kids: Bully wants to fight victim, victim says no, bully is stronger and is not afraid to get physical. Victim is forced into fighting.
Adults: Man wants to have sex with woman, woman says no; man is stronger and not afraid to get physical. Woman is forced into having sex.
Kids: Bully forces victim to fight, victim loses fight. Goes home feeling shame because victim doesn’t want parents to know that he got beat up. Lies about the bruises.
Adults: Man forces woman to have sex, woman loses the struggle. Goes home feeling shame because she doesn’t want friends/family to know she was raped. Lies about bruises.
Kids: Bully realizes that there are no consequences. Victim kept quiet because of shame. Bully now believes that they can abuse again and get away with it.
Adults: Man realizes that there are no consequences. Woman kept quiet because of shame. Man now believes that he can rape again and get away with it.
Now, I am by no means directly comparing schoolyard bullying to rape, but rather demonstrating the similar thought processes that go through both abuser and victim’s mind. If abuser is permitted to bully and not addressed at a young age, then there is a far greater risk that the child will grow up thinking that their behavior is acceptable. After all, most of us learn through trial and error. When we do something wrong and receive a negative result, we learn quickly that said action is a bad idea. However, to a young child who’s mind and social identity is still developing, permitting abusive behavior to happen with no negative results is essentially teaching them that it’s okay to do it. Much like the tiny pebble that rolls down the side of a snowy mountain and becomes an avalanche, so too operates social boundaries. Learning early that strength, size or number of friends equates to control and power over another human being is a lesson that likely will not evolve into anything positive as child grows into adult.
A Shame by Any Other Name
So, now we’ve explored some of the background to bullying; how our flawed system and often times well-meaning but misguided guardians actually permit abuse to happen all while blaming everyone in the room but the person actually committing the abuse. Getting back on the topic of adult bullying in the workplace, we need to take a moment to look at the mechanisms that we as a society often deploy that allow abuse to happen in our adult lives.
Here’s a riddle for you:
A bully, a harasser, an oppressor and an abuser walk into a restaurant. The host looks up and asks, “Table for one?”
Yeah, it’s pretty obvious that they’re all the same person. The point of that little riddle was to demonstrate how people often become abuse enablers through one of society’s most common fears: labels.
That’s right, now days people are far more afraid of attaining a negative label than most anything else. Most people, abusers included, like to justify their actions in such a way that at the end of the day they can still think of themselves as reasonable and respectable members of the American workforce. This also extends into many of the toxic by-products that are spawned from unchecked bullying. Even the word bully itself if far more desirable than abuser, harasser or oppressor, which likely explains why schools stick pretty much to the words bully and bullying as opposed to abuser and assaulting.
Here's a quick look into the adult world of abuse and the way many unethical or criminal acts are downplayed just by labeling them something that sounds less morally reprehensible. A few examples:
Sexual harassment is often downplayed to “flirting.”
Catcalls in the street are downplayed to “compliments.”
Vicious insults are often downplayed to “keeping it real” or “telling it like it is.”
Criminal assault in certain organizations, such as University Greek Life was often misrepresented as “traditions.” Once those actions started to gain broader exposure and more negative reactions from the public, those in power still avoided using applicable terms like abuse, assault, battery..etc, and instead found what they believed was a safer word, hazing.
When we stop playing word games and start calling things what they really are, it often become frightening to those in upper management. When the boss stares at his female associate’s legs or grabs her breasts, he might be considered just a “dirty old man.” Dirty old man is a rather harmless sounding label, which is of course why it would be used by those wishing to protect the boss's reputation.
However, when the woman decides to call it sexual harassment, the jokes seem to dry up quickly. The same folks that thought the boss’s antics were hilarious the day before are now blaming the female associate. It’s her fault for wearing a short skirt, her fault for wearing a low top, her fault for being born female.
The boss or his supportive elements might say:
"Learn to take a joke."
"Learn to take a compliment."
"He’s an old man, it’s harmless."
Once again, we can see how words are shifted to avoid any real negative labels. Joke, compliment and harmless old man are far easier to permit or ignore than the actual labels for his actions; sexual harassment, sexual misconduct or sexual assault.
By the time the smoke settles, even the victim may start to question her own feelings.
“Am I being too sensitive?”
“Should I have a better sense of humor about it?”
Or perhaps the most frightening for anyone experiencing abuse at work, “is fighting this worth my career?”
Offender becomes just dirty old man and the victim becomes overly sensitive with no sense of humor. The shift in label happens so quickly that the victim believes it to be true and the cycle of abuse is able to continue on.
Once again we can draw another parallel connecting childhood bullying to adult bullying. The woman in the example above becomes convinced that it’s her fault the boss is harassing her. It’s because of her short skirt or her make-up. She suddenly finds herself victim-shaming herself. This lines up with the idea that a kid in the classroom is practically honor-bound to fight at the bully’s demand. Should the kid lose, he turns his anger on himself. It’s his fault because he can’t fight, his fault because he’s shorter than the bully, his fault because he can’t punch as hard or as fast. Teaching anyone at any age that the victim of abuse is somehow responsible can lead to that very same generation of victims that angry dad believes will be caused by anti-bullying programs in schools.
By now you might be wondering if this is an anti-bullying article or a sexual harassment article. Well, in all reality there is no reason to separate the two. Really, almost any criminal act of control can be rolled into this. Now, some of you might think that’s a bit extreme, but if you really break down what a bully does and what the act of bullying involves, you’ll see that many offenses considered far more serious all follow the same thought process.
For a bully the name of the game is control and power. A sexual harasser is essentially following the same formula, as is a rapist or an armed robber. The base concepts for all these actions are essentially rooted in the same recipe. Use force, fear or strength to take from someone what you want with no regard for the long-term impact that your actions cause. A bully might use control to take something as simple as someone’s good mood or self-esteem for the day. The rapist will use the same line of thinking to take sex. While I do admit these comparisons are extreme when we look at the crime itself, it cannot be denied that the methods behind both acts are very similar.
A bully after all, is really similar to a dog that relieves its bowels on the neighbor’s lawn. The dog wants to use the lawn, that’s what it knows. It doesn’t care if you step in its waste later. The dog isn’t going to clean up its mess, nor is it going to knock on your door to let you know to watch your step. The dog is going to do what it wants to do and move on. It’s not going to spend the day wondering if someone might ruin their shoes. It’s not going to feel any sense of guilt or concern. The dog simply acted on impulse and kept going. A bully thinks the same way. Substitute the lawn with the victim’s sense of worth, esteem and value, and substitute the dog waste with the act of harassment. The bully is going to use the victim for what they want, rather it be a good laugh, a power play or just an act of aggression. Once the bully has finished squatting and taking care of their business, they’ll move on with their day. They won’t waste a moment’s concern on how their actions may have affected the victim.
I feel this analogy sums up why we need anti-bullying programs in schools and workplaces. Just as no one can expect the dog to take the time or feel the need to clean up after itself, neither can we expect a chronic abuser, a bully, to suddenly wake up and learn empathy. Anti-bullying is essentially the dog’s owner, who has to take the time to either train the dog to stay off the neighbor’s yard, leash the dog or go and clean up after the dog. By inserting anti-bullying programs, we essentially take the pressure away from the victims. After all, the dog may never learn to stay off the neighbor’s lawn, but as long as the dog’s owner is cleaning up the mess or preventing the dog from going over there, the neighbor never has to worry about stepping in the waste. This is one way that anti-bullying concepts can work. Perhaps not all people, children or adults, who find enjoyment in tormenting others can be changed or trained out of their behavior, but the victim is still owed a clean lawn. After all, I doubt the neighbor who steps in the dog’s dropping would settle for the owner telling them, “Hey, dogs will be dogs, it builds character!”
The Worst Case Scenario
Angry dad reading this right now might still be rolling his eyes. He’s posted a meme of Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreations by now. One that no doubt opens with “Back in my day…” and then goes on to reiterate how bullying builds character and teaches reliance and so forth and so on.
I get it.
This is new information for many people. Even with all the parallels that I’ve provided, much of it is just opinion. Some readers are probably just thinking, “The author of this article is just weak. Bullying is part of life, learn to stand up for yourself….”
Yes, that old chestnut of wisdom will likely never be done away with. Angry dad is likely imagining a bully as just some chunky kid with bad posture and a jean jacket shoving a Science Club member into a locker. All for fun, right?
I could talk about how bullying in school can cause students to have poor grades and attendance. After all, who has time to study when your peers are tormenting you all day? I could talk about depression and low self-esteem. However, I feel like angry dad might just reply with another tirade about the generation of weaklings being churned out in our schools. I can almost hear angry dad blaming adult bullying on anti-bullying initiatives in schools.
He might say, “If you let kids learn to defend themselves then they wouldn’t get bullied as adults!”
Some might agree with that, but the circular thinking that somehow more bullying will create less bullying is very similar to the idea of throwing water on a grease fire. Sure, water puts out a fire, that’s what everyone knows. However, if you take the time to actually look at the fire, realize it’s grease, then perhaps you won’t waste time filling up a bucket of water while your kitchen burns down. Or better yet, don’t create the condition where a grease fire can even start.
Sadly though, we live in a society where it takes a lot to get our attention. It generally takes a great tragedy to get people talking about the everyday issues. So, now is the part of this article that I don’t look forward to writing. Still, it has to be said.
Let’s talk about suicide, and let’s talk about a young man named Danny Chen.
Before I begin this section, I want to clarify a few things. First of all, while this will focus on abuse in the US Army, the purpose here is in no way to cast shame or a negative image at the US Military. I personally served 7 proud years in the US Army, deploying twice to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I loved my time in the Service and would recommend enlisting to anyone that was interested. I will be focusing specifically on the isolated incident that led to Danny Chen’s suicide and the toxic leadership that contributed to his actions. The behavior and abuse committed by Chen’s leadership, in my opinion, represents a poisonous fringe within our otherwise honored Service Members, and does not in anyway portray the vast professionals that risk their lives on a daily basis in service of our Nation.
Furthermore, I would like to address the often-misunderstood Military culture of “hazing,” in order to punctuate the point that what Danny Chen endured is not a common trend. New arrivals are often times tested a bit, since they are being inserted into a team of established comrades. While some degree of horseplay and trash talking is common, the majority of military leaders embrace the idea of inclusion for new Soldiers and usually go far and beyond their scope of duty to ensure new recruits are treated with respect and dignity.
I remember being a new arrival to Fort Hood back in 2008, fresh out of training and nervous as hell. Some of the Drill Sergeants and other cadre told us horror stories of how they were shoved into wall lockers on their first day at their unit. Others told far more disturbing tales. However, such is the nature of Basic Training, and I learned quickly that those Drill Sergeants were either describing relics of a time gone by, or more than likely were just messing with us for a laugh.
My first day arriving at Fort Hood, assigned to 2-12 CAV, I was greeted with more handshakes and hellos than push-ups or wall lockers. I was processed in and my team of Non-Commissioned Officers gave me their phone numbers and welcomed me to reach out if I should need anything during my transition. I was never hazed nor did I witness any other new people being hazed. During my 7 years of service, while there were a few moments of unprofessional behavior on the part of some of the younger Sergeants, I never once witnessed anything that compares to what Danny Chen was put through. Military life was fun in my opinion. You get to hang out with your friends, (who soon become more like family) you get to travel and do some really amazing things that most of your high school pals will never understand.
Of course there was trash talking and pranks here and there. That is largely the nature of the lifestyle. We work hard and play harder. I was known as a pretty brutal smack talker myself, but at the end of the day, no one was left out of the family environment. The Army was a unique place where the line between insults and compliments blurs to almost non-existence. There was rarely a disagreement that a good sit down in the smoke pit (designated smoking area) couldn’t solve. Spats and arguements dissolved within a matter of an hour, and grudges never even got off the ground. During my time in the Military, I was assigned to 2-12 CAV (a combat arms unit) and later to 1-7 CAV, a legendary unit portrayed in the film When We Were Soldiers. Combat units typically had a reputation of being far more brutal towards new Soldiers than support units, yet I will say that in all of my time, witnessing dozens of new Soldiers come in, I never once saw anything like the horror that Danny Chen was put through.
And now, here is his story.
Danny Chen was 19 years old when he took his own life in a guard tower while on deployment, stationed in Kandahar Province in Afghanistan. He died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was a member of the 25th Infantry Division. Born in Manhattan, he was the child of Chinese immigrants. Chen wanted to serve his country, perhaps to show his appreciation for the opportunities given to his family when they came to the United States. He had dreams of becoming a member of the New York Police Department, an extension, no doubt, of his desire to serve the public. A young man with his entire life ahead of him, he did as so many of us have done before, and put it all on hold to go and embrace the selfless service that is wearing the Uniform of the United States Army.
It is unknown if the abuse he suffered at the hands of his superiors started when he was still stateside at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, or if the abuse began once he and his unit arrived in Afghanistan. What is known however is the veritable living hell that he was put through on a daily basis for 6 weeks while on Kandahar.
Chen was quickly singled out by his leadership, some alleging due to being the only Asian-American Soldier in this platoon. He was subjected to physical, verbal and psychological abuse daily, often being the target of racial slurs.
Reports state that he was given excessive guard duties, essentially depriving him of sleep and bringing him to the point of mental and physical exhaustion. He was forced to perform humiliating forms of physical exercise that fell outside of the lines of Army Regulations, such as push-ups while holding water in his mouth, or being forced into a simulated sitting position, (sometimes known as Russian Chairs) and would be physically assaulted by members of his squad while his muscles went into shock from strain.
The assaults continued when he was forced to low-crawl (a movement technique that involves keeping your entire body, head and face included, pressed to the ground) through rocks while other members of his squad threw stones at him.
On September 27th, 2011, a Sergeant in Danny’s platoon physically dragged him approximately 49 feet across jagged rocks, causing injury to his back. On October 3rd, 2011, Danny was forced to low-crawl once again over rocks for an estimated distance of 339 feet, while carrying heavy equipment and once again being pelted with stones by his fellow soldiers.
Private Danny Chen took his own life that same day.
Danny had reported the abuse to his Platoon Sergeant; however, the complaints were either never brought to the Company Commander or the incident was given no real consideration by the Chain of Command.
Members of Chen’s Platoon, including his Platoon Leader, a West Point graduate, were put on trial for charges ranging from hazing, dereliction of duty, communicating threats, assault and negligent homicide.
However, as the trials concluded, many of the most severe charges listed above were dropped. Several members of C Company, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Division were given dishonorable discharges. Some did brief prison sentences, and some yet were able to remain in the military. Adam Holcomb, who’d held the rank of Sergeant, was facing upwards of 17 years in prison for his involvement and failure to intervene against the abuse. Most of his charges were dropped though, and the 30 year old was given only a short time in jail, reduction in one rank and a fine.
A street was named after Danny Chen in New York.
Since this incident occurred I’ve seen a lot of differing opinions on the matter; from support for Chen’s family to disgust that these atrocities were allowed to happen. However, a common trend among many comments has been victim blaming. As in many cases of bullying and abuse, a good deal of people were quick to step forward in their attempts to minimize the torture that Chen was subjected to. Some do so by comparing his tragic incident to abuse they themselves suffered. They attempt to deflect the issues at hand by going into stories of how much worse they had it as new recruits in the military. While it would be perfectly fine and even perhaps cathartic for others to share their stories, it defeats the purpose altogether when the only reason for sharing them is to attempt to justify the actions of Chen’s leadership.
The logic here is flawed from the start. Saying that the torment Danny Chen suffered is somehow lessened because you went through something similar or in your opinion, worse, does nothing to address the actual situation. It’s the equivalent of telling a cancer patient that they’re illness is less serious because there are worse diseases in the world. Comparing cancer to ebola doesn’t make the patient suffering from cancer any less sick.
The same applies to Chen’s suicide.
The root cause here, the same cause for Chen’s suicide, falls into that same string of methodology that I’ve repeated several times. As in all cases of peer abuse, it’s a matter of an abuser using, in this case numbers, to take power and control over the life of another. What makes this situation even scarier is that Chen, being a new Soldier, a Private, was no doubt abused not just through traditional bullying techniques, but also through the use of rank and title.
Going back to my opening paragraph on this section, my friends and I in the Army were notorious for “ribbing” and pranking each other. However, rank was never brought into the picture. If one of my superiors decided to play a prank on me, I had all the freedom in the world to go and prank him back. No one in my circle of friends would have attempted to “call rank” on something like that. In the case of Danny Chen though, from what I’ve read and researched on the toxicity of his leadership, they no doubt used any method to maintain control, even if it meant resorting to calling rank.
Cyber Bullying: The Evolution of Abuse
With the advent of the Internet have come many amazing venues of entertainment. From informative how-to videos on YouTube, to the ability to connect and share with old friends from middle school on Facebook, the Internet has brought people together from every corner of the world and ushered us into the age of mass communication.
Sadly though, for all of the benefits of and uses for social media, there has also been born a new and vile breed of harassment and abuse known commonly as Cyber Bullying.
When I was growing up, if there were issues with abuse by peers at school, at the very least I always had home as a place of safety. At home I could forget about the problems at school. It created some degree of balance and was helpful in dealing with some of the stresses dealt with in the classroom. However, these days, kids aren’t so fortunate. With social media sites more accessible than ever, requiring little more than a name and email to create an account, anyone can get online and start connecting. Sites like Facebook and Twitter have become digital extensions of the user’s actual life.
Cyber Bullying is defined as using electronic devices to communicate threats, harass, intimidate or bully others.
While simple, this definition is essentially accurate. It is bullying, the same formula is used here as used in the classroom or workplace. However, unlike person-to-person interactions once associated with bullies, the cyber variety has created new and terrifying dimensions to an already dangerous epidemic. The stats for cyber bullying are no less grim than those of the traditional style, and with Internet users being able to amplify their insults and harassment through social media sharing, it becomes frighteningly apparent that cyber bullying is an issue that will likely get far worse before it gets better.
Here is a quick look at the current numbers:
20% of children cyber bullied think about suicide, and 1 in 10 attempt it. 4500 kids commit suicide each year. Suicide is the No. 3 killer of teens in the US.
However, cyber bullying has evolved beyond even children and teenagers, and has taken on a new angle. Public shaming has become the new cyber bullying, and it is as popular among adults as it is kids. A quick search of YouTube will show just how common it has become for people to secretly record each other in public and post these videos straight to the Internet. With cellular phones now possessing the capabilities to record and upload within seconds, and with lawmakers still attempting to sort out where the First Amendment (which is used to justify most recording in public) and a person’s right to privacy begin and end, recording and posting people to the Internet without their permission has become free game. Even in cases where Civil or Criminal Libel (essentially slandering someone publically) can be proven, it is still difficult to always track down who actually recorded and posted the first content. Videos can be shared over and over again across multiple platforms, making it sometimes impossible to hold anyone accountable.
Only 11 states currently have “2-Party Consent” laws, which basically state that for a conversation to be recorded all participants must be informed and agree. This law does not apply to public servants such as police officers, government officials or employees who’s wage compensation is tax based.
States that have “1-Party Consent” laws essentially make recording in a public venue (any property maintained by tax dollars such as parks, sidewalks and certain monuments) legal. Posting the content of these recordings to social media is generally protected under the same policy. The purpose of this law likely came from the practice of family members filming a wedding or other event in a public space and not having to seek out the permission of anyone who may be visible in the video in order to share online.
However, a much darker side has evolved from this.
Most people support a citizen’s right to say, record the police or record courtroom proceedings. This makes sense to me as well, especially with the rise in police brutality and government corruption that has gone largely unseen before the advent of source sharing.
However, many people have taken the practice of recording in public and morphed it into a twisted game of public shaming. One popular trend seems to revolve around recording cashiers and other retail workers if the customer feels they’ve been slighted. Videos of teachers being harassed and threated in their classrooms pop up. High school children brutally attacking each other is a common sight online. Online pranks where strangers are treated as unwitting props for someone’s YouTube page are everywhere. And unlike traditional media, where a reporter is held to journalistic integrity, where names are exchanged and contact information provided, people filming on their cell phones to make YouTube videos are held to no such standards. Due to the 1-Party Consent laws, there is no need to even inform the victim of these videos that they are being recorded. Many websites allow accounts to be made with gibberish usernames and throwaway emails, making it almost impossible to track down who recorded and uploaded the original video.
Just like with any traditional form of bullying, public shaming follows the same formula. The person in possession of the video can edit their video to create false context. The title of the video will often condition the viewer from the start. Since few of these videos ever start from the beginning of the incident in question, it is easy for the cyber bully to manipulate the viewing audience.
What this has led to is a faction of our society that no longer believes in settling matters one on one. Anything from a messed up order at McDonald’s to someone who accidentally parks too close to someone else’s car is now a matter for the public to rule on. With the anonymous nature of the Internet, cyber bullying can be raised to higher levels. Racist and sexists comments, threatening and harassing messages and flat out lies designed to destroy the victim’s personal life are now common place on the Web. Cyber bullying has literally become abuse without consequence.
Everything that I’ve mentioned above is just what can be found and done on what is known as the “bright web,” basically the regular Internet we use every day. It would take an entire article of its own to detail the horrific content that hides on the “dark web,” the heavily encrypted and almost completely untraceable portion of the net known for doxing, (sharing of private information) illegal pornography and illicit drug sales.
Below are a few examples of some of the more well publicized incidents of cyber bullying, shaming and criminal acts of intimidation committed on the Internet.
In 2016, female game designer Brianna Wu received death and rape threats daily from anonymous sources online. She was targeted for being a woman in a leading role in the video gaming industry.
In 2008 in the case of Draker Vs. Schreiber, an educator fell victim to online harassment when students from her school created a fake MySpace account using her photos and personal information with the intent to humiliate her.
YouTuber Alex Jones recently used his online platform, Infowars, to make false claims that Chobani, a yogurt company, was illegally importing migrant workers with rape convictions to work for their company. Chobani responded with legal action and Jones settled out of court and issued an apology. Before that Jones was also threatened with legal action by a pizzeria when he posted false information claiming they were running an illegal sex operation in their basement. In the case of the pizzeria, Jones once again settled out of court and issued an apology.
YouTuber Adam Kokesh, who follows a similar ideology as Jones, is also known for posting videos where he publically shames or humiliates those that disagree with his political opinions. In most cases, due to the nature of how the law views public filming in relation to the First Amendment, these actions go unanswered.
While some social media sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter do attempt to maintain a level of moderation with what they will and won’t allow to be posted, their system is flawed in protecting anyone’s identity or privacy. Most videos can be posted immediately and shared right after. From there it takes a site admin or moderator to view the video and make a decision on whether it stays up or not. In that time, the video can already be shared multiple times across platforms that do not have any real terms of service when it comes to what can be hosted on their site.
Many websites make this form of intentional apathy their cash cow. Many video streaming sites have found legal loopholes to avoid being held accountable for the information they host. Within their descriptions and terms of service, they state that they take no responsibility for the content being uploaded, with all responsibility falling on whoever posts the media. However, these same sites will require almost no real information on their users, essentially beating the system. After all, even if you find a video of yourself on one of these websites, when the user who posted it has a screen name such as “abbabab3239” or something similar, and the email provided to the site was used once to verify the account and then deleted, it’s not as though that user can be tracked down easily.
In cases like Alex Jones and his attacks on yogurt and pizza, it would seem as though some degree of justice was served, as he was held liable for his lies and subsequently had to pay and apologize. However, in some cases with cyber bullying, the victim finds that they have no recourse what so ever. As I’ve stated above, the laws are still being refined when it comes to exactly what can be done in cases of online harassment, especially when the harasser uses the First Amendment as their vessel of justification. Any time our basic rights as Americans are tampered with, it opens up a frightening dialogue as to what could happen next. This puts lawmakers in a difficult position and often leads to no actions being taken, as the lines are simply too blurred to cross. Because of this, the victims of vicious online attacks often have to pay the price, as their bullies seemingly find the “secret sauce” and can get away with almost anything so long as it can be connected to some form of free speech.
One such case came to public attention in 2003. Internet Blogger Tucker Max, who would later write I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, a book that was later adapted into a comedy film, posted a blog detailing intimate details of his relationship with former Miss Vermont Katy Johnson. The information that Max posted was very personal and specific. The tone of the blog was clearly designed to humiliate Johnson. The beauty pageant winner asked Max to remove the blog, as such information could be damaging to her career, as well as it being very private situations essentially broadcasted to the world. Max refused to remove the blog, and was subsequently brought to court over the matter. In this case however, justice was not served, and it was determined that Max’s blog and all of the private information presented was Constitutionally protected and could remain on the public domain.
What Max did is a form of bullying typically referred to as “slut shaming.” The basic rundown is generally that an ex-partner who feels slighted or jaded will post personal details about their sexual relationship with their ex. This practice is not just limited to men, as women are equally known to post humiliating or damaging content about their ex-partners as well. The purpose here, as with all forms of bullying and abuse, is to exert power and control over another person. In this case, they may attempt to attack the person’s professional career, (as with Max and his blog about Johnson, since pageant crowns can be revoked for any negative press associated with the winner) while other times the harasser may wish to damage a new relationship or the victim’s personal image.
“Slut shaming,” like most forms of abuse and harassment, has managed to evolve. A new form has recently appeared on web browsers commonly referred to as “revenge porn.” Revenge porn is the act of sharing a private video or intimate photos of an ex-partner with the intention to humiliate them or damage their personal or professional lives. With cyber abuse evolving daily right along with the anonymous nature of the Internet, it may be a very difficult road for lawmakers to successfully keep up.
In Closing: What Can Be Done?
Bullying is not going to go away over night. It probably isn’t going to go away in mine or my kid’s lifetime. Unfortunately it is hardwired into our society. For whatever reason people choose to victimize others, whether it be for control, power, revenge, entertainment or just on impulse, it is rooted into our daily lives. Most people will tell you they don’t like bullies, most will say they don’t agree with it, yet somehow it manages to remain.
The key to putting a real dent in this horrendous practice likely lies in the pages of legislation. While the by-products of bullying seem to be outlined and defined, such as fighting, communicating threats or assault, it seems that we only go after the symptoms and never the cause.
What will likely have to happen for bullying to really be addressed is that a legal approach will have to be taken towards the act of bullying itself rather than just the side effects. Bullying itself will have to be defined in such a way that it can be identified as its own act, much like a virus must be studied and broken down before a vaccine can be generated.
The image of the bully will have to be seen as more than just the chubby kid in class that steals your lunch money. The act of bullying itself will have to be identified and enforced as a form of harassment.
It’s a shame that this is the way it may have to go, but sadly, it seems that sometimes in our society it’s easier to pass a new law than it is for people to learn simple compassion for others.
As Whitney Walker suggested earlier in this article, it could likely be a matter of genetics, psychological conditioning or mental illness that causes some members of our society to take pleasure in tormenting others.
In the mean time we can work towards a better solution ourselves. Educate children and teach them to see the damage caused by these actions, so hopefully as they become adults they’ve developed a greater appreciation for sharing kindness than causing pain. As for adults, the next time you see a co-worker being harassed, say something, do something, be that spark of change. Bullies exist because people fear them. Perhaps if we stand together and show them we are not afraid, they, just like the monster we used to fear hiding under our bed, will simply disappear.
I would like the thank the following people for assisting me with this very worthy project.
Richard Santiago - for bringing me on board. I am proud to participate in a cause of this importance.
Whitney Walker - for assisting me with my questions. Your insight was extremely valuable in completing this article.
Mike Rucker - for reading and reviewing this article and catching those pesky typos.
Linda Giuffre - for reading and reviewing this article and giving me some very useful feedback.