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Boys on the Bus Grasping at Fake Power

You’ve no doubt heard about middle school boys harassing their bus monitor. Late last June four boys harassed 68-year-old Karen Klein about her weight and her family, and made violent and graphic threats.

Their punishment finally came — suspension and no more bus riding — and it’s got me thinking.

Too many of us hurt one another in desperate attempts to grab at what turns out to be fake power.

This case is classic. The boys wanted to feel bigger and more powerful by humiliating someone – in this case, someone who was supposed to have power over them – and bringing her to tears. In those moments they certainly felt big and strong. And then they bolstered their new-found muscle by posting a video of the abuse on YouTube so the world could see their supremacy.

But they weren’t truly empowered. The opposite, in fact. They ended up debased, expelled, and losing privileges.

Whether bullying, beating, raping, or killing, too many grasp at delusions of grandeur. But it’s not real. It’s not constructive. It doesn’t last. And it often backfires.

You see it time and again.

Rapists take over others’ bodies to gain a sense of power and control.

Batterers bat down the women in their lives hoping to feel like big men.

Gang members seek to gain control by beating and killing as they defend fake turf.

Feeling humiliated by the West, Al-Qaeda rose up to kill and destroy symbols of U.S. power on 9/11.

But have Al-Qaeda, gang members, batterers, rapists, or the boys on the bus gained any real power?

Looks to me like they return, over and over again, to their small selves and their depression. Or they end up in jail, dead or suspended.

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Do Kids Bully from Low Self-Esteem? Or Because they’re Popular? No and No

As Nadin Khoury walked home from school last January, a “wolf pack” of seven teens, aged 13 to 17, randomly attacked. As Nadin screamed for the boys to stop during his 30 minute nightmare, they kicked and punched him, hung him upside down from a tree, and ended by hanging Nadin from a six foot wrought iron fence.

Phoebe Prince’s horror began by merely dating a popular football player, provoking the wrath of “mean girl” rivals. “Irish slut” and “whore” began appearing on social network sites like Facebook and Twitter. Threatening messages showed up in texts. The mean girls scribbled Phoebe’s face out of photographs on school walls, knocked books from her hands, and threw things at her as other students watched and did nothing.

After months of bullying, Phoebe went home and hanged herself.

Why do kids act so cruelly?

The old view suggested bullying arose from low self-esteem. By establishing dominance over someone, a brute could bridge the gap between the lowly place she sat and the supreme rank she desired.

But recent research finds that kids who bully are higher on the pecking order, leaving Time Magazine running a piece entitled, “Why Kids Bully: Because They’re Popular.”

Or as a Huffington Post commenter put it, “kids bully because they can.”

I question both notions.

Recent research destroys the low self-esteem hypothesis.

But what about this newer idea that kids bully because they are popular? Or that strong social support allows them to?

Is persecuting people fun, in itself, so that people do it just because they can? An awful lot of people get stressed harming others. Even very young children have a basic sense of justice which is based on whether one person is hurting another. Bullying probably serves some other purpose.

Why do some bully? The real answer seems an odd mix of the old and new explanations. The somewhat popular Mean Girl has to bridge a gap between where she sits and where she thinks she belongs. She wants to be seen as more socially dominant than she already is. If she felt secure at the top of the ladder, she wouldn’t need to work to gain her position.

Those at the very top have no gap to bridge. They actually avoid harassing others because they don’t want to signal insecurity and weakness, suggesting they need to prove something.

When people act aggressively to move up the hierarchy, they are doing what sociologists call “the social construction of personal identity.” When others witness our supremacy, it feels more real. It becomes “objective.” No surprise that Nadin Khoury’s tormentors taped the abuse and posted it on YouTube – which led to their arrest. I guess the risk seemed worth it (or they were too stupid to see the eventual outcome) since identities feel more objective when others witness our power.

How do we address the problem? Some suggest focusing on the kids who aren’t involved. Cultivating their empathy so they won’t stand idly by.

Perhaps encouraging more constructive sources of self-esteem would be useful.

Or, drawing attention to the (relative) insecurity of the bully might help, too.

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