The Power of the Crowd

What is bullying? That is a question that we are confronted with more than once in our lives. The answer seems straightforward. We know that when we spread malicious rumors about others that is bullying. We know that unfairly critiquing and putting down our peers is bullying. We know that forcing others into unwanted situations via emotional or physical coercion is bullying. However sometimes situations are more nuanced. Some may see certain actions as bullying but others may see them as beneficial or harmless. A more developed definition of bullying is essential. Signe Whitson, an adolescent therapist who specializes in bullying and crisis intervention, defines bullying as intentionally aggressive behavior that is repeated over time. A key feature is that there is some form of power imbalance, real or perceived, that causes the victim to allow the abuse to continue. For most college students physical bullying is not an issue, but emotional bullying and bullying culture are often still factors in our communities.

The power imbalances we find in such settings are dependent upon group mentality and acceptance of the bully. Often, the abuser in this situation will do something (generally with the end goal of proving them intellectually inferior or stripping their confidence) and the crowd around them will remain silent. They will, perhaps, grow uncomfortable, but they will not act to defend the victim. Because there are no consequences, be they social or institutional, the bully can continue to abuse the victim. Eventually the treatment of the victim becomes commonplace and the bullying and acceptance cycle becomes entrenched.

It seems as though conquering bullying should be very straightforward. Victims should stand up for themselves and confront their abusers. Confrontation should lead to mediation, and mediation should lead to peaceful and permanent resolution. However, bullying depends upon a power imbalance, and mediation necessitates equality on both sides.

Victims may be afraid to speak up for themselves because they fear that their abusers will react with escalation. They may rationalize their victimization and believe that their abuser is right. After all, everyone else seems to agree with them. Even if the mediation occurs, there’s no way to ensure that the bully won’t simply disregard everything that’s been said. The victim isn’t getting support from his or her peers. It is still an issue that is confined to the abuser and the victim, and there is still the same imbalance of power.

In Emily Bazelon’s book Sticks and Stones, she analyzes several bullying stories in schools and explains how the situations escalated so drastically. She also gives several examples of schools that successfully reduced bullying. The situations that were not resolved shared common factors in ineffective authority figures and feeble attempts to change school culture. Students at those schools knew they were bullying, and did so because if they didn’t harm others (or if they spoke up for the victims) they would become victims themselves. However, systems were successful where authority figures set and enforced clear boundaries, bringing change in the school’s group mentality.

Ultimately, victims cannot save themselves. They are reliant upon their peers and administration for salvation. Without support from those two groups there is no hope. The most harmful thing to a victim of bullying is for their peers to stand by and watch in silence. If we do not actively acknowledge and resist bullying then it will continue to prevail in schools and workplaces.