Half of Canadians say they were bullied as children or teens, according to a Harris-Decima poll commissioned by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada.
But can that be? Are half of this country victims – presumably of the other half? Is the world really made up of two kinds of people, bullies and victims?
As the poll suggests, the discussion of bullying, even the definition of it, is sometimes debased. Bullying needs to be confronted, but in our well-meaning attempts to do so, we risk creating a moral panic that demands institutions micro-manage the behaviour of children, and as a result, undermines children’s coping skills and resilience.
Assume that the survey has it right – half of Canadians were bullied in their childhood. Doesn’t that show how normal it is to run up against someone, somewhere, who is dominating, or insulting, or exudes a sense of threat? (The adult world is no picnic, either.) The right answer is, usually, not to demand a police investigation or a royal commission. It is, at least in part, to build coping skills in all young people. Resilience is impossible without coping skills, and coping skills don’t grow when adults settle all conflicts or try to eradicate even the possibility of conflict. Conflict, too, can be healthy, and human.
But isn’t bullying a social evil? Of course it is, and there are countless examples where it has proven deadly – the 1997 beating death of 14-year-old Reena Virk of Victoria, by her peers, being one. There are also countless people for whom the pain of childhood ostracism and public humiliation contributed to lifelong battles with mental illness or addictions.
For too long, schools, summer camps and other institutions did not take seriously enough their responsibility to protect those who were vulnerable to serious bullying. Today, though, as worthy anti-bullying programs spread (including the pink-shirt days started in a Nova Scotia high school by students themselves), the pendulum has swung so far that Quebec proposed last week that each school write an annual report on bullying. This is accountability run amok.
There is no anti-bullying office in schools. There is just a principal and, if she or he is lucky, a vice-principal. Every time a parent comes forward with a complaint, it needs to be investigated. In a world in which conflict is often conflated with bullying (as anecdotal reports suggest), that job becomes impossible. And instant answers (or even accurate fact-finding) are not always possible.
All young people have a right to a safe environment – but not a bubble. Adults need to keep a watchful eye for rampant victimization – but not to police each conflict in the playground. Bullying is dangerous, but a loss of adult perspective creates an anxiety that has its own dangers.