The American Medical Association defines “bullying” as a specific type of aggression in which the behavior is meant to harm or disturb, it occurs repeatedly over time, and where there is an imbalance of power with a more powerful individual or group attacking a less powerful one. This can occur face-to-face, through gossip or innuendo, or over the media, including social media.
In a 2014 National Civility Survey by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, with KRC Research, found that about 66% of U.S. citizens believe that we have “a major civility problem” in our country, and 70% believe that “civility has eroded over the past few years.”
While studying a number of bullying prevention programs, I find that, while providing good overall theoretical and conceptual foundations and strategies for prevention and reduction of incidents, some crucial components are still missing. We must also discuss and examine the social and cultural contexts where bullying attitudes and behaviors often stem. We must find ways not only to understand, but to actually engage in correcting these larger social and cultural environments.
We must not view bullying and harassment as simply youth problems and behaviors, but rather, investigate the contexts in which bullying “trickles down” from the larger society and is reproduced within the schools. Young people, through the process of social learning, often acquire bullying and harassing attitudes and behaviors, and they also often learn the socially sanctioned targets for their aggression.
The developmental and educational psychologist, Albert Bandura, proposed that young people learn primarily through observation, and that one’s culture transmits social mores and what Bandura called “complex competencies” through social modeling. As he noted, the root meaning of the word “teach” is “to show.”
Society presents many role models, from very positive and affirming to very negative, biased, aggressive, & destructive. Modeling, he asserted, is composed of more than concrete actions, which he referred to as “response mimicry,” but also involves abstract concepts, “abstract modeling,” such as following rules, taking on values and beliefs, making moral and ethical judgments.
As young people observe negative role modeling in the society, at home, in the media, at school, and other social sites, this can result in them taking on prejudicial judgments and aggressive and violent behaviors. Youth can learn behaviors, like verbal and physical aggression, by observing and imitating others even in the absence of behavioral reinforcements.
Bandura found that young people can be highly influenced by observing adult behavior, and perceive that such behavior is acceptable, thus freeing their own aggressive inhibitions. They are then more likely to behave aggressively in future situations.
Those who bully, therefore, often fulfill the social “function” of establishing and reinforcing the norms stemming from their environment. They often justify their behaviors by blaming the targets of their attacks, and emphasizing that they somehow deserve the aggression because they in some ways deviate from established societal standards.
So, what affect does Trump’s behavior as a so-called “leader” have on the attitudes and behaviors of other adults and on young people? Furthermore, what are we all teaching young people, and do we truly understand our own complicity in the bullying we see in our schools?
Unless and until we grapple with the ways in which we as individuals and our larger society promotes and gives justification to such bullying, we will never truly solve the problems.