Why telling bullying victims to 'just fight back' doesn't work

Style News Wire | 10/31/2012, 11:32 p.m.
Fall is upon us, and that means the school year is in full swing. Along with the stress of homework ...
Style News Wire

Fall is upon us, and that means the school year is in full swing. Along with the stress of homework assignments and extracurricular activities, unfortunately some students bear an additional burden -- bullying. October is National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, pushing the issue to the forefront of the nation's consciousness.

Educators and legislators are under pressure to prevent bullying, and many schools are implementing programs such as A Classroom of Difference, Steps to Respect and Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports that teach empathy, interpersonal skills and respect for those who don't fit into the mainstream.

But not everyone agrees with this approach to managing bullying. There are vocal groups of naysayers who believe that focusing on social emotional skills training and urging students to be accepting of those who are different is leading to the weakening of America. They argue that bullying is really a form of socialization, asserting that kids who do not conform to society's expectations are bringing on their own troubles.

And when a child does end up being bullied, this same group of people advises that the victims should just fight back.

For example, the following comment on a recent CNN.com article about gender neutral toys (for which I shared my child's bullying experiences): "Communities demand relative conformity, it is what makes them communal. Nonconformity, therefore, naturally results in exclusion. Children are callous in this respect, and if parents wish to ensure their children find acceptance, then find them a suitable community. As for self-expression, all humans are welcome to express themselves, but I reserve for myself the right to point and laugh, as should you too."

Or consider this comment, which was made on a Fox News Magazine article about tips for ending bullying: "I went to Catholic school. Got bullied. Told Dad. He said, knock him in the mouth. He will leave you alone. Next day I got bullied. Punched Billy in the mouth. End of story. We are best friends today and I haven't been bullied since. Write letters, document facts? Make school aware? Whaaaat? How political we have been? What a shame. One slap can change things for sure!"

This type of "superior force" advice shows a lack of appreciation for the complexities of the bully-victim dynamics of today's world, where bullying often takes place in new arenas, such as on the Internet. Sure, if a victim fights back and flattens his bully, the bully tends to back off. But what if the bullies are hiding behind computer screens? What if the target is physically incapable of taking down the bully, which is more often the case?

The truth is that there are many bullying situations in which the victim cannot simply beat up the bully and end the problem. The very nature of bullying renders victims fearful, frozen and incapable of defending themselves. According to bullying researcher Dan Olweus, bullying is characterized by three factors: 1) It is repetitive (not a one-time event in the hall, but a regular ongoing problem). 2) It is unwanted (not two-way teasing where both parties are having fun, but instead a situation where someone is on the receiving end of taunts and aggression). 3) It takes place in the context of a power imbalance (a bigger kid against a smaller kid, or multiple kids against a single kid, or a kid with more social capital against a kid with less social capital).