By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly
Glenn Goodfellow knows that school can be a jungle for queer students facing bullying. As co-chair of the Oregon Safe Schools & Communities Coalition, he works diligently and creatively to oppose and prevent bullying in the state’s schools — and due to his and others’ work nationwide, an impact is starting to show.
“The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network has been doing a decade of surveys in which they consider the national school climate,” he says, “tapping into the experiences of students in all 50 states to see what’s going on. These findings indicate that 2011 was the first year in the past decade in which harassment of queer students was on the decline.”
However, even with this decrease, media and social attention on bullying remains higher than ever — and while Goodfellow is very optimistic that the trend away from bullying will continue, the answers as to why bullying occurs and whether it can ever be truly halted remain out of reach.
“The causes of bullying are as complicated as considering why other any other form of violence occurs within schools,” he says. “When people talk about bullying, it’s often about advocating for victims, but an issue that needs to be addressed is why youth bully other youth — why does harassment take place?”
THE HUMAN ANIMAL
“It’s important to remember that humans are primates,” biologist Leigha Tingey says. “We have the same impulse to stay alive, reproduce, and avoid predators that monkeys do … and as a result, bullying is human nature.”
An adjunct faculty member at Portland Community College, Tingey has studied diverse monkey populations worldwide. In her behavioral observations, Tingey has very frequently observed the monkeys she studies behaving in ways analogous to human bullying.
“I’ve observed Capuchin monkeys,” she gives as one example, “who have an alpha male and an alpha female [within their group], and then a complex hierarchy of subordinates. The lowest-ranking members of the group were constantly left behind in eating and traveling, and were even forced out of the tree that the group slept in and forced to sleep on the ground by the aggression of those ranking above them.”
Tingey notes that the aggression did not always come directly from the alpha leaders. “It was a whole group effort to actively ostracize the subordinate individuals, often originating from only two or three individuals only slightly higher in rank than the subordinates. It was an act of protecting one’s status within the community.”
Tingey is not familiar with any efforts by researchers to eliminate these “bullying” primate behaviors in the wild. “I honestly don’t know how such a study could even be conducted,” she says. However, researchers frequently destabilize and shift social structures within primate groups in captivity.
“While it’s a hard comparison to make, I’d say that for humans, being in a school is more analogous to being in captivity than being in the wild,” Tingey says. “In the wild, one’s job is to not get eaten, to stay with your troop, find food, and make it to adolescence so that you can eventually reproduce and make more monkeys. It’s to your benefit in the wild to work your way up to be the leader of the pack. In captivity, on the other hand, you’re given all your food as well as ‘enrichment items’ to keep you busy, and have a great deal of outside structure imposed. As a result, the benefits of working your way up to alpha status are far less compelling.”
This difference in context may signal why researchers are able to shift primate social structures in captive monkeys — and perhaps bode well for top-down interventions against bullying for humans.
“Again, humans are primates,” Tingey says. “It’s absolutely in our nature to have social disputes over status, territory, and resources — it’s why we fight wars. Bullying is human nature, because it’s an act of primates trying to get or protect what they want. Whether it’s because they want food or a place in the sleeping tree, or because they want to look cool or want attention and power that they don’t have at home, it’s basically the same.”
IN-GROUPS AND OUT-GROUPS“We assume that other animals have intrinsic behaviors, but we [humans] don’t,” Jack Donovan says. “It’s absurd.”
The lauded and controversial author of numerous books and essays exploring male identity, Donovan agrees with Tingey that bullying is part of human nature and society. He even sees it as inexorable.
“I don’t think it’s preventable anywhere,” he says. “It’s about as preventable as stopping gossip. Humans naturally create in-groups and out-groups, and defining one’s identity is part of identifying one’s in-group or out-group. It’s also part of establishing hierarchies, and humans, especially males, are hierarchical by nature. Some people will end up higher in the hierarchy, and unfortunately some have to be on the bottom because we’re not all equally gifted.”
He refers to the work of noted biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson, which posits that “groupism” — a term coined by Wilson for an elementary drive to form and take deep pleasure from in-group membership — is an essential dimension of human behavior that could underscore how and why bullying occurs.
Donovan also sees bullying-prevention programs potentially creating negative impacts for students. “Enforcing stricter anti-bullying measures in school ends up penalizing kids who are already pretty normal,” Donovan says. “Also, while there are certainly a lot of women and girls who bully … anti-bullying measures often target boys. Ultimately, it funnels these boys out of the system and tags them as behavior problems for acting in the normal way that boys often do.”
A PLACE IN THE WORLD
“Of course bullying is preventable!” says Goodfellow. “That’s why I’m one of many people who work to prevent it.… It’s not even something that we [OSSCC] or I speculate on; research indicates that bullying is preventable. It’s not a question of ‘yes or no,’ and more about what I can do to be an agent of change to stop it.”
Along with his data-rooted optimism, though, Goodfellow acknowledges that “groupism” can and does occur. “A lot of time is spent in any group establishing who’s in control and who isn’t…. It’s a very human want, to understand who’s above and below you, who you have power over and who has power over you,” he says, “and it’s our role to teach them how to engage with this appropriately.”
Goodfellow believes that through good guidance, this impulse can be shaped and refined.
“Children aren’t existing in a ‘Lord of the Flies’ situation in which they’re self-governed all the time,” he says. “We as adults … have a role to guide children to better understand that if they’d like to consider who’s considered alpha or in charge. I even think that the conversation of whether youth will bully or not is ancillary to the question of how we help children understand their place in the world. They need a framework to understand what is acceptable and what isn’t.”
Donovan agrees that guidance from trusted authority figures can have a significant impact towards lessening the damage that bullying can inflict. “I think the best thing to do for kids who are getting bullied is to show them the long-term,” he says. “Tell them that [the social dimension of] school doesn’t matter, that it’ll be over soon, and that you need to focus on the rest of your life — not to let it define the rest of your future. This could come from a parent, but it could also come from a guidance counselor or mentor issue. These people should also tell the kids who are bullying why they shouldn’t do it — although they probably won’t listen anyway — but it’s really the kids who are going through it that need support in processing it.”
Even if the impulse to create hierarchies and protect one’s space within it remains, Donovan posits that ultimately those who are bullied can transform the suffering into strength.
“I think a lot of people who achieve highly in life have been bullied in some way,” he says, “and that their achievements are in many ways a positive reaction to the bullying. Ultimately, the thing that kids who are being pushed out of a group need to remember is that, while ‘groupism’ will remain, eventually life offers opportunities to find a new group to fit into — and new opportunities to negotiate a better position within that hierarchy.”
If you are a student facing bullying, talk to a trusted adult at home or at your school, and go to OregonSafeSchools.org for a full listing of resources and strategies.