18 March 2011


Earlier this week, I went to my son's elementary school play. It was a series of skits put together by groups of several kids each in the drama class as part of the bullying prevention program at the school (with vocal and instrumental renditions of "Stand by me" as an intermezzo between each one).

A pattern illustrating the operational lesson that the children had learned from the program quickly emerged. A kid ("the target"), usually alone, gets bullied, sometimes by a bully alone, and sometimes by a ring leader and some henchmen. While alone, that kid can't win. But, another kid or group of kids intervenes on behalf of the kid being bullied and prevail - sometimes by force of numbers and sometimes combined with an appeal to authority (the principal or in a particularly overwhelming situation, a cell phone call to the cops).

The lesson seemed to be that you can't stop a bully alone, and when you are being bullied are often in a poor position to help yourself without assistance. After all, you were singled out when you were alone precisely because you were perceived in the first place, often accurately, as vulnerable. But, the program argues, you as a member of the school community have a moral obligation to help out your fellow students when they are in this kind of bind, because the secret to overcoming a bully is to have allies. The key ingredient that the program seeks to internalize in the kids and drill into their consciousness by repetition is that there is a moral duty to intervene on behalf of kids who are being bullied. Kids need to stand by each other to stay safe.

While the scenes weren't very realistic, the basic strategy that was proposed is plausible and the virtue of seeing a solution to the problem in terms of social context and personal obligation to others in the community is a refreshing and useful lesson for the kids that can extend far beyond the school yard.

As a practical matter, resorting to authority without peer support is often not very effective, and the old standby of the last generation - learning to box or do karate, reinstated into the debate by a Chinese setting remake of the Karate Kid movie, also doesn't work that well in real life. But, peer support does work, and the intervention of someone else on your behalf can make all the difference and resolve the problem in a stable way.

Moreover, this kind of strategy doesn't have to be completely successful to its full extent to work. As long as a small minority of kids in stronger positions than the target of the bullying are induced to intervene when necessary, and a great majority are induced to be less inclined to encourage or support the bullies, the strategy will work. A community in which a significant minority of kids who are in reasonably secure social positions feel a moral obligation to stand by isolated vulnerable kids who are being bullied and are ready to act on it is a community in which bullying is likely to become an undesirable option for would be bullies.

Bullies and Foreign Affairs

A natural analog to this view is what I see as an emerging conventional wisdom in foreign policy and military affairs. The single most decisive factor in determining the outcome of wars is who each side has as allies are in the conflict, and who watches without getting involved. Similarly, cops almost always win in individual confrontations with criminals because they can resort to the resources of a much larger and more cohesive team. Only when criminals band together into gangs, or organized crime families or cartels do they pose a serious challenge to police authority.

The protesters in Egypt and Tunisia couldn't have prevailed if the armed forces in those countries hadn't refused to back the current dictator. Protesters in Bahrain look doomed to failure because Saudi Arabia and other little Gulf monarchies have sent in troops to back that regime.

Protesters in Libya had a harder go of it because Gaddafi was able to utilize family ties and mercenaries to secure greater loyalty from his troops. The willingness of the French to stick out their neck and recognize the rebels in Libya as the legitimate government of Libya, an international consensus to freeze sovereign wealth and leadership group wealth, and yesterday's UN Security Council vote to authorize military force against Gaddafi (with usually anti-interventionist permanent members of the Security Council abstaining rather than vetoing the action) supported by the Arab League, British and French and American military might, and Qatar has changed that game, forcing Gaddafi to reverse his course of action by declaring a cease fire and probably insuring victory for the rebels, at least in the Eastern Benghazi area.

The Taliban were swiftly removed from power because they too found no international allies in the wake of 9-11. Serbia, in contrast, was able to maintain its control over Kosovo for much longer, with Russian backing, and Russian backing has been key to determining who prevails and who does not in conflicts over control in the Caucasus republics. Iraq's lack of allies against broad international coalitions in both the first Gulf War and the Iraq War, led to its defeat in each. Kuwait's ability to secure allies allowed it to resurface despite the fact that it had been crushed militarily and occupied by Iraq.

Tibet fell because no one inside our outside the Chinese government intervened on its behalf against China in 1959. Hungarian reformers in the 1950s, Czech reformers in the wake of the Prague Spring, and Chinese protesters in Beijing were defeated for the same reasons. Outside support from France was important to the success of the Americans in the American revolution. In World War II, decision of the United States to stop sitting on the sidelines was pivotal to the resolution of the conflict.

Until a couple of generations ago, the basic public policy stance on domestic violence was that "what happens in the home is not anyone else's business." And, the basic public policy stance on foreign affairs was that sovereignty provided local political leaders absolute authority to run their domestic affairs as they saw fit.

The attitude towards domestic violence has changed. Now, we arrest people who beat their wives and kids, and people who know about it feel some moral responsibility to summon outside intervention.

The attitude towards sovereignty has changed too, albeit more slowly. The Holocaust, reinforced by examples like genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda and Cambodia, and the rediscovery of the Armenian genocide in Anatolia, have helped shape that attitude. In U.S. history, something akin to this view (i.e. that the Civil War was justified because it freed the slaves) legitimatizes the U.S. Civil War. We no longer trust that those in political power will show enough restraint to prevent epic catastrophes in the absence of outside intervention. Increasingly, the international community feels that political leaders for show excessive brutality towards their own people forfeit their sovereign immunity from outside intervention. The international community increasingly feels a moral obligation to intervene on behalf of nations that are being bullied by their neighbors and domestic populations that are being bullied by their leaders.

Even Russia and China have reached a point where they are not going to object to international military intervention when a leader who has lost the support of half of his own military and many of his senior civil servants starts attacking his own people with jet fighters, and promising to slaughter whole cities that have risen up against him. And, even now, this support comes only with the implicit understanding that the international community is intervening only to the extent necessary to prevent mass slaughter of civilians and level the playing field.

Sovereignty still trumps a wide panoply of repressions. Apartheid was sanctioned, but direct intervention wasn't taken; the international community waited for it to collapse from within. Isolated unjustified killings of individuals aren't enough to forfeit it. Very repressive regimes, like those of Burma and North Korea are tolerated. Disregard for electoral outcomes or electoral fraud don't provoke international intervention, nor do illegal coups. But, we have at least reached the point where large scale killings of one's own people crosses a line, after which outside intervention is viewed as acceptable if anyone can be found to volunteer to take on the task.

The citizens of nation that is repressed can secure meaningful international intervention only by taking to the streets or taking up arms, and producing a response from the leaders of that nation that crosses the line.

Still, the international community has advanced from a situation where there truly wasn't any authority beyond the sovereign to one a bit like Medieval Iceland, which had courts to adjudicate when someone's misdeeds rose to the level that justified action, because executing that order, once rendered, was a private affair to be organized and financed by those who show an interest in taking action. Similarly, off the coast of Somalia, the international community has reached a consensus that Somali pirates are legitimate targets, but this determination is being enforced by a loose knit collection of national naval assets.

Excessive isolationism and respect for sovereignty sends a message that greater misconduct by national leaders will be tolerated; while an international community in which some kinds of domestic conduct is viewed as unacceptable and likely to provoke international intervention with real consequences discourages this kind of misconduct by national leaders.


Michael Malak said...

As a practical matter, resorting to authority without peer support is often not very effective

Agree and it's related to what I see as being the biggest reason why bullying is prevalent: because the same standards that apply to adults regarding slander, assault, and intimidation don't apply to teens.

There is an expectation in preschools that children will sometimes hit or bite other children despite the best efforts of adults. In elementary school, this level of adult tolerance of child-on-child violence goes down but does not go completely go away -- a lot is chalked up to playground scuffles.

But in my opinion, this tolerance should go completely away and assume adult level standards by age 13 at the latest, if not age 11.

If there is "name calling" by one 13-year-old to another, a slander lawsuit should be entered into the court. If there is a shove, the police should charge the perpetrator with the juvenile charge of assult.

This stuff would not be tolerated in the adult workplace, and it should not be tolerated in high school.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

I don't agree with you that teens aren't different, or that civil suits and the criminal justice system would be better solutions to discipline problems in high schools.

For that matter, a litigation based approach doesn't make sense in adult workplaces, where there is considerable bullying as well.

Courts do a poor job of adjudicting justice between people in ongoing relationships with each other such as people who remain fellow students or people who remain fellow workers. At the school level, people who cross the line can be expelled; at the workplace level, people who cross the line can be fired.

The problem of resort to authority not being effective is not because those in authority necessarily do anything wrong, it is because bullying is inherently a behavior that is hard to those in authority to observe and adjudicate and is organically a within the social context phenomena.

Dave Barnes said...

I just don't get it.
I went to elementary school in the 50s.
Yes, there were bullies, but not life threatening. We dealt with it.
I think I am OK.
Why the huge focus NOW on bullies.

Dave Barnes said...

WordPress + Disqus
Time to shitcan Blogger

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

"WordPress + Disqus
Time to shitcan Blogger"

When I have my e-mail connection to my cell phone, my credit card processing software, my broadcast digital TV antenna, and my daughter's slow as molasses desktop all working smoothly, I might start devoting some of my technical support time to things that are merely not working optimally, rather than to things that are actually broken.