As long as people have been around, there have been bullies, and their victims. We like to think that we are becoming more civilized, but some things never seem to change, in spite of laws and rules of conduct. I believe that there are certain aspects of human behaviour that are so deeply ingrained that we may never be free of them.
A worker is moved into a new team, and is told constantly by her new supervisor that her work is not up to scratch. No examples are given. One day the supervisor insists that everything she did the previous day is wrong. She goes over everything with a fine tooth comb and can prove in black and white that this is not the case. She presents her findings to her supervisor, who rejects the evidence and continues to insist that the work is wrong. So the worker reports her to the manager for bullying. The manager moves her back to her old team, but tells her that the supervisor will not be reprimanded. The manager, and the supervisor of the old team, then start to tell the employee that her work is not up to scratch. No examples are given, and they have always been happy with her work before the complaint. Having nowhere to get help and becoming more and more distressed, the employee resigns.
Why do people become bullies? Well, let’s start with culture. Western culture makes an idol out of winning and power. Film, TV, and other media teaches that power through violence is a good thing. While I don’t think this kind of input can turn a person into a thief or a murderer in itself, I believe it can foster an acceptance of certain attitudes and behaviours, numbing us to things that would normally shock us. Media can also teach that the loud person gets the attention, further encouraging aggressive behaviour. Institutional culture can also affect this. If it is obvious that there would be no consequences for bullying in a workplace or school it is more likely to happen. In work places people promoted into managerial positions without appropriate training and oversight can get excited with the power, and become bullies. An abused child often becomes a bully, learning from the abusive parent that this is the correct way to get what you want.
Why are people bullied? A person can be seen as having a vulnerability to be exploited such as lack of assertiveness, being too tolerant, very forgiving, deferential and wanting approval, and so on. Someone who reports bullying can be targeted further simply for speaking up. A victim can become a target sometimes because they are too good. Their performance and personal demeanour can show up the bully and make them jealous. Then there are also the old reasons for harassment and discrimination – race, gender, disability, religion, and physical appearance.
All the laws in the world are not going to fix this. Bullies can be clever and subtle, and evade any consequences that way. Protections for victims are only as full-proof as the people who are supposed to be doing something about it. When it is your boss who is the bully, and you can’t risk losing your job, where is there to go?
What’s the solution? That’s hard to say. Education would be a good start, and by this I mean education in schools. If children can be taught that this is not the way to resolve problems, if they can be taught in a way that will override the overwhelming messages to the contrary, then maybe as adults they will behave with courtesy and integrity.
The cynic in me believes this to be a pipe dream. The dreamer in me hopes that one day human beings will learn to be nice to each other. I live in hope.