Some People Are Just Plain Mean

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Beverly Flaxington, writing in Psychology Today, reports that “bullying is a fact of life for most school children – over 70 percent report they have witnessed some sort of bullying event at school. More than 80 percent of girls have been bullied at school or online, and close to that number for boys.”

Bullying occurs everywhere, even in schools that exhibit the highest academic performance. Adults continue to suffer bullying in their workplaces at about the same rate as children in schools, and it’s even found among teachers and in senior living communities. My grandmother said it best, “some people are just plain mean.”

Social media is a breeding ground for mean people. Bad behavior and bullying are accelerated by those on social media. Bullies can throw stones at someone, and delight in their role of keyboard warriors, knowing they can’t be seen, and victims can’t respond right away, if at all. It turns a fun and potentially useful tool into a cesspool. Anonymity is harmful and also a problem when people can hide behind aliases or fake names.

On platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, bullies not only post mean things, they troll others and post mean things about them or to them. In political discussions, it is particularly vicious. People do not look for solutions, they want to beat up on someone who does not share their political views or ideology. Civility is seemingly a lost option.

Former President Barrack Obama rightly called out some of his supporters for being too ideologically rigid and judgmental. His comments were highly praised on social media across both sides of the political aisle. Talking directly to his fellow progressives, Mr. Obama said, "This idea of purity and you're never compromised and you're always politically woke and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly," the two-term Democrat said. "The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids and share certain things with you."

Obama, like so many, understands the premise that as adults we must have conversations that include people whose values you may not share. Even the CDC now acknowledges the impact of “electronic aggression” or “cyberbullying” on mental health. This pervasive human problem is having an impact on our children. Do we think adults who cannot behave civilly online in social media are kind and caring people in real life? Do we suspect that rigid parenting or sibling bullying will increase or decrease when even more civility is lost?

Merely raising awareness of the problem has not created change. We see bullying occur, we see social media filled with hate, we see people in elective office using twitter as a weapon to castigate opponents. Is there a solution? Clearly, punishment and zero-tolerance for bullying have been ineffective, because the problem is growing. Unless we change the culture or start directly confronting these bullies about their actions it will only continue. Even then we may be too late. Refuse to be a party to the negativity.

Almost universally, when someone bullies other people they are likely hiding something themselves. I am reminded of a public-school superintendent who gained notoriety in his district for his promotion of making schools kinder, despite being known to a certain degree inside the school system of being a bully himself. He was better at hiding his deep insecurities. However, his urge was correct that being kind is critical for our emotional and physical well-being. One of the reasons bullies on the public stage can get away with their actions, is that few people know the truth behind their actions.

My grandmother was not a scientist, but she was certainly correct when she said, “Some people are just plain mean.” The debilitating scars of bullying are real. Bullying is too prevalent in society. My fear is that this type of harassment is increasing and we haven’t found a real solution to the problem.

We know that bullying can have a lasting effect on a person's mental health. In fact, scientists found strong evidence that being bullied as a child puts kids at high risk for depression as a young adult. We are likely reaping some of that now. Bullying behavior should be taken seriously by teachers, parents, and others. Early intervention in childhood bullying can help prevent its long-term mental health consequences. And it would probably help all of us if we unplugged from social media and set stricter limits for children. 

JC Bowman

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