The bully society

October is National Bullying Prevention Month. As a topic, bullying has received considerable media attention in recent years in its linkages to online harassment, school shootings, suicide, and even a notable candidate for political office. While bullying can be overt or subtle, it nearly always involves a power imbalance based on some kind of difference in behavior, appearance, culture, or belief.  Perceived standards of the “normal” or “natural” get used to rationalize verbal, emotional, or physical abuse. In The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America’s Schools  (New York University Press, 2012), Jessie Klein argues that these notions of normality are far more significant in bullying than individual pathology.Bullies may the active agents in causing harm, but larger groups or an entire “bully society” may be the real problem, especially when we consider that this is not just about kids. Writ large, bullying can be seen to inhabit the workplace, the political arena, and the mediascape.
Klein’s book examines that past two decades of school shootings, noting that 89 percent were done by males, who generally “struggled for recognition and status among their peers. The majority of them languished at the bottom of the social hierarchy. They tended not to be athletic, and they were often described in the media as skinny, scrawny, short, lanky, or pudgy. They were teased for looking feminine or gay. They tended to be academically oriented.”
From this evidence, Klein makes what some reviewers (not this one) have considered something of a conceptual leap in linking the massacres to three “key traits” of everyday school culture. The first Klein identifies as “gender policing,” in which “students (and adults) engage in constant surveillance of themselves and others to enforce boy and girl codes.” The second involves “masculinity imperatives” enforced by the gender police: “Boys––but also girls––obtain status by displaying aggression and a willingness to demonstrate power at another’s expense.” The third is “normalized bullying” in which aggressive behavior is enabled and accepted by the school population at large. Klein then links her findings to the principles identified by RW Connell in her classic work Masculinities (Polity, 1995). As it relates to boys, both gender policing and its associated imperatives derive from what Connell termed “hegemonic masculinity”––an idealized image of manhood of the kind seen in military heroes, athletic jocks, and business leaders. In other words: tough, authoritative, controlling––and by extension, bullying. Of great importance here is the point that most boys and men are not capable of hegemonic masculinity, just as most women and girls can never become the idealized figures of feminine perfection perpetuated by popular culture. The majority of males inhabit what Connell called “complicit masculinity,” in which they observe, accept, and thereby legitimate the hegemonic ideal. Both of these groups identify against the “subordinated masculinity” of men perceived as feminine, homosexual, or in any way outside the hegemonic ideal. And according to Klein, it isn’t simply boys who suffer from this. Central to the driving fiction of “normal” male behavior is a dominance over women, licensing sexual harassment, abuse, and violence. The point of all of this, and the real value in Klein’s book, is that a set of cultural myths lie behind many of these problems. An imaginary world of idealized gender  categories perpetuates ideals to which people aspire but they can never achieve.

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