Sunday, June 19, 2016

Sticks and Stones, by Emily Bazelon

Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, by Emily Bazelon
The Name of the Game
(AmazonKindle, Flipkart, Kindle India, Amazon India)

It's the appearance of difference that leads to bullying. The three cases the author follows in great detail make that much clear; tragically so in one case. The book is a fairly engrossing account of the sometimes very disturbing specifics and details of bullying.

Words give expression to thoughts, making them tangible and real. Words have a power that is rarely wielded responsibly by those who do not realize the power that words have. Words, barbs, insults, innuendo, gossip, all mixed in the cauldron of malice and apathy results in a toxic mix. Bullying is as much about individual power as it is about societal attitudes towards the weak.

Bazelon's book is divided into basically three parts. The first is more or less detailed reporting and investigative journalism into three cases of bullying - two of girls and one of a boy. One resulted in a suicide. The other two had less tragic endings. The second part, "Escalation", is the weakest part of the book, where reporting mixes with opinion, philosophy, and deft jabs at the conservative right.

Where the book excels is in the reporting of the three different cases of bullying. When transitioning from the descriptive to the analytical and prescriptive, something however gets lost in the book.

In an increasingly and unwittingly ubiquitously connected world, the first independent and unsupervised interactions children have are over social networks. While parents are right to worry about online stalkers and pedophiles, "while child seductions and abductions do begin online, and of course are devastating, that is exceedingly rare. Far more commonly insidious is the harassment and humdrum cruelty that kids inflict on other kids." Barbs hurled in a school ground or in the class can be very hurtful, but when inflicted on social networks, "cruelty among kids is on display via printouts and screen shots. This makes bullying more lasting, more visible, more viral."

In some ways, bullying is a juvenile form of the kind of harassment people sometimes face in their workplace. This includes all three criteria used as the yardstick to define behavior as bullying - "it had to be verbal or physical aggression that was repeated over time and that involved a power differential—one or more children lording their status over another." Bazelon then comes up with a taxonomy of bullies that classifies bullies into five types - "the traditional bully: the thug in training," "the kid who tries to act like a thug not out of malice but because he’s clueless. 'These kids just don’t get it,'" the bully who is "both a bully and a victim. These kids experience “the worst of both worlds,” as one researcher put it, in that their peers take turns rejecting them and goading them into making trouble. Bully-victims, as they’re often called, tend to have deeper psychological problems than other bullies or victims," the bully who is "the opposite of a misfit. These kids tend to score higher than their peers on tests for social cognition. They’re good at reading the emotions of the people around them, and at manipulating them," - the psychopath in the making, and finally, the "Facebook thug, comes directly out of this new world, a product of the increasingly connected lives kids live."

Bullying is also a way, at least for some, as a way of elevating their status in their peer group. The same can be seen on social media also, where being seen as having "taken on" someone prominent is both reward and incentive.

Then there is the bizarre brew that is feminism today to further muddy the waters. On the one hand you have "sexting", where girls feel obligated, "pressured," "to send naked pictures of themselves to boys to prove they wanted a dating relationship," and on the other hand you have slut-shaming, "as it’s called, is coarse, retrograde, the opposite of feminist. Calling a girl a slut warns her that there’s a line: she can be sexual, but not too sexual. 'If you're in a relationship with a guy for a long time, and you do stuff with him, it's not that big a deal,' one fifteen-year-old told me." In the need to appear equal to boys, girls have ended up losing even more of their independence to the sexual demands of boys, while finding themselves the target of their own gender for transgressing imagined boundaries.

For students today to get redress in the hyper-legalized society in the United States, "bullying has to be framed as a loss of equal rights. Recourse begins with the most foundational American law of all—the Constitution. Specifically, the Fourteenth Amendment, which protects us from being discriminated against on the basis of race, sex, national origin, or religion." Common sense has to cede to the lawyers.

The situation gets particularly worse when it comes to dealing with bullying of homosexuals, or LBGTQ (Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Transvestite, Queer) students. On one side you have the religious and moral fundamentalists, and on the other the hyper-aggressive advocacy groups. Each pushes their own agenda with an intolerant and unyielding virulence and intensity that they claim to fight, and which cannot but bring an ironical though wry smile to the face. One group wants the Bible to be the lodestone for settling all debates moral, while the other group wants "Heather Has Two Mummies" to be the new required reading material for children in schools and even at homes of those parents who don't want such material to be taught at school.

The situation with social networks has not got much better when it comes to identifying and tackling the problem of harassment, intimidation, and wanton bullying. Her experience with Facebook is what Bazelon uses to drive home the point that meaningful self-regulation is simply not in the interests of social networks. When, after "many moons and emails," the author did reach Nicky Jackson Colaco, a member of Facebook’s Privacy and Security team, Nicky told her that "Facebook wasn’t interested in participating in a book with a “techno-panic” slant—in other words, a book that blamed technology for social problems like bullying."
"Before my Times article ran, I called Facebook for comment about COPPA and teen privacy, and I was directed to a new spokesperson who’d worked for years on Capitol Hill. She opened our first conversation this way: “I’ve been told we gave you more access than we’ve ever given a journalist, so I really hope this story is nice.” When she realized I wasn’t writing a puff piece, the spokesperson berated me over a series of calls for daring to write critically about the company’s approach to teenagers. She pushed two lines: Facebook was great for kids, and if it wasn’t, Google was worse."
- in other words, the line pushed by Facebook was - "be thankful to and for Facebook, you ingrate." Google's attitude is little different, if one recalls some of its then CEO's statements, like "Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it," [link] or "Show us 14 photos of yourself and we can identify who you are." [link]

Bullying can mutate into many, many uglier forms of harassment and violence, leading to long-term harm. A less ideologically adamant viewpoint would have made the book more useful. It is, however, a helpful addition to the debate.

Author's book page

Kindle Excerpt:

© 2016, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.