Culture of Bullying Revisited

A few weeks ago, a story broke about Jonathan Martin’s abrupt departure from the Miami Dolphins – reportedly over being relentlessly bullied by his teammates.

The original story carried remarks from FoxSports.com that had reported Martin was subjected to “excessive, over-the-top bullying”.

His teammates denied that characterization of the activities, with offensive guard Nate Garner calling the situation with Martin “normal stuff”, and other players saying “it wasn’t anything that doesn’t go on in any locker room, but that Martin snapped”.

Initial reports also specifically described name-calling Martin “Big Weirdo” and socially excluding him to the point of refusing to eat at the same table.

While it is impossible to know the exact details or facts, this is national headline story involving high-visibility professional athletes and role-models for American youth. Such a thing begs to serve as a teachable moment – or a conversation opener – for parents, teachers, community leaders, and certainly for coaches. One would expect those who have been searching for chances to stand up, speak out, and make a difference to seize this opportunity.

This story is the ideal chance to address the culture of bullying; how that culture thrives in professional sports; and how that role-model glorification trickles down all the way to your local school system.

So, I posted to community anti-bullying forum, asking for reactions to the story. I specifically asked how do parents, teachers, and coaches react to it.

Role models and professional athletes had not denied bullying Martin, but had instead defended their behavior as “normal” (because it is common).

The article – and statements made by teammates – suggested that the problem was Martin’s – for having “emotional problems”.

And, in the forum dedicated to bullying issues, I asked about the parent, teacher, coach reaction to that presentation.

The sole response to my inquiry was that adults “should not react to it at all” – because “there are no facts available…”

In that comment, the respondent defined a new standard: adults should “not react at all” about any bullying allegation without having “all the facts”. They shouldn’t even have a conversation, or use national news headlines as a teachable moment – not unless all the facts are known. How quiet we will all be – about everything – if that is to be our standard.

And, how about your kids at school? If a school administrator has to “have all the facts” before they can “react at all” to allegations of bullying, won’t we be seeing far less action? Is that what anti-bullying groups are asking for?

Those who attend meetings of anti-bullying organizations probably know the recurring theme of “how to get the kids to stand up and to speak up against bullying”. (I will address this in detail in future post.) But, in this case, when the “adult” is handed a sterling opportunity to do just that – they invent an asinine evasion.

From a communications perspective, there is no such thing as “no reaction at all”. The absence of a response still carries some communication to anyone who is watching. And, the children are watching.

Play this sequence of events in your mind:

  1. Parent says “stand up and speak out against bullying”
  2. Headline says professional football hero role models do it – and they say it’s normal.
  3. Parent says “no reaction at all” (without absolute knowledge of facts).
  4. Teacher gives “no reaction at all”.
  5. Coach doesn’t mention it, either.

Now, couple your silence with highly publicized million-dollar contracts, fame, luxury, mansions, cars, product endorsements, travel, glamor, and girls. Add in a dash of immunity from criminal prosecution – or special treatment. Throw in the “it’s normal” (for star athletes) defense – straight from the horse’s mouth.

What conclusions are adolescent people likely to draw from this?

What conclusions can you honestly draw from this?

FatJokesThis is the actual cover of TIME Magazine for November, 2013.

The Governor of the third-wealthiest of U.S. States has become the adult poster-boy for unrelenting fat jokes.

This is yet another demonstration of the mixed messages adult culture is sending to child and adolescent culture:

“It’s bad to be unrelentingly hurtful toward someone – unless either you or they are in a special ‘free fire’ zone like a different economic class, or health condition.”

Despite seeming to make up those zones at our convenience, we are shocked when our children model our behavior to be hurtful to others.

This magazine cover is another big media event crying out to become the teachable moment between you and your child – whether that moment fits best as a lesson in empathy, resilience, hypocrisy – or all three – is only limited by your creativity and your choice to engage and make a difference. I wonder how far you will take it…

What Can I Do?

According to psychology professor Philip Zimbardo, special classes and inequitable systems of justice are one of the eight major factors in promoting evil in a society. He also says that one of the most important factors in the prevention of evil and the fostering of good deeds is training youngsters in critical thinking (like identifying hypocrisy).

Young people learn more from modeling actions than from all the hot air we can push at them.  If we want young people to have communications skills, we have to model them – rather than finding lame excuses to NOT talk about things we find uncomfortable.

If we want young people to “stand up and speak out”, we have to model that behavior – even if it means doing something more useful and involved with our time than watching overpaid thugs on television.

If we want young people to “stand up and speak out” we have to model the ability to do the uncomfortable; to speak about the uncomfortable; and to admit when we have supported a system that violates our stated principles (to recover from hypocrisy).

If we cannot bring ourselves to do these things it is pointless to tell youngsters to do them.

Next time: Bullying and Social Exclusion

Please leave your comments and questions below. I will be happy to reply.

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