by Izzy Kalman March 25, 2010 Psychology Today Blog, A Psychological Solution to Bullying
Why are anti-bully laws failing in their mission to eliminate bullying? The reason is simple: They are a fundamental violation of the Golden Rule.
All ethical systems throughout the world, whether religious or secular, recognize the Golden Rule as the ultimate, all-encompassing rule of morality. It is obvious that the only way to create a moral society is by teaching people to live by the Golden Rule. It is equally obvious that it is impossible to achieve a moral society if its policies are contrary to the Golden Rule.
There are a few familiar formulations of the Golden Rule, but perhaps the most basic one is: Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you.
With this in mind, let us consider anti-bully laws. They do two things: 1. They make bullying a crime. 2. They hold schools legally responsible for making bullying stop.
Regarding #1: Making bullying a crime
What is bullying? The classic example of bullying is “Give me your lunch money or I’ll beat you up after school.” This is extortion and has always been a crime. However, the definition of bullying created by the academic bullying experts and applied in anti-bullying laws is far broader than the traditional definition, which involves intimidating people into doing your will. Bullying is today defined as any behavior that can upset anyone else. It includes not only behavior that can cause physical harm but psychological or emotional distress as well. Anti-bully laws make it a crime to insult people for any reason, to give them unwanted criticism, to talk about them behind their back, to refuse to be their friend, to laugh or roll your eyes when they something stupid, and to write anything negative about them. Anger and hatred are also being included in the basket of bullying, so it is now a crime to harbor anything other than positive feelings towards people. Prof. Dan Olweus, the “father” of the anti-bully psychology, in his authoritative book, Bullying in School, calls “all negative behavior” bullying. He even says that refusing to do what someone else wants is bullying. Thus, if someone pressures you to do something, they are bullying you, but if you decline to do what they want, you are bullying them.
In other words, you are either an absolute saint with incredible social skills who has mastered the art of making everyone like the way you treat them, or you are a bully, a criminal.
How would you like to be dragged into court whenever someone didn’t like the way you treated him/her? How would you like to live in a totalitarian police state in which the most minute aspects of our interpersonal relationships are now the business of the government, with the government encouraging us to be spies and informers on each other?
Furthermore, could such a system even work? If there are individuals you don’t respect, can fear of punishment convince you to feel respect for them? If we get law enforcement officers involved whenever we upset each other, will that make us love each other? Or will it make us hate each other?
If you wouldn’t like this kind of life for yourself, it is immoral for you to impose this on anyone else. But that is exactly what we are doing when create anti-bullying laws. They are a fundamental violation of the Golden Rule.
Regarding #2: Holding schools legally responsible for making bullying stop
Do you have children of your own? If so, you have probably discovered that they are not always nice to each other. In fact, they probably torment each other regularly. My own survey of about 3,000 mental health professionals and educators–the very people who are supposed to be responsible for making bullying disappear from schools–shows that their own children are at least four times as likely to be hit daily by a sibling at home than by another student in school. They are almost twice as likely to be called names daily by a sibling than by another student. If you are a parent, there is a very good chance that you have discovered to your chagrin that no matter how hard you try to stop your children from tormenting each other, they continue doing so. Two parents, even experts in children’s behavior, can’t get their own couple of kids stop tormenting each other at home, yet we expect a teacher to somehow make 20 or 30 students always behave saintly towards each other, and a principal to guarantee that a school with hundreds or thousands of children will be free of bullying.
How would you like to be held legally responsible for making your kids stop bullying each other? How would you like to be tried in court and possibly be forced to pay settlements of hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars because you failed to stop your children from making each other miserable?
Or let’s say you own a business. Your workers are not saints, nor do they all have perfect social skills. One of your employees complains that one or more colleagues are making him/her miserable. Perhaps it is even you who are the alleged tormenter, for the research shows that an inordinate percentage of workplace bullies are bosses. How would you like to be sued because you failed to make all your employees happy with the way they are treated by everyone else? But that is exactly what we are doing to schools with our anti-bullying laws. We are imposing on schools something we would never want for ourselves. This is a fundamental violation of the Golden Rule.
Philosophers have known for thousands of years that laws cannot create a society of saints. Yet this is exactly what we scientifically enlightened modern humans are trying to do with our anti-bully laws. Will we never learn that it is impossible to create a moral society via laws that violate the Golden Rule?
Unless we ourselves are willing to be sued for accomplishing the impossible–making bullying disappear from our own lives–we have no business lobbying for anti-bully laws.
For a scientific psychological explanation of the Golden Rule, please read my previous blog entry: The True Meaning of the Golden Rule: Love Your Bullies