by Izzy Kalman March 3, 2009 Psychology Today Blog, A Psychological Solution to Bullying
For years, I have been wondering why I am the only mental health professional in the world that has been warning the public against anti-bully laws. If these laws so obviously violate the psychological principles I learned, they must also violate the psychological principles others learned, too. Why doesn’t anyone else see what’s I’m seeing? I think I have come across the answer.
Thanks to my seminar tours, I get to visit with friends and relatives around the country that I would otherwise rarely get to see. In Allentown, Pennsylvania, a city I visit at least every year or two to give a seminar, lives a delightful psychologist, author, and seminar leader named Judy Belmont (nee´ Feldman). I went to school with her between 1975-77, when we both attended the Clinical Psychology program at Hahnemann Medical College and Graduate School in Philadelphia. She got in touch with me four or five years ago, after receiving a brochure for my seminar in Allentown, and we have been meeting for dinner on an almost yearly basis since then. (Her husband and my wife both know about these meetings, so don’t worry.)
When we met several weeks ago, I told her what the bullying psychology teaches. I gave her something like the following summary (which was also the opening paragraph of my first Psychology Today blog entry):
“You are entitled to a life in which everyone is always nice to you. If people repeatedly treat you badly, please don’t think it has anything to do with you or your behavior. If you feel bad, it is because of them, not you. Nor is it your responsibility to do anything to make them treat you better. Just tell the authorities, and the authorities will punish and rehabilitate the people who are being mean to you.”
She refused to believe me that this what the bullying experts teach, and laughed at me for suggesting that intelligent mental health professionals would promote such a foolish approach to life. She said, “Maybe a few bullying experts teach this. Certainly not most.” I told her, “No, this is the essence of the anti-bully psychology. They virtually all teach this.” She said, “But that is the opposite of what you and I teach!” (Judy is an expert at self-help.) I said, “Yes, that’s right. It is the opposite of what all therapy teaches!”
I am sure that we parted that evening with her still not believing me. Since she is not intimately familiar with the bullying psychology, and she knows that I am not the recognized world’s expert in bullying, she had no good reason to believe me. It would be irrational for her to believe me just based on my word.
But that’s what made me realize why no one is criticizing the anti-bully movement. People don’t examine it carefully. They assume that if there is a field of psychology that has gained prominence, it must be rational. If they truly understood what it is about, they would laugh in disbelief. When I tell people what the anti-bully psychology really teaches, they think I am making it up, that I am the irrational one.
If people who have a good understanding of therapy–or of law, for that matter–were to examine anti-bully laws as carefully as they inspect credit card policies or mortgage contracts, they would realize not only how foolish they are, but also how impossible they are to implement. The only place where you are likely to have the kind of environment that anti-bully movement is trying to create is Heaven, and you have to die to get in.
There is an organization called Bully Police. It is not a crackpot organization. It is the foremost lobbying organization in the United States that pressures states to pass school anti-bully laws. On their website homepage, www.bullypolice.org, the organization grades each of the 50 United States on the intensity of it’s school anti-bully law, from “F” to “A++,” and ridicules any state that does not have an intensive anti-bully law that meets with their approval. (I guess they are bullying the state legislatures, but that kind of bullying apparently is acceptable.) It also features a “Perfect Anti-Bullying Law.” It strongly recommends this version of the law to all states. This law is not something some fanatical anti-bully activists concocted from their imagination. It is based on the teachings of the world’s foremost anti-bully experts, who either explicitly or implicitly approve of the activities of Bully Police, which in turn promotes the activities of these experts.
It is obvious that schools are spending increasing amounts of time combating bullying, but that bullying is also becoming a more serious problem in our schools. No one seems to be making the connection that bullying is going up because so much time and effort is being spent fighting it. In the early part of the last century, many people realized that laws prohibiting alcohol caused far more problems than it solved. Many people today insist that anti-drug laws are causing more problems than they solve. Yet only one person in the world (yours truly) is making the connection between anti-bully laws and the intensification of the bullying problem.
Intelligent people wouldn’t sign an important legal contract without bothering to read and understand it, and they shouldn’t support laws without understanding what they say, either. Why don’t you take a few minutes to read “Perfect Anti-Bullying Law.”? Read it with the same kind of care and healthy skepticism with which you would read any other legal document that may place burdens upon you that you would later regret. Don’t just pay attention to the obviously terrible things the law wants to protect kids from, like “Placing a student or school employee in reasonable fear of harm to his or her person or damage to his or her property” (Section II, 1a). It is the basic responsibility of all law enforcement systems to protect the public from harm to bodies and property. Such behaviors, like theft, rape, assault and battery, murder, and arson, are already illegal and we don’t need additional anti-bullying laws to protect our children from them. Pay attention to the more subtle things that the “Perfect Law” demands, like freedom from embarrassment. It is the subtleties that the anti-bully activists are trying to put into law, and these are the things we should be wary of. And please realize that once something is law, it must be obeyed, no matter how counterproductive, immoral and/or foolish the law may be. Furthermore, it is the school that is held legally responsible and liable to be sued when students bully each other.
If you read through this “Perfect Law” carefully, you will realize that it requires schools to make sure that all of the students and staff are saints. The school, which does not have the option of choosing which students attend, but must accept children with all their mortal imperfections, must guarantee that no student does anything intentionally to any other student that causes him/her any emotional distress because emotional distress interferes with a student’s ability to learn. No negative gestures, words or social exclusion will be tolerated in the school. The staff must address every complaint and provide detailed reports of their actions. Teachers, who were trained to be educators, are now mandated to take on the role of security guard, detective and judge. Did they go to law school or the police academy? Are they qualified for these roles? Do they even want to fulfill these roles? Would you? And is this really what we want school staff to spend their time on?
What would you make of the “scientific objectivity” of the following statement in the “Perfect Anti-Bullying Law”?
“It is the intent of the Legislature that school districts take every reasonable precaution to protect students and school employees from the irreparable physiological, physical, emotional, mental, and social harm of bullying and harassment.” [italics mine] (Section I)
“Irreparable harm…of bullying”?!! Does this mean that once you have been bullied, there is no undoing the damage? Is no healing possible, no growth as a result of experiencing and overcoming adversity? Bully Police also wants victims to be provided with counseling. If the effects of bullying are irreparable, why even bother wasting time and money on counseling? Do the writers of this law actually believe their own words? Of course they do. Why shouldn’t they? They are based on the teachings of the world’s most revered bullying experts, who describe bullying in the most horrific terms. And since these experts don’t know how to “repair” the victims by teaching them how stop being bullied (they are only good at comforting victims, “Please don’t think the bullying is your fault. It’s only the fault of the bullies.”), the experts actually do believe that the harm is irreparable.
How about the following statement from the last section of the “Perfect Law” document, Making the Grade:
“The way a bully’s target or victim acts or physically looks is not the victim’s problem but the bully’s own psychological problem. The bully is the root of the problem.”
Is this to say that the way a person behaves has nothing to do with the way others treat him/her? If you think like a victim, or have imperfect social skills, your problems are created solely by others? Does such an idea have any scientific or philosophical validity? No. It is only based on the bullying psychology, which inhabits a scientific world of its own.
The Perfect Law says “that nothing in this section be construed to abridge the rights of the students or school employees that are protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States” (Section I). I guess they mean “with the exception of the right to Freedom of Speech.”
One of the things that the anti-bully law forbids is behavior that “has the effect of substantially disrupting the orderly operation of the school” (Section II, part d). But few things substantially disrupt the orderly operation of a school as anti-bully policies! How can teachers and administrators function when they have to be busy making sure that no kids are upset by anyone else, investigating every complaint that a child brings to them, interrogating suspected bullies, carrying out judgments, and writing comprehensive reports on every incident?
You may also wonder why there is even any need for lobbying in the first place? If anti-bullying laws were so wonderful, why wouldn’t state legislatures eagerly adopt them without pressure from parents and mental health organizations? Do state legislators hate children? Are they anti-victim and pro-bully? Of course not. They care about children just as much as the rest of us. It’s just that they understand law better than the rest of us, and they realize how problematic such laws are.
Believe me, I would have no objection if the terribly complex processes mandated by these anti-bully laws actually helped our children. But they don’t. When we perform these very same policing and judging activities at home, trying to enforce peace between our own children, we end up with constant, intense fighting while we go nuts trying to stop them from fighting. But somehow the bullying experts believe that this same process that fails at home is supposed to be successful in schools. I have not heard of one state or country in the world that has achieved an improvement in bullying as a result of anti-bullying laws, and I read every article I come across on the experience of states and countries that implement anti-bully laws. On the contrary. News reports seem to indicate that the more intensively a government fights school bullying, the more intense of a problem school bullying becomes.