Sticks and Stones: How Humans Intensify Bullying Through Language

Although National Bullying Awareness Month has just come to an end, the fight to end bullying is still going strong. We believe this is a topic that cannot be adequately discussed in a mere month but rather should be an ongoing discussion in schools, communities, and academia.  The following explains the importance of teaching the evolution and culture of bullying to children and young adults. We invite your comments and hope to extend the conversation about this important topic.

Stopping bully abuse has become a national concern as more teen suicide and school violence is being directly attributed to bullying. As a result, many community and school programs have been implemented with the goal of teaching children how to avoid bullying and how to cope with it. While it is vital for students to learn avoidance and coping mechanisms, it is perhaps even more important for them to learn just what it is that makes bullying so detrimental. Teaching about the evolution of bullying and especially the hurtful power of language can better equip students with the information they need to combat it.

Bullying is not unique to our American culture as it is a practice that exists all over the world and has nearly always been so.  Bullying is ubiquitous and in fact, it is not even unique to our species. Several studies have found that other species exhibit bully-like behaviors such as demonstrating dominance and preying on weaker members of their community. Chimpanzees, in particular, follow a very structured hierarchy and often attack those who do not conform or remain in their designated “place” in society. Older adolescents and adult male chimpanzees will often assault younger males who are smaller and weaker. Yet bullying is so much more of a problem in our society than in the animal kingdom. Even though other species exhibit bully-like behaviors, it is different from the bullying that exists in the human world because animals lack some basic human characteristics. Key among these is the use of words that humans may use in hurtful ways.

Language allows humans to communicate complicated thoughts and ideas. As we all know, these can be beautiful, lofty, and make our spirits soar.  However, some humans also use language to demean, belittle, and tease people who are thought to be weaker, less intelligent, or “different” from the so-called norm.  Unfortunately, this often includes children and adolescents with developmental, cognitive, and learning disabilities. While primates may act superior to others by puffing up their chests and targeting weaker individuals, they are unable to use language to cause psychological and emotional harm to others, as humans can. There are countless examples occurring everyday of words chosen specifically and used strategically to hurt others .

Humans have taken bullying to a level that animals are not able to with the use of text messaging and online communications.  While face-to- face bullying persists, cyber-bullying has presented a new battle in the war. Teens, who might not have engaged in bullying in person, feel comfortable taunting others online where they have some degree of anonymity. In this way, they do not have to suffer any direct or immediate consequences as a result of their unkind and hurtful actions. The ease with which someone can cyber-bully has also made bullying less about getting something from the victim and more about doing it just for fun, to pass the time, or because “everyone else is doing it”. Because they are not in direct conflict with someone, cyber-bullies also tend to be crueler than they would have been in person. Some people make themselves feel big, and puffed-up by making others feel small. They use language as a weapon, freely typing words that course through the atmosphere and sting the person on the other end. This hurtful name-calling, taunting, and verbal abuse can often be worse than face-to-face or physical altercations. Sticks and stones hurt, but words may hurt even more.  Moreover, it is not just happening in one place anymore. The days of being called a name once in the hallway are over. Now if you are called a loser or “retard” as was recently vocalized by the pundit Ann Coulter (who should have known better) this could appear on instant message, text message, Facebook, Twitter, or even on national television.

Unlike animals, humans have also changed the way bullying is projected and received by creating social constructs.  These constructs praise individuals who look, act, and think according to societal norms and shun individuals who stray from those norms.  Pop culture and the media reinforce the need to conform and glorify the use of force and violence.  In other words, if you are not the prettiest, strongest, fastest, “best” kid in your class, you run the risk of being called hurtful and derogatory names. At Stanfield, we are well aware of the fact that “our kids” are almost all outside of the norm and couldn’t “conform” as hard as they might try. As such, these kids are exquisitely susceptible to defamation and lack the verbal skills to defend themselves. We must act on their behalf.

It is important for parents, educators, and students to understand how bullying has evolved and how it is manifested through language and culture. Parents can use this knowledge to inform important conversations with their children and monitor online and text activity. Educators and activists can use it to create lessons and programs that educate our youth on the power of language. Finally, it is possible that if students are made aware of the damaging effects of language, they will use it with caution.  Gone are the days of “words will never hurt me”. Words have become the sticks and stones in the age of technology and children need to understand that there are consequences that come with using language as a weapon.

© 2012 James Stanfield Company. All Rights Reserved.

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