Home > Inclusion and Identity > Bullying: Aggression Inside the Group

Bullying: Aggression Inside the Group

Each day, as Erick boards the bus, Jonathan berates him, making fun of his hair and clothes. No one will sit with Erick for fear of being drawn into the abuse. Donzella and her friends deliberately circulate nasty rumors about Carol, who was once part of the Donzella clique but who is now considered an outcast. Each day at recess, Greg finds Albert on the playground and, after teasing him, pushes him up against the school wall and punches him.  Francine has no idea why everyone leaves her alone at work–others gather together for lunch and exchange small talk regularly during the workday, but Francine is always left out.  When Martin joins the team he suffers through a series of ritualistic induction pranks, but one of the veteran players’ actions go beyond pranking, for he uses racial insults and threats of physical violence.

Bullying is a form of coercive interpersonal influence. It involves deliberately inflicting injury or discomfort on another person repeatedly through physical contact, verbal abuse, exclusion, or other negative actions. Both males and females bully, but they tend to do so in different ways: women tend to be more relationally aggressive, for they use gossip, criticism, and exclusion against their victims. Men tend to be physically aggressive when they can be, or verbally aggressive when they cannot resort to violence. Bullying, as Dan Olweus (1997) noted, signals a marked imbalance in the power relationship between the bully and his or her victim. The victim of abuse “has difficulty in defending himself or herself and is somewhat helpless against” the bully (p. 216). Bullying, then, is not retaliation between parties in a dispute or conflict, but the mistreatment of a less powerful person by someone with power. Bullying was once considered a phase that children pass through on their way to adulthood, but instances of bullying escalating into violence and catastrophic reactions of victims to bullying have caused a shift in this view. Bullying is not “child’s play” but aggression—a form of peer abuse. Bullying is common in school settings, but it also occurs in military, business, and professional organizations (Geffner et al., 2004).

Bullying is also a group behavior. Victims are sometimes isolated and friendless; children abandoned to their fate by the rest of the school or the single worker who always eats lunch alone. But in many cases, groups of targets are abused by groups of bullies. Similarly, although bullies are often thought to be poorly adjusted individuals who are expressing anger by picking on those who cannot defend themselves, bullies are often relatively popular members of the group. In schools, for example, they often are involved in sports (for the boys) and considered attractive and more mature (for the girls), and are known as school leaders and trend setters (Vaillancourt, Hymel, & McDougall, 2003). Yet, they tend to be disliked, as most condemn the way they treat other people of lower status in the group. Bullying also involves more than just the bully and the victim, as others are drawn into the harmful bully–victim exchange. Some take the role of henchmen or facilitators; they do not initiate the abuse, but they take an active part once the bullying event has begun. Others encourage bullies or signal support by smiling and laughing. Others impassively watch the interaction without speaking, and a few members of the bystander group may intercede on behalf of the victim, either directly or by seeking help from officials or authorities (O’Connell, Pepler, & Craig, 1999; Olweus, 2000).

Because bullying is rooted in both power dynamics and group dynamics, experts recommend group-level interventions for preventing peer abuse. Olweus’s (1997) pioneering program stressed restructuring the role of teachers in schools to increase their control over social behavior as well as instruction. Olweus recommended creating a school atmosphere that is warm and supportive, but also closely monitored by authorities who consistently enforce anti-bullying norms. These norms must be supported through the dissemination of information about bully–victim problems and by discussing expectations with students in classes and schoolwide assemblies. Victims of bullying can also be supported through the development of buddy systems, cooperative learning activities, and the use of peer-conflict mediation programs. Families, too, can be involved in reducing bullying by monitoring children’s behavior closely and by setting standards for appropriate conduct (Giannetti & Sagarese, 2001; Horne, Stoddard, & Bell, 2007).

A Specific Case of Bullying

The issue of bullying is currently in the news (November, 2013) because of  the Dolphins-NFL-Martin-Incognito Controversy.  In case you have been distracted by the Ms. Universe pageant (Ms. Venezuela won), the initial public offering of Twitter on the New York Stock Exchange (closed at $45 a share), or the rising death toll of the Typhoon Haiyan in Philippines, you may not know that the calm of the 9th week of the National Football League season was interrupted by a storm of controversy when second-year Miami Dolphin offensive lineman Jonathan Martin abruptly left the team. The accusations, innuendo, and conflicting interpretations make the recent dirt-slinging Virginia governor’s race seem like a good-natured disagreement between longtime friends. Jonathan Martin is too soft to play in the NFL. Richie Incognito has always been a mean-spirited bully. The Dolphin’s management is blame. The things that happened in the Dolphin locker room reflect the culture of this kind of group. Incognito is a racist. Martin turned his back on his team. Incognito and Martin were besties who became beasties. You name it, someone believes it.

Time will be needed to gain a clear picture of what triggered Martin’s decision, but at present it appears that Martin, as a new player in the NFL, was the target of a series of hazing-like actions. One player on the team, Richie Incognito, was the prime instigator of these actions. In addition to regular harassment on the field and in the locker room, Incognito, who is an Anglo-American, sent Martin texts and tweets laced with racial epithets and threats of violence (Martin is of African-American ancestry).

Some resources on the issue:

Jonathan Martin, Richie Incognito, Bullying, And You by Ramin Rezvani: Rezvani carefully examines the psychology of the victim of bullying, identifying reasons why Martin tolerated to some extent Incognito’s taunting and derision.

Le Monde en face : Harcèlement à l’école – France 5 (BA): This video has been released in France, which is mounting a campaign against bullying in schools.

Lawsuit Could Provide Martin Payday: Harassment is illegal in the workplace, and the Miami Dolphin locker was a workplace. “Lawyers will come” is a given (see, too, this link).

Incognito and Martin: An Insider’s Story by Lydon Murtha: Murtha provides one player’s perspective—a player who suggests that the problem between Martin and Incognito was a part of the tendency for organizations to socialized new players.

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