Sideway’s Bullying

September 18th, 2012

There are many kinds of reporters. The quality of this writing clearly indicates that journalism isn’t the kind of reporting competency I’m describing here. However, back in my teaching days, I was a mandated reporter of child abuse. Any teacher or therapist who doesn’t report it in the state of New York automatically loses their license. While I am no longer practicing that craft, I can still report abuse when I see it.

One of the shifts I find least attractive in society is the replacement of cognitive teaching styles with a model of conditioned learning. Cognitive appeal strategies for teaching require teachers to offer students strategies for acquiring knowledge independently. For instance, it is far more efficient to teach a child how to use a library card catalog and a bibliography than it is to teach him or her to go to another adult for each new instruction or bit of useful information required for a situation. The same goes for employers and workers, ensuring every staff member understands the job system rather than just their required motions. The restriction of knowledge to just their individual role prevents them from creatively problem solving changing conditions on any given day. It ensures their continued worth on the job when a supervisor comes up short in the intellect department, sabotaging their positions.

On the other hand, we have conditioned learning which is far more frequently encountered in the job market of today. This involves the training of individual responses to a set of conditions, such as pushing a lever if a red light appears on a panel. More complex patterns might involve the preparation of a payroll package every week on a particular schedule. Employees might increase their efficiency and performance levels based upon positive reinforcement in which they are rewarded for their efforts with a pay check and respect on the job. Other employment environments might use negative reinforcement in which workers do their job to avoid being fired, demoted or treated like pariahs. People will do an amazing amount of work to avoid pain and humiliation. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the preferred form of workplace etiquette.

This is true for the education of children as well with parents, teachers and peers supplying endless contexts for acquiring knowledge which is forever colored with the manner of its introduction. As a former expert in child communication development, I’ve been observing interactions between adults and children across the European countries I’ve been visiting. Like the U.S., all societies appear to be reporting problems in bullying in the schools and streets and I’ve witnessed all too much of it these past months. Interactions appear to be increasingly disturbed.

There is a form of this bullying which is novel to my experience or, perhaps, just less frequently observed in the U.S. which can be called ”sideways” speech. Here is just one form of this exchange I’ve witnessed. Picture female teens in conversation at a bus stop while a third youngster (male) is listening to their interaction and visibly cringing.
“He’s the biggest dweeb I’ve ever seen. I bet he stares at the other guys in the locker room in the showers. You know he kisses teacher ass and cries in mommy’s arms every night because they really hate his guts.”

You have to wonder who is whispering such ideas into kids’ heads these days for them to seek such power over one another using mere words. Kids have always played power games in the schoolyards but those were direct confrontations with each party taking responsibility for their input. This “sideways” game seems to be a newer, concerted effort at driving one another over the edge with plausible deniability prevailing should someone complain about it. “Hey, I wasn’t even looking at him.” , being the simple response required.

Young people are incredibly fragile and haven’t yet experienced enough success at life to be confident in ignoring such viciousness. Identifying with their tormentors, they may easily give in and wind up doing the same to others in order to attain stature within a disordered peer group. This follows them into adulthood and can transform the water cooler from a place of gossip to a setting for terrible intrusion into the lives of one’s co-workers.

Among the most shameful examples of this mode of doing harm is when adults use very young children to say what they wouldn’t want attributed to themselves. During my childhood, adults were warned not to swear or otherwise say things in front of children which might be repeated to their discredit. One old television show called ‘The Art Linkletter Show’ had a segment called ”Kids Say the Darndest Things” in which he’d ask panels of children between four and eight about things they’d seen and heard at home. He obtained confessions about marital discord and lies told to employers when daddy took a day off etc. Twice in recent weeks, I saw adults whisper into the ears of children under three years of age as they stopped along the way on the street as someone else was passing. Those kids then uttered phrases foreign to their understanding and which had no relationship to the context. One child said, “You’re dead T.” Another came out with, “You smell bad.”, and the satisfied adult offered him a cracker. Not only is the death threat to whoever “T” was an unconscionable act, but that child will remember in future years that they harmed someone verbally. Two victims rather than one.

All I can say to the kids and adults who might be affected by such indirect input is to remember that the things in life which are most important ought to be directed to you and not around you. Secondly, human behavior has a very wide range of what ought to be considered normal. This includes the development of relationships (successful and those which need to be terminated); sexual feelings and acts; academic attainments and occasional failures; and workplace politics. I’ve learned that embarassment is unpleasant but quite temporary. On the other hand, feelings of shame can last forever and should be relegated to truly destructive acts. Shame certainly belongs to those who employ such bullying tactics and not to anyone who is hearing their life events described aloud (known or simply the result of guessing).

Be human and stand your ground, in peace and harmony with yourself. I have asked a few kids along the way if they wanted to be taken somewhere safe after witnessing extreme forms of this abuse. They all declined with nonverbal indications this was nothing knew to them but I had the satisfaction of seeing the adults with them realize that someone was aware and taking notes.

Categories: Letters

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