Bullies have lived among us probably since our caveman ancestors. Cooperation and altruism may be necessary to build a healthy society, but brutes have always taken what they want from the weak. And we can see the same kind of behavior among virtually every other species on earth.
But there are many varieties of bullies, and not bullying behavior rises to the level of criminality. Control freaks who browbeat friends and family into doing things their way, bosses who treat their employees like servants, “mean girls” who ostracize and humiliate girls outside their clique –there are all bullies, but hardly criminals.
Most bullying victims endure the petty humiliations and aggression and learn to cope and move on with their lives. Bullying becomes a serious problem, though, when its victims are tormented beyond their ability to cope. Sensitive teens, for instance, may suffer in helpless silence until they explode, committing acts of violent revenge. Others may be driven to suicidal depression.
The growing attention given to the problem of bullying, especially in schools, is welcome. But it’s important to have a nuanced policy that distinguishes between the relatively harmless kinds of hazing and thoughtless childish cruelties and the vicious, brutal behaviors that can do real damage.
The kind of mean-spirited childish behavior typical of schoolyard bullies needs to be taken seriously, but not treated as a crime. We send too many adults to jail for nonviolent crimes as it is. We don’t need to fill our prisons with misbehaving children. This approach may actually intensify their antisocial behavior, setting them on the wrong path for life. Zero-tolerance policies can end up doing more harm than good when they treat normal misbehavior with the same ruthlessness as genuine criminal offenses. Sometimes bullying is criminal; sometimes it’s not. And sometimes bullying rises to the levels of serious physical assaults and even murder.
The best way to deal with bullying behavior in general is to nip it in the bud, before it becomes ingrained. Very young children should never be treated as criminals. They need help in developing the social skills to function in society. Instead of turning schools into prison-like institutions, where every infraction is severely punished and every student is considered a potential criminal, we should be trying to create a more tolerant, positive environment where kids aren’t stigmatized for being “sensitive,” “nerdy,” or “different.” Bullies don’t thrive without an appreciative audience to encourage and support their abusive behavior. If we want bullying to stop, we need to teach potential bullies to feel empathy with their victims, and give them the tools to get what they want in socially acceptable ways.
Of course, bullying is sometimes criminal. Violent attacks, acts of malicious cruelty and persecution, hate crimes and serious threats obviously need to be treated as crimes. But we don’t need to redefine all degrees of bullying behavior as criminal simply to deal with real crimes when they occur.