Bullying and disrespect is much more significant than what I saw 20 years ago when I first began my graduate studies. Why are things worse? What can we learn from the past 20 years? How do we turn this around both for children and for adults?
In the early nineties I was completing my Masters on bullying. At the time bullying was studied primarily in schools although some adult bullying research existed. Bullying was the word that was used to talk about threats or acts of aggression - verbal physical or social. These threats or acts of aggression were repeated and contained an imbalance in power. Children who were bullied were children who had less social power. The places that bullying took place were in physical areas that were unsupervised such as bathrooms, gyms, playgrounds and hallways.
In this new age of social media most acts of bullying happen online. The vast network and expansive space of the internet means that you can bully and be bullied in the comfort of your home, inside a classroom or in your workplace cubicle.
In schools, there is increased emphasis on social emotional learning, self-regulation, anti-racism, embracing diversity and difference. The curriculum is overt and it is repeated and embedded in classroom curriculum and school-wide initiatives.
Yet, in my work in public schools, I am noticing a curious phenomenon. The acts of disrespect have increased not decreased. I deal with tremendous abuse of power mostly on social media platforms or group chats away from the prying eyes of adults. Children as young as nine and 10 are distributing pornography, taking photos of students in class, doctoring the photos, then posting them in group chats where students are teased and humiliated. In these platforms all the work around diversity homophobia anti-racism anti-sexism is completely disregarded. The same students that will say all the 'right' things around respect and diversity within a classroom environment, will participate in aggressive acts of disrespect.
This is parallel to my experience of workplace harassment and bullying. Several of my clients in my consulting practice. They look for ways to heal and recover from environments where Facebook groups have been created to target them. They are excluded from workplace social dynamics, they are made fun of online and then excluded in workplace culture.
The kind of language and bullying and disrespect is much more significant than what I saw 20 years ago when I first began my graduate studies. Why are things worse? What can we learn from the past 20 years? How do we turn this around both for children and for adults?
I wonder how much of the desire for people to work from home comes from the toxic environment that exists in some work places. It is not just the commute and extra time that are the advantage of the virtual workspace, but social safety and the ability to mitigate the energy in navigating unhealthy workplace pecking orders.
What is clear to me is that we cannot legislate healthy safe workplaces. These codes of conduct and workplace rules of engagement are not working in the day to day workspaces. In fact it seems to me the more stringent and aggressive the workplace rules, the more aggressive the underground harassment. When we create cultures of fear around saying the right thing or doing the right thing we drive that tension and resistance to over control into spaces that are unseen.
And more dangerous.
There are things that we can do to help our employees with managing their own internal nervous systems managing internal conflict and taking care of inequities and disrespect but it has to be within a space where we are allowed to make mistakes, speak and disagree and not feel constrained by precise social norms.
Our culture is moving into extremes both in the far right and the far left and there is a growing self-righteous indignation on both sides. The network of underground safety valves which group chats and social media have created would indicate that these extremes do not work to create consensus or safety.
And safety is what everyone wants.
This new cultural paradigm requires us to leave behind the past practice of punishing evil or bad practice. We have to help people choose to do the right thing rather than be afraid of doing the wrong thing. Choosing good even if it is difficult or painful or requires vulnerability or acknowledgment of our flaws is the new challenge. The days of shaming and blaming and guilt are coming to an end. They will no longer be tools we can use to keep people from changing behaviour.
It is true for the 10-year-old in my elementary school student and it is also true for the 47-year-old manager.