It has been an interesting year with far more going on than anyone would have expected so we’ve decided to take a short break over the Christmas season and return in early January 2020.
Since beginning this blog in October 2014, we have published 419 posts and had over 97,000 visitors. Our visitors are mostly from Canada and the US but visitors have come from a total of 163 different countries.
In the past week, there has been a considerable interest in a column that David Dawson did back in January 2015 on the Canadian murderer, Luke Magnotta. Turns out there is a Netflix docudrama on him which has resulted in new visitors finding us. Some of the most popular blogs, not surprising, have to do with David’s many evaluations of Donald Trump. They are available in our compilation Two Years of Trump on the Psychiatrist’s Couch which is available in print and in all e-book formats from whoever your favourite supplier is.
And don’t forget we also have a compilation of our other blogs in Mind You which is also available in print and e-book format.
Rather than write about how bad it is and how something punitive must be done, I thought I would put some thoughts together that might help understand bullying and thus might lead to effective means of reducing it on our school yards.
1. We are (mostly) dealing with children and teenagers.
Recently I saw a nine year old boy with moderate to severe ADHD (emphasis on the H). This otherwise quite charming, bright, athletic boy was spinning, twisting in his chair, constantly moving his legs, his arms, his eyes. Whatever came to mind he said, blurted out in fact. He lacked an inhibitory filter. This caused him trouble at school. He could blurt out mean comments. His mother, with a worried look, said the boy’s teacher had wondered if he lacked empathy for others.
The connection with bullying in my mind is not this boy’s behaviour, but rather the teacher’s observation, which, along with many other comments I have heard (such as a current belief in some circles that a teacher should never say No to a child) suggests to me that part of the problem here is that collectively we do not understand the developmental limitations of the brains of children and teenagers. Or, for many, we are still stuck in that Victorian era when kids were thought of as little adults.
My point being that expecting this thing we call empathy from a 9 year old, or even a 15 year old for that matter, is premature. And this lack of understanding leads to the belief that children and teens, taught good moral reasoning, will behave well, will not hurt others, will not do bad things, will always choose the right thing to do.
They still teach Lord of the Flies in school I believe. Some teachers should read it themselves.
Empathy for others is something we develop gradually, slowly, through adolescence and adulthood, and even then, as adults, we can lose it in times of heat and stress.
Do not expect empathy for others from children and teens. An instinctive response to protect small furry creatures, yes. The learning of social etiquette in order to fit in, yes. Occasional heart warming displays of kindness, of sharing, yes. An instinctive response to defend or protect other members of the same group, yes. Marching for a good cause as a positive manner of expressing a natural oppositional attitude, yes. But not empathy. Not yet.
2. Membership, status, self-worth
We humans, as young primates, instinctively seek membership, and status within that membership. Or as many male teens would say, “respect.” And by membership I mean some form of peer membership. It has been fascinating to observe over the years just how strong that need is in young adolescents, the need to fit in, to be accepted, and the fear of being rejected by a peer group.
Membership implies some sort of inclusion and exclusion criteria, some sort of agreed set of values, some kind of guideline for acceptable behaviour. And that peer group can be a club, a sports team, the school band, or just a small amorphous group who hang out together. Today, of course, it can be a virtual peer group, present only on a screen.
The teen girl lies in bed at night pinging/texting inanities back and forth with her BFFs, and then checks the number of Likes she gets on her Snapchat upload, before being confident enough to go to school the next day. The teen boy expresses his expectations of the members of his group in gang and prison talk, absorbed from television and Youtube: respect, loyalty, and harsh punishment.
Membership implies exclusion, the exclusion of those not worthy of membership. In fact exclusion of others clarifies one’s membership.
Many teen memberships/groupings are healthy: music groups, dance, sports teams, chess club…..supervised, skill and confidence building activities. Some teen groupings are informal, the crowd they hang out with for example, and the rules of membership and the expectations are unspoken but do exist, and can easily become distorted.
Some teen memberships are mostly imaginary. And today some can be part imaginary and part virtual.
What I am trying to point out here is that the act of discriminating against, of actively excluding someone is part of the way adolescents instinctively demonstrate membership. This membership can be simply member of the soccer team while others don’t make the cut. But it can also be a mostly imaginary membership in a “tough guys club” requiring, to reinforce this membership, the active exclusion of others.
I suppose one could go on with this line of thought, and propose that the need for this membership plus the need for status within this membership, is the foundation for racism and white supremacy groups.
But for this topic, it is sufficient, I think, to point out that the seeking of, the need for membership is instinctive. And such membership requires exclusion of others. And the active exclusion of others can enhance a feeling of membership/status. And the simplest way of excluding others from one’s imagined group of superior beings is to label them, call them names, tease and taunt them. A certain president (mental age about 14) does this every day.
In the late 1960’s I participated in group exercises that were a mild version of the Stanford guard/prisoner experiments. In an ordinary training space we were paired off for role playing in which one of the pair would be a guard with absolute power, the other a prisoner who badly wanted something. There were too many variables to draw any scientific conclusions, but… But what I think was the most telling result of this role playing was that each “guard” found within him or herself, a capacity for cruelty. As the prisoner grovelled and begged, the participant playing guard experienced a growing disdain that began to evolve into disgust. We did not continue the experiment long enough to find if any of us were capable of acts of actual cruelty, but we each found within ourselves the potential for just that.
It is also pretty clear from observation that bullies choose victims from whom they get a response, a reaction, a reaction of anger, hurt, fear, tears, perhaps pleading. And then they may re-enact the taunting from an increasing feeling of disdain, disgust, and then from the immediate satisfaction of excluding this victim from the imagined group the teen boy belongs to. (men among men, tough guys club, gang…..) And as teenage girls and boys without supervision they can quickly find their potential for cruelty.
So we needn’t be horrified to find a certain lack of empathy in our teenagers, and we shouldn’t be horrified to discover these human children and teenagers have the capacity for cruelty.
All teenagers need to find, to develop, membership in a peer group. If they don’t find such membership in healthy real supervised groupings they may find it in informal groups brought together by an unhealthy interest, and/or in imaginary groups and/or part imaginary and part virtual membership, or groups simply defined by their exclusiveness.
So this means adults, parents, teachers, and the school system should work hard to ensure each and every teenager feels they are members of some real and healthy grouping. And this means that we need to spend money and resources in extra curricular activity, and that having a Pokemon or Dr. Who club is as important as having a soccer team or school band. Every teen needs to be able to define him or herself as a member of, and having status within, a club, team, pro-social grouping without resorting to imaginary membership in a tough guys club or a master race.
There will always be kids that have something about them that sets them apart from their peers, and who also react badly to teasing and taunting. They are natural targets of bullying. (I am not blaming the victim here, just analyzing the reality) Their reactions can unleash the nascent cruelty of their attackers. (see guard/prisoner experiments)
In the best of teen worlds these kids are protected by peers who are stronger, and more secure in themselves and their memberships.
So, to reduce bullying, apart from surveillance, alertness, sanctions and punishment, we need to:
1. Ensure every teenager achieves some form of membership in some kind of pro-social real group, preferably supervised.
2. Make, however laws and regulations and common sense allow, successful teenagers within the school system responsible for the protection of the vulnerable.
Years ago a deaf boy joined my son’s hockey team. My son was assigned the task of looking after him on the ice, partnering him, guiding and protecting. This left him little chance of showing off to the (imagined) NHL scouts.
And I don’t mean pets as service animals although they can be very helpful. I’m talking about trauma as a purported cause of mental illness, addiction and all other negative things. Dogs and cats can teach us.
It suddenly dawned on me that our latest dog, a rescue, and her rescue friends can provide an example. Sophie was adopted 8 years ago when she was three. I don’t know all that she went through in her traumatic early years as she is reluctant to talk about it but she was so matted and her hair so long that she could not lift her tail to pee. She had to be shaved and one of her toenails had to be surgically removed from neglect. It had curled into her paw.
She does not like the noise that equipment trailers hooked onto cars and trucks make but, other than that, she is fine. She is an extrovert who loves people and especially kids and babies. She exhibits no signs of her early life and the trauma and abuse she suffered.
Most of her friends in the building we moved into are rescues as well. Reggie, for example, is a large and not cute dog with many scars. Reggie was rescued from a dog fighting ring thus the scars but he is a very calm, placid and friendly dog.
I have no doubt that there are rescued dogs and cats who do exhibit strange behaviour as a result of their maltreatment but they are the exceptions. Most people who have rescued cats and dogs report no problems. And dogs and cats do remember.
Now this may not be scientific in the true sense of scientific proof but a great deal of the tripe that I see is not either. The American Council on Science and Health just published a delightful essay on the anti-medical rant that Scientific American published against Dr Jennifer Gunter which Scientific American had to delete. Seems that this is the third unscientific article they published in the past little while.
Dr Gunter is a gynecologist and the author of the Vagina Bible. The op ed attack against her took the position that
“women don’t need medical doctors because the lessons learned from staring at each others’ vulvas while sharing anecdotes about herbal remedies is every bit as legitimate as the lessons doctors learn in medical school.”
The author of the op ed critique went on to say that she:
goes on to denounce “authority” (which apparently means anyone with an evidence-based opinion) because it ignores “people’s lived experiences.”Lived experience is simply a different way of saying “anecdote.” Block clearly believes that scientific research is just one opinion among many. Sure, doctors might believe one thing, but Karen on Facebook disagrees. And her opinion counts too.”
And I love what he says about lived experience which I put in bold. That is the argument that we hear so frequently in mental illness. We must listen to those with lived experience even though they have no training. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that everything a doctor tells us is written in stone and we can’t discuss treatment strategies because we can. But there is a huge pile of evidence out there (or should be) telling us what the best strategies are.
Our failure to listen to evidence over anecdote is the cause of so many kids dying from the very preventable measles. So far 53 kids in Samoa have died from measles (Since writing this, the number of deaths has gone up). One of many such outbreaks in the world. Measles, a very preventable disease has increased 1100% in the Americas since 2000. Its vaccine has saved more than 20 million lives since 2000.
And, for psychosis, one comment on David Dawson’s blog on the topic suggested that “As for Robert Whitaker, he is one of the many experts on mental illness who have (sic) researched psychiatric drugs and found them to be harmful.”
Wonderful! That man is a journalist as I pointed out a few years ago in Huffington Post, journalists are not medical experts. Let’s all look to journalism for our evaluations of diseases and their treatment. Who needs doctors and scientists?
Freedom of speech/free expression is a bed rock of democracy but it is being eroded by those on the left. There are, of course, limits to expression such as not inciting to violence or spewing hate crime which are covered in the Canadian Criminal Code, and not defaming people which can be remedied by civil action. Other than those examples, we are all entitled to express our opinions and no one should be blocked for doing so.
Three recent events I find very concerning because they do not seem isolated but appear to be a growing trend. The first took place in Hamilton just prior to the federal election. Maxime Bernier, the former Conservative member of parliament founded a new political party called the People’s Party – a right wing group that is anti-immigration (although he denies that). They have official party status, fielded candidates in all or most constituencies in Canada and participated in the TV debates.
Bernier is a controversial character. He was kicked out of the cabinet when the Conservatives were in power for leaving a briefcase full of classified documents at his girlfriend’s place. His girlfriend had ties to organized crime characters. As part of his campaign, he spoke at Mohawk College in Hamilton but not only did protesters show up (which is legitimate) but some of them wore masks to cover their faces and blocked people from entering the auditorium. One of those blocked was an elderly lady pushing a walker.
Those individuals were eventually found and arrested and, during the election, the People’s Party did not elect a single person and only got 1.64% of the popular vote. In my opinion, a testament to the intelligence of the electorate who heard what he had to say and rejected it. There was no need to prevent people from hearing him talk. People can decide and did decide.
Next up was a talk by a feminist writer (Megan Murphy) at a Toronto library branch who happens to hold contrary views on transgenders. Her talk was entitled “Gender Identity: What Does It Mean For Society, The Law and Women?” It was hosted by Radical Feminists Unite. She believes that allowing men to identify as women endangers women’s rights. OK. So what? She is entitled to her opinion and to argue that. She is entitled to speak.
Not so according to LGBTQ activists, a writers group and even the mayor of Toronto. All of them implored the library to cancel her talk and not allow her to use of the library. Writers should know better particularly given the history of authoritarian regimes that have banned books and burned them. The mayor of Toronto also disappointed but the librarians held their ground and refused to budge. The demonstration against her the night she spoke was peaceful but the constabulary was out in force to ensure it remained so. Police did have to escort those in attendance out of the building.
Finally, York University in Toronto where a talk put on by a Jewish group was violently disrupted by protesters shouting pro-intifada slogans. The speakers were Israeli Defence Force Reservists and the protesters pounded on the doors of the meeting room. Violence was kept to a minimum by a large contingent of Toronto police and university security staff.
A recent Syrian refugee to Canada (Aboud Danachi) attended the event and was so shocked by what he saw that he wrote an op ed in the Canadian Jewish News. His words should be taken to heart by those who oppose free speech. He wrote:
“I was always interested in meeting former soldiers of the IDF. Back in Syria, socializing with any Israeli whatsoever was the ultimate taboo. But I was in Canada now, browsing through the York University student cafeteria. Syrian President Bashar Assad could take his taboos and shove it. In Toronto, I was like anyone else. I could go where I pleased, when I pleased. And meet whom I pleased.
Or so I thought”
A Pakistani Canadian Muslim journalist also expressed disgust of how the Jewish group was treated at York. Raheel Raza, speaking on the Roy Green Show, was not surprised by what happened at York as she stated that it has a long history of anti-semitism and intolerance. She said her niece went to York and had threatening notes put on her door because she did not cover her hair.
We cannot afford to lose freedom of speech in this country but I am heartened by the fact that those who are new to this country are stepping up to defend it.