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Bullying (Part 12): Bullying Reinforces Status

  • Posted on November 30, 2010 at 11:03 AM

In my last three posts, I discussed power as it relates to bullying.  A parallel phenomenon is bullying to reinforce status.  

In the United States, status is far from irrelevant.  We don’t live in an aristocracy, where Lords and Ladies that stay Lords and Ladies no matter what.  We don’t live in a caste system, where we are expected to fill whatever function we were born into.  But we do have classes.

In the United States, status and power are intertwined.  Unlike these strict societies, where power is wielded based on status, here power can be acquired from the lowest and lost by the highest.  As the power exchanges hands, so does status. 

In a movie I watched a while back—The Skulls starring Joshua Jackson—there was the following brief discussion:

“Is America really a class society?  Or is it the meritocracy we’re taught it is since we were in kindergarten?  Mr. McNamara?”

“Well, actually, I believe that it’s both, sir.”

“How can it be both?”

“It’s been my experience…that merit is rewarded with wealth, and with wealth comes class.”

For a long time, that observation struck me as something of a truism.  Yet, even as the movie unfolds, it demonstrated some examples of the severe abuses of power that may be used to reinforce this notion of status, and how wealth is used as a lure to suck in those with merit.

Apply that to life.  Apply that to the experiences of those who do not brush sleeves with that kind of power.  Apply that to those who hope that the degree of corruption described in that movie is only fiction.  Apply that to life, and you’ll see that status is far more complicated in the United States than is described by this movie.

According to Wikipedia, caste is described as: “an elaborate and complex social system that combines elements of occupation, endogamy, culture, social class, tribe affiliation and political power.”  Thinking about our own culture, I do wonder if it’s really so different.  The main difference seems to be the ability for those with merit (or those who lack it) to change their situation.  In the socio-political sense, this is a big, big difference.  However, for those who lack the opportunity to change their situation, the end-result is the same.


I grew up in a middle-income household.  We weren’t rich, but we didn’t lack for basic necessities like food, health care, housing, or clothes.  We often lived in school systems where I interacted with children that were either significantly poorer than we were or significantly richer than we were.  Some of the “rich kids” made fun of me, because I couldn’t afford to shop at the mall for my clothes.  Mostly, though, I was judged by my teachers, professionals, and peers based on who I was and what I did.

Then, I became an adult.  I married very young (18), and neither my husband nor I knew how to support ourselves or our growing family.  We relied on state aid for medical care, and for some nutritional needs (WIC, when the boys were young).  As a student, I was intelligent (if a bit naïve and overly idealistic), studious, and, well, “gifted.”  I was one of those who could be regarded as having merit, or having the potential for merit.  As an adult, I was poor white trash, too stupid and too ignorant to understand the dumbed-down legalese that was pushed in front of my face whenever my family had a need we weren’t able to meet.  Of course, nothing about me really changed.  I was still who I was.  But because my circumstances changed, my status changed; because my status changed, how I was perceived changed.

The difference in how I was treated was shocking.

As an adult, struggling to deal with the realities of a society that revolved around status, I have been bullied by those whose status was oh-so-superior to mine.  From doctors to social workers, from administrators to council members (i.e. local government), and from all sorts of people in between.  My status meant I didn’t matter.  Now, don’t get me wrong, the system is designed to provide for people like me, for families like mine.  But, who I am, what I think, what I know, what I’ve experienced—none of that matters.

Of course, now that I have a graduated Summa Cum Laude from Herzing University with a degree in Business Administration, now that I have been admitted as a graduate student at National-Louis University, now that I have started my own business, things are changing.  Once again, I am among those with merit, or at least the potential for merit.  My status is heightened.  My self—the essence that is me—is unchanged.

Yet, once again, the difference in how I am treated is shocking.


We live in a society where people with differences—particularly, but not exclusively, people with disabilities—have status points deducted from them just for those differences.  For people who are perceived as having merit, this is another challenge to overcome—an unfair challenge, but only a challenge.  For people who are perceived as not having merit, this can mean something entirely different.  It can mean a forfeiture of basic human rights.  It can mean a life-time of oppression—always being at the bottom with no way up.  It can even mean forced imprisonment for the crime of being unvalued.

We live in a society with class.  We live in a society where merit (as perceived by that society) can be rewarded with wealth for those who seek wealth.  We live in a society where wealth elevates class.  We live in a society where contributions made to society by those who forego the pursuit of wealth also elevate class.  But we also live in a society where the people who have neither wealth, nor class, nor merit (as perceived by that society), have no opportunity to elevate their class, and where some of those are treated their whole lives as if they as are something “less than.”  Less than worthy.  Less than right.  Less than human.

Systemic bullying enforces this social regime.  It isn’t bred into our bones.  It’s learned.  We learn it every day, since they day we first became aware.  Perhaps, before even that—at least, before our society recognizes awareness.  Bullying is built into the fabric of our culture.  We rely on it to keep people in their places.  Only those who can rise above it can advance.  Separating the wheat from the chaff.  And those who are left behind—the many who are left behind—know not this “land of opportunity” that is supposed to be so much better than all that came before.

Bullying (Part 11): Addressing the Misuse of Power

  • Posted on November 22, 2010 at 2:46 PM

Social hierarchies exist within governments, within businesses, within non-profit organization, and within our social groups.  Avoidance of these situations is not possible.  But that does not mean we have to tolerate bullying behaviors within these abstract “environments.”

The reasons bullying occurs vary, but inadequate leadership skills are often involved.  Some bully consciously; others do so subconsciously.  Both types of bullying may occur from the same individual, even towards to the same victim.

Those who bully consciously can often justify their bullying behaviors, either for the sake of self-interest or for the sake of the group.  Addressing this choice involves addressing the justification for bullying.  When is bullying justified?  Is it ever justified?  There are many management and leadership strategies that can be used instead of bullying.  How do we teach those strategies?  What do we do when someone lacks the skill to use those strategies effectively?  Asking these questions, answering them, and equipping those in leadership positions to utilize non-bullying strategies would be an effective means to discourage bullying.  Consequences for relying on bullying to enforce authority would discourage bullying further.

For those who bully subconsciously—meaning they do not recognize their behavior as bullying—the best strategy would be to make them aware of their own bullying behaviors, and then equip them with alternative strategies.

Individuals can do these things on their own by assessing their own behavior and the behavior of those they look to as leaders.  Groups can do these things for their own group, and share the strategies they develop with other groups.  But, the ideal is to address this as a society.  This is, unfortunately, unlikely.  Many countries resort to bullying in their government, in their business, and in their social groups.  It goes in the toolbox because it works, and alternative strategies require more skill and more effort.

Power is not going to go away any time soon.  The corruption of power is not going to go away any time soon.  Perhaps it is my faith in God, or perhaps it is my lack of faith in man, but I don’t think we’ll ever progress to a point where power isn’t misused.  Perhaps it is my faith in God, or perhaps it is my faith in individuals, but I do think fighting the good fight, staying vigilant, and calling for change has a purpose.  We may never attain the ideal, but that isn’t a reason not to try.

Bullying (Part 10): Power in Hierarchies

  • Posted on November 20, 2010 at 6:17 PM

As I suggested in my last post, I believe power is a necessary social force that is prone to corruption.  Bullying is one form of this corruption.

Bullying for the sake of power is a form of bullying to which we are all susceptible.  The only way to avoid it completely, if that’s even possible, would be to become so powerful that you were too entrenched to be bullied.  Of course, to get that kind of entrenched power you’d be part of the problem, not part of the solution.

To say we are all susceptible does not mean we all experience it, or that we all experience it to the same degree.  It means a life well-lived, a person well-liked, and a situation secured by socially acceptable means cannot protect one from this form of bullying.  You can do everything “right” and still be bullied.

For those of us who do not or cannot do everything “right,” by which I mean we cannot or do not adhere to social standards, this form of bullying seems to be even more common.  I suspect this has more to do with lack of power than targeting differences.  Simply put, we’re lower on “the pecking order,” and therefore have more people with the power to bully us.  I say this because those who are different but have their own power base are not subject to as much of this kind of bullying; furthermore, as I have gained a larger power base, I have been subjected to less of this kind of bullying.

Pecking orders, or social hierarchies, can be established in just about any social system.  They are often systemized in organizations.  In the management of organizations, this systemization acts as structure—assuming the competence of members, bullying is unnecessary.  Commands filter through the hierarchal structure, and those commands are carried out based on the authority of those issuing the commands.  However, not all members of the structure are competent.  Thus, bullying occurs.  When the authority of the individual is not sufficient to earn obedience, the manager may resort to bullying to get things done.  Lack of management skills or lack of competence in exercising one’s role in a particular position is often the culprit.  Instead of improving his or her management style, the manager relies on bullying the employees under him or her to get the results he or she desires.  In the short term, this can work.  So, bullying goes in the toolbox.  In the long term, it creates a toxic environment that damages the manager, the employees, and the organization.

Social hierarchies also happen outside organizations and in more informal organizations.  You see the childhood version of this in cliques at school.  One of the boys or girls in the clique is in the top position, as tenuous as that is, and leads the others.  Bullying behaviors are often used to maintain such a position.  These behaviors also can continue into the adult world, depending on the social situations you choose to involve yourself in.  It can happen in families as well.

Bullying for the sake of power—either to gain more power or to secure the power one has—can be found in any such social hierarchy, and all of us are touched by these hierarchies.  Addressing this dynamic depends less on where it occurs, or even why, but depends more on how it occurs, from the bullies’ perspectives, which I will cover in more detail in my next post.

Bullying (Part 9): Power

  • Posted on November 16, 2010 at 1:41 AM

Power is everything.

At least, that’s what some would have us believe. 

They believe it.  To them, power is above morality, above duty, above right and wrong.  What is moral, but what the people in power claim it to be?  What is duty, but what the people in power say it to be?  What is right and wrong, but that they tell us it is so?  And, because they are the ones with power those things—morality, duty, right and wrong—don’t really apply to them, unless there is someone with more power to declare that it does.

I believe in truth.  I believe right and wrong are absolutes, but that we—being finite and subjective—cannot always perceive them accurately.  I believe morality is our imperfect pursuit to perceive right and wrong.  And I believe our sense of duty is derived from our morality.  I do not believe the absolute versions of these things are subject to human power.  But our perceptions of them are.  And, in our finite and subjective existence, our perceptions are all we really have.

Power is abstract—it is not seen, but it is experienced.  It is derived from both influence and force.  Ideally, power is exercised through influence—we persuade one another, changing each other’s perceptions until common ground is found and a common effort is exerted.  This is the power of advocacy. 

Often, power is exercised through force.  On the national and international level, we make laws and we enforce them.  We go to war.  We enforce treaties.  We withhold trade.  On an individual level, we sue.  We fight.  We argue.  We pick up our disobedient child and carry them away—away to bed, away from the busy street, away from the candy aisle.

Force is not the ideal.  It may not be right, in an absolute sense.  But, sometimes it is necessary.  Sometimes, in our finite and subjective existences, it is the best we can manage, and our reasons for using force are worth the costs.  Because we’re not perfect.  Because our systems are not perfect.  Because, however much we should be able to persuade our children not to run into the street, however much we should be able to persuade nations not to bomb the hell out of each other, however much we should be able to persuade people not to kill each other—sometimes we can’t, sometimes we fail, and so we resort to force.

To exert force, there must be power.  For our societies and our systems to function, there must be power.  We don’t know another way—at least not one that is widely effective.

But power corrupts.

Corrupted power leads to influence and force being exerted, not for the sake of the good, but for the sake of the people in power.  For those who believe power is everything, being the one in power is the goal.  Whether they began as corrupted individuals or were corrupted by the power they exercised, they corrupt the power they use.  They exercise what power they have to maintain that power, and to get more.

Bullying is one form of corrupted power exercised through force.  Bullying, as exercised in the adult world, is often—if not always—an abuse of power.

Stand Beside Me

  • Posted on November 2, 2009 at 12:00 PM

The chorus:

I want a man that stands beside me

Not in front of or behind me

Give me two arms that want to hold me, not own me

And I’ll give all the love in my heart


Stand beside me

Be true, don't tell lies to me

I’m not lookin’ for a fantasy

I want a man that who stands beside me

I’ve loved this song for a long time.  The chorus lyrics ring true for me in so many different ways.  For me, these lyrics symbolize equality and mutual respect.  Yet, it took me a long time to truly understand them.

I grew up in staunchly patriarchal household.  I married young with that expectation in mind.  Even then, I liked the song.  Mark and I talked about equality as something we wanted and strived for in our relationship, but the truth was I didn’t know how to lead.  I certainly didn’t know how to leader as equal partners.  So, Mark assumed the leadership position and all the responsibility the position entails; and it was exhausting.

In school, I learned how to assume the leadership position.  As an excellent student with challenging goals, the leadership position was often mine by default.  I knew my way worked, and so I enforced my way in order to achieve my goals—carrying my team mates along with me.  By doing this, I closed my way off from other possibilities and other approaches.  The grade was my goal and I went after my goal relentlessly.

I found I had a knack for leadership.  I got things done, and my manner of doing things tended to work.  So, as Mark grew more and more tired by the steady and weighty demands of leading our family, I took on more and more of the leadership role at home.  Whereas once he stood in front of me—a bulwark against the nastiness of the world; now, he stood behind me—with me taking the brunt force of the world around us.

I found the power of these leadership roles alluring, but not very gratifying.  In such a position, power is assumed and is ripe for abuse.  Even well-intentioned people find themselves abusing the power of a leadership position, justifying the means via the ends.  And the responsibility to face the brunt force of these decisions is exhausting.  Yet, ignorance prevailed.  I’d never been taught how to lead without assuming the leadership position.  I didn’t know there was another way.

Over the last year, I’ve stepped back from these types of leadership positions in school.  The pressures of assuming the leadership position at home made assuming the same position in group assignments undesirable.  In doing so, I learned how to be the supportive person, the person who achieved the same goal (the grade) while using another’s approach and by facilitating that approach.  It’s been a fascinating experience.  I wasn’t standing in front of my team, nor was I standing behind the leader.  I was standing beside the other person—supporting, influencing, helping, and shaping the goals of our team.  As I tried to bring these lessons into our home life, something clicked into place between my husband and me.

Looking back I regret my ignorance.  Perhaps fatigue would not plague Mark so much now if I’d known how to lead as a partner from the beginning.  When I slipped into the leadership position, I felt the same profound tiredness he faced for years.  Now, as we are both learning to lead together, as a team, our capacity to do is enhanced greatly.  We stand united, neither in front nor behind, we stand beside each other, achieving more than we otherwise could.  There’s still a lot of damage from my early patterns of behavior, but we’re together and together we both can heal.


With any form of leadership, there is a tendency to stand in front of those you represent.  You call attention to yourself and speak on behalf of others.  Our society expects this and encourages this.  A spokesperson makes things easier for those who do not know how to lead or who do not want to.  A cause or a group can be reduced to easily consumable sound bytes.

The trouble with a spokesperson is that this behavior does not encourage equality or mutual respect.  It creates a focal point of attention.  It creates celebrities and symbols that dehumanize not only the group the leader represents, but also the leader assuming the position.

In many ways, this is a good thing—it serves a real, almost-necessary purpose.  Martin Luther King, Jr. played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement by assuming this focal position.  He also paid a very steep price for his role.  But even in death, he instigated action, his voice—suddenly silenced—was a rallying cry for others.  Yet, there is also a tremendous amount of power inherent in such positions.  And this power can be very seductive.

Leadership roles are a double-edged sword.  Such a position is ripe for abuse.  It is also exhausting and difficult to do well.  The position is perceived as necessary in our society, because we need people to lead.

Leading, however, is a different act than assuming a leadership position.  It’s a form of leadership, but without as many built-in faults.  Leading can be done from any position.  It can be done without power struggles.  It can be done in a genuinely beneficial manner to all involved.  Leading can be an act of equality and mutual respect, and does not have to involve leadership positions.

Sadly, this distinction seems to be poorly recognized.  In our society, we train people to assume leadership positions.  We seem enamored with them, assuming that such a position is necessary in order to have leadership.  Our government is designed for people to assume leadership positions, and to engage in power struggles between divergent factions.  It’s systemic and ingrained into our culture.  Yet, with this system, have a profound need for leaders that often goes unfulfilled.  We train people to assume leadership positions, where power is the reinforcing element of the leader.  We do not train people to lead with influence and cooperation nearly so well.

Neurodiversity represents a very diverse group of people—a group of people made up of diverse differences, diverse cultures, diverse genders, diverse nationalities, diverse ethnicities, and diverse belief systems.  No leadership role can satisfy the needs of this group.  Yet, we still need leaders, people who lead as co-equal partners.  The great thing about such a partnership is that everyone can join, everyone can lead; and in so doing, we can achieve so much more than could be accomplished in any other way.

It could happen.  It can happen.  But will it happen?