In this post – and I apologize for its length – I want to return to the psychology behind Soup and Bread.
During the launch, two issues were raised that I’d like to respond to. The first was a criticism to my view that using role play to teach the victims to learn how to behave differently, is victim blaming. The second was the question why New Zealand, being a wealthy country that is not overpopulated, has such a high rate of bullying if compared to similar countries. In discussing these points, I will also address school policies and the effect of the in Changing Beliefs mentioned discrepancy between what we say and what we do.
Let me first respond to the criticism. The lady who mentioned it had been part of an acting group that went around schools to act out social issues – doing role play with children and discussing the results with them – which I think is wonderful idea. She did not agree with me, because from experience she knew that teaching children to take a different attitude does make a difference in how they react and how the bullies treat them.
In the story, Vonnie (the point of view character) observes Claire (the target of the bullies) cringing every time the bullies pay attention to her. Cringing is one of the natural responses people take when they sense danger and from experience Claire knows she is in danger every time the bullies come near her. The school counselor, who believes that Claire is picked on because she cringes, takes her out of class every week to practice standing up to the bullies – doing role play to learn to take a different physical pose and so prevent being picked on.
Although I agree that taking a different physical attitude makes a difference in how the other party perceives you and thus the way they react, as well as making the victim stand a bit stronger, that was not really the point I was making.
Just as a reminder: every person has a personality (their inner self that remains the same; the person they refer to as “I”) and also many personas. A persona is the social mask we wear; in different situations we put on a different mask (just like our clothes) – we do not behave at a fun fair as we would at a funeral; we do not behave at work as we would at home.
So, although Claire can act differently (put on a different persona) in a role play put up for that purpose, that does not mean she will still act that way when she is alone and the bullies appear, because the situation is different. During a role play she is not in real danger.
And sure, if she were to go to a totally new school, and on her first day put on that acted persona, it is possible that new bullies would not pick on her, because of it. But it is unlikely that changing her stance in an environment that already knows her will make such a difference.
But even if it did. Why should Claire have to put on an act every time she is at school? Why is it okay for those who naturally bond together to act themselves in the place where they spend almost a third of their days, but not for Claire? After all, the bullies do NOT get sent to the counselor to learn how to behave differently. Why does the counselor not ask the bullies to play-act being nice?
Or why does she not ask the class to reverse the roles to ‘teach’ the children not to bully? – They actually did an experiment in a school in the US once, in response to racial discrimination. The racist kids were given an armband to signify their being different, and the rest of the class was told to ignore them or laugh at them; they fell apart in no time.
Victims of bullying put up with being alone and being picked on for years, so why do counselors try and “teach” them how to get tough?
So the point I am making is that Claire cringes out of self-protection; she has a perfectly healthy and natural reaction to danger, no differently than turtles who pull into their shell, and this reaction is not the cause of the bullying; it is the effect of it. Yet, she gets told that she must not do that, because it is “not being tough”. The bullies do not get told to act differently, so implicitly, the message is that it’s Claire’s own fault that she’s bullied, because she cringes.
This constitutes a double bind. A double bind is a situation in which a person is stuck between two negatives. For example, if an adult tells a child to do something (or get scolded), but if the child does what it is told, it is never good enough, so they get scolded anyway. Whatever they do, the outcome is negative for them.
In this case, Claire is told that changing her posture will stop the bullying – but people cannot change their instinctive reactions at will or their inner personality by changing their outward behaviour, so it cannot work consistently, which results in the implication that it is her own fault, because the school “taught her”. Not only does Claire now get bullied by her classmates, but the adults make it worse.
Towards the end of the story, Claire slowly gets more self-secure and she does not cringe when she is in the company of those who do not bully her. So, she never needed to be taught to stand up straight or to stop cringing. She merely needed a tolerant and safe environment to make that change naturally. And that is why during a role play, the observers do see a change in attitude, but that does not take away from the point I was making: that telling Claire that things will change if she puts on an act, is victim blaming.
Some people may object to my comparison to racial discrimination, but that comparison is very accurate – the kids refer to an “inner skin colour” – except that (for the moment) being picked on for one’s psychological make-up is done unconsciously, because most people are not aware of the healthy inborn personality type differences.
When Michael Jackson bleached his skin and had a nose job, he more or less literally put on a mask (a persona), but that did not mean that his genetic make-up had become white. The mask does not change the inside person – neither does a man become a woman, simply by putting on a dress.
Schools only deal with superficial traits; they observe what people look like and how they act, and they expect all kids to be able to behave in the same manner, because they think that it is a result of learning.
But, as I said before, if people could change who they are inside at will or simply by changing superficial traits, we would have behaviourism and no individuality would be possible at all.
“Discrimination” is a buzz word of modern democracy, because it is supposedly the opposite of equality, so it is used in relation to gender and racial differences, and lately also to cultural or sexual orientation differences.
But what exactly is discrimination?
There are two definitions:
Discrimination in a negative sense, which refers to putting people at a disadvantage because of a personal difference (race, gender or personality type), such as not hiring a person for a job because of their skin colour or gender, or teachers not calling on a child in class, because they believe the child is dumb due to their personality or race.
Discrimination in a positive sense refers to the ability to notice and distinguish differences between objects – sensory discrimination, for example, like chefs who can distinguish minute variations in tastes.
Today, there is a tendency to deny that people have different skin colours by those who are paranoid about being politically wrong – which in turn is a result of everything being seen through a lens of negative discrimination. But denying that the differences exist is denying something special about people – denying their heritage. We need equal respect, not everybody identical.
In that light, negative discrimination is an inability to discriminate (positively) – to know what aspects are part of the context, which are connected – and an inability to individualize: stereotyping.
If you deny positive discrimination in an attempt to avoid negative discrimination, you achieve the exact opposite.
The answer to negative discrimination is to acknowledge the differences between people and to value them all equally (true equality) – to celebrate them, even.
Tolerance is the first step in that; to acknowledge and accept that not everybody is the same as you are.
The other issue, that of the terrible reputation New Zealand has when it comes to bullying, is closely related to this. Why does New Zealand have such a high incidence?
The first thing that came to my mind was the uniforms. School uniforms are very common here and they openly state that being an individual is not appreciated – all kids have to dress the same.
But what schools “teach” in words does not match the ‘lesson’ they teach in action: The children are told that being an individual is something to strive for, but if a child dares to dress like an individual, they get in trouble – the child gets stuck in a double bind.
If they protest this contradiction, they get told that “If everybody else can behave, then so can you” – another common expression that outright dismisses individuality.
We must not forget that if a person is by nature individualistic, then having to dress like everybody else is an insult to their person. Those who naturally want to belong to the group – be alike, which even without official decrees results in the fashion trends we see – cannot possibly imagine what that feels like, so they dismiss it.
School may have the best of intentions, thinking that putting all children in the same outfit makes for equality, but do they really think that the obese child in the tight skirt looks the same as their slender classmate? The children certainly don’t think so.
But I want to modify my position about uniforms a little, since some other countries, like Great Britain and South Africa, are also very keen on stiff uniforms, so that alone would not give New Zealand its bad reputation.
Somebody mentioned poverty, because New Zealand also has a high ratio of childhood poverty, but in my view, bullying is certainly not a problem of poverty; on the contrary, bullying is very prominent in private schools.
Uniforms do send another message: they reinforce strict “group” belonging. Every school has their own uniform; boys wear different clothes than girls – girls in New Zealand schools wear skirts (not track pants or shorts) and in some cases those skirts almost reach their ankles and are culturally biased (Scottish kilts).
Thus, the us versus them, the concept of in-groups, is openly encouraged with such displays and bullying is about in-groups.
As said in Changing Beliefs, groups need a certain amount of congruence between members in order to exist, and thus “the group” will try and enforce any behaviour (like dress) that emphasizes its own existence. Some people, by their very nature, will accept and adapt to outward displays of defining the group. But others do not feel it that way and they will resist. Some do that by rebelling or standing out and setting trends (so they create new groups and get followers), but others cannot make that adaptation, so they end up standing alone.
Bullying is therefore a result of “the group” defending itself against that what feels different, because individuality threatens the integrity of “the group”. As a result, bullying happens most in places where there is no greater adversary to stand up against together (such as a war, a tyrant, a hurricane, poverty). So the higher incidence of peer-directed bullying is seen in times of wealth and peace, because the natural instincts are still there.
But, because the inner need to either belong or stand out (the personality) cannot be seen, this need is expressed in clothing, behaviour, rituals and language and the more specific the group already is, the more the smaller in-groups need to find symbols to use against those they do not want.
The more pride for their club, the more inclined a group is to keep others out. Uniforms certainly enforce that, but even without uniforms, there will be in-groups – In Soup and Bread, both public and private schools are shown to have similar problems.
The other aspect of schools that reinforce bullying is that of competition. Vonnie’s school teacher says that “competition makes us perform the best we can”. This is a common assumption, and simultaneously contradicted with the message that “there are no winners or losers”.
But, of course, the naturally competitive children do think in winning and losing and they look for blame if they lose; the blame befalls the odd child out, the one who was already different (very often a child that is not naturally competitive or athletic), so that encouraging competition encourages bullying.
Neither is it true that competition makes “us” perform the best we can. That is a slogan used by those who need to be one-up. In team sports, sure, it is about winning and losing, but there are plenty of people who prefer personal improvement sports and have no desire to win over others and some need harmony instead of competition. Those differences are personality type differences and cannot be changed at will or by lessons.
I have nothing against healthy competition, such as in sports, but only if it involves those people who are by nature competitive or have a need for it. By forcing all children into competition, you put those who are not so inclined at a disadvantage.
In Australia, where I have seen a lot of negative intolerance and bullying at schools, there is a very strong “tall poppy” focus. They pride themselves on not tolerating “tall poppies”, which, they will tell you, are people who think they are better than others. After all, the Aussies pride themselves of their convict background and have a proud national interest in competitive sports.
As a consequence, in one primary school, this message was literally translated to putting down the kids with an interest in science (like Donny in the book). At eight and nine years old, these kids were told they were tall poppies and deserved to be “put in their place” by the group, who were footy fans. In short, they confused snotty attitudes (thinking you are better) with being different by nature (having different natural interests and talents), and used “tall poppies” as an excuse to oust individuality. As a result, “tall poppies grow best in those gardens that claim to have eradicated them”.
Like uniforms, such attitudes legitimize the notion that being different is being bad, and if this difference is something a person cannot change (like their gender, their race or their personality type) then it is no longer about the behaviour, but about the person, which makes it negative discrimination.
So, if a school claims “policies”, that constitute teaching kids to change their behaviour with the message that it will change who they are, then those policies are creating double bind situations and are in essence covert bullying. For more examples, see https://judgmenthurts.wordpress.com/2012/10/15/is-your-childs-school-passing-negative-moral-judgment-on-your-child/
And saying “we are doing all we can”, while only focusing on strategies directed at changing the victim, is selectively picking somebody to blame.
The solution: to actively make the diversity, the natural differences between people (including psychological differences) a source of pride; to change the collective attitude so that “the group” identifies itself by its diversity of members and its tolerance becomes a trait that signifies the group. That is why focusing on the environment itself and on the bystanders – as the KIVA program does – can work.