“The problem of bullying and its solution goes way beyond the schoolyard. In our competitive society – in sports, in corporate America and especially in politics – we admire aggressors and pity pushovers. Sure, schools need to change, but so does
society in general.”
– James Alan Fox, professor of criminology, law and public policy at Northeastern University in Boston (quoted in Heller, 2011)

If you want to understand how our kids could be so cruel to each other, one needs only to take a look at our culture at large. All those ingredients that go into bullying – power, domination, disregard for others, lack of empathy, a win at all cost attitude, blame, shame, discrimination, bigotry, group harassment, the persecution of those seen as different – all these memes can be found in ample supply throughout our society.

How Culture Encourages Bullying

Our culture of no compassion

It seems that everywhere you look, compassion is being squeezed from life while hostility and judgment is being glorified. Getting “tough on crime” is exalted whereas daring to point out that these policies don’t work, cause tremendous collateral damage and impede society’s interests in the long run will earn you the label of being “pro-criminal.” People who have lost their jobs and now draw on food stamps are labeled by politicians as lazy deadbeats who are leeching off society. A presidential hopeful brags about how his state has killed the most prisoners under his watch (including some who were later found to be innocent) and is met with cheers and applause as if he had just scored a touchdown pass. Showing compassion for hard-working immigrants is regarded as almost treasonous, but tearing kids away from their parents and shipping teenagers away to countries they’ve never known and haven’t been to since they were 6 weeks old doesn’t seem to bother our senses much. We can hear radicals from the right and radicals from the left, but calm, unbigoted, compassionate reasoning is becoming practically extinct. Watching the views expressed by many politicians and laypeople alike these days, there are times when one can feel deeply ashamed to be an American.

This culture of no compassion extends beyond broad social issues. It seems that as a society, we’ve grown less tolerant and patient with one another. Breast-feeding mothers are kicked out of public parks for offending some uptight prude. Mothers face scathing wrath or banishment if dealing with a crying child. Even children themselves have become an offensive thing and the target of intolerance, with some businesses or communities banishing them or segregating families with kids apart from other customers. You could probably recite your own stories of rudeness or intolerance from others.

The more impatient we are with each other, the more intolerant we are of others’ views, beliefs, or nuances, the more intolerant our children learn to be with each other. Children with a shorter fuse for annoyance and more intolerance towards others are more likely to bully.

A culture with endless reasons to excuse hostility

When Michigan was passing laws meant to curb bullying in schools, activists were successful in putting an exemption into the law that preserved the right to bully over religion. And when schools try to implement anti-bullying programs, they face opposition from ‘Christian’ groups who do not want to see an end to the torment that gay youth experience. Like every bully whose ever lived, Americans have no shortage of excuses for why their own hostile actions are justified or righteous. We’re against hostility and for compassion in principle, except when (insert your own sacred cow about who is deserving of it here). Kids pick up on this, and the hypocrisy does not go unnoticed. Our youth will never give up their own reasons for bullying until we as a society stop making excuses and exceptions for ours.

Bullying & the culture of condemnation

Americans are obsessed with making people pay. We have a John Wayne-like type culture of justice that subscribes to the “shoot first and ask questions later” mentality. We have the most punitive system of justice in the entire world. We routinely shock other civilized nations in our rush to judgment and corresponding bloodlust for those believed to have done wrong. We have a tabloid media in which the stories that draw the most viewers are those which uncover some alleged wrongdoing and then revel in the process of condemning the accused. (Consider the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal, and all those who seemed to take great pleasure in seeing him humiliated even after he had resigned from Congress.) The spirit of schadenfreude is alive and well in American culture, and it appears from our perspective at least that the tendency to harshly judge and harshly condemn is growing worse day by day. We’ve created a culture that crucifies people for making mistakes.

Condemnation tends to start a self-reinforcing cycle. The quicker we are to judge or condemn others, the more insecure those others become. And insecure people who are made to feel ashamed or condemned tend to shame, judge, and condemn others more quickly in return. They return the favor towards us, and now we become more insecure. Eventually you get a population who has been repeatedly made to feel as though they are being judged or that their mistakes leave them “one down” on others. When people feel the weight of this condemnation (which is essentially social shame they believe that others will always mark against them) the only way to gain equal status, since you can’t ever undo condemnation, is to judge and condemn others down to your own inferior status. Having followed social issues for quite some time, I can tell you this general aura of condemnation has skyrocketed throughout culture in the past decade or two.

A culture obsessed with power & domination

“The larger culture beyond the school rewards those who succeed or win at all costs. As school and military consultant Jackson Katz notes, ‘The bully is a kind of hero in our society.
Our culture defines masculinity as connected to power, control, and dominance. The concept of power we admire is power over someone else.’”
– Garbarino & deLara (2002, p. 72)

Americans seem to idealize those who are powerful and who use this power to control other people, and our social systems are set up in a way in which cutthroat behavior or ruthlessness is often rewarded.

Our culture promotes bullying in the way politicians deal with one another or when they manipulate social prejudices for political gain. The culture throughout sports encourages dominance. In sports competitions, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the purpose in sports is to win after all. But it’s often exhibited through narcissistic athletes whose posturing and public power trips drown out the skill of competition. In our view of our place in the world, Americans as a whole expect to make other nations do our bidding, and we are quick to propose reacting with brute force or violence when they don’t. As a society, we hold humility in low regard and power and dominance in high regard. Some might argue with this, but our popular media culture says otherwise.

Even the simple fact that we’ve enjoyed decades of prosperity as the richest and most powerful nation on Earth may be fueling cultural bullying trends. Absolute power tends to corrupt the psyche. As a culture, we may be too used to getting our way, with not enough time empathizing with how it feels to be on the bottom rung of the ladder.

A culture enthralled with popularity games

Time magazine observes that “America is essentially a giant high school where there is always a need for the country to fill in the position of ‘Most popular.’” (Time, 7-5-2010, p. 20) They go on to talk about how we admire and resent such individuals at the same time, watching their every move with narcissistic fascination and then finding satisfaction and glee when their lives come unraveled. A cursory look at what’s on television these days or what is deemed newsworthy is enough to reveal that large swaths of American society are still deeply immersed in the same petty popularity and status games that go on in high school. This certainly doesn’t set an anti-bullying model for our kids.

There are many examples we could cite which illustrate how the ways of the bully (harshness, criticism, power, control, force, narcissism, etc.) have become deeply ingrained within our cultural psychology. All of these social memes help to fuel the bullying epidemic.