The nation has been abuzz with the story of Phoebe Prince, the teenager who was bullied so relentlessly by nine of her classmates that she committed suicide. On an evening in January, Phoebe, a recent émigré from Ireland, was found hanging from a rear stairwell in the apartment she shared with her parents in western Massachusetts. This came after Phoebe suffered, what was by all accounts, a day of incessant, unendurable taunting and physical threats. Apparently Phoebe’s ‘crime’ was a brief liaison with one of the male (alleged) perpetrators, after which he, two pals, his sometimes girlfriend and five of her posse embarked (allegedly) upon a campaign to make Phoebe’s life a hellish misery. Six of the nine students involved have now been indicted on felony charges that range from statutory rape to civil rights violations to criminal harassment.
As the identities of the accused were made public, several websites appeared urging revenge against Prince’s tormentors. When I first heard about these attempts to bully the bullies, I have to admit that, for just a moment, I thought, “Yes! That’s exactly what they deserve!”
There are few things, to my mind, more despicable than bullying. (Okay, animal torture, mass murder, environmental exploitation, war-mongering all meet a higher—or lower—standard.) Bullies, whether on the playground or in the boardroom, prey on the vulnerable, the weak, the ‘different,’ the relatively defenseless. Bullying is about power and control: bullies gain status through inflicting pain (psychological and/or physical) on others, and they can bestow a kind of reflected power on those who either follow their lead or condone the behavior by mute compliance. When the news reports came in of the accused bullies complaining about how ‘unfair’ it was that they and their families were being targeted by cyber-vigilantes, I admit I found it pretty darn hard to sympathize.
But is it ever okay to bully anyone, even those who bully others? I’m the coauthor of a book on anger – in one chapter we address the causes of bullying and offer some strategies for combating it. One characteristic of bullies is that they lack empathy; their ability to intuitively ‘feel’ what others experience is diminished or even nonexistent. Wouldn’t this deficiency—of emotional sensitivity or experience—suggest that offering bullies a ‘taste of their own medicine’ might be just the wake-up call they need to change their loathsome ways?
When Prince’s death was announced, at least one of the accused reportedly said she ‘didn’t care’ that Phoebe was dead. In light of that kind of callousness, it’s hard to know what might make these young bullies remorseful. Is it facing the dire consequences of their actions (i.e., now their lives are completely screwed)? Could some kind of moral awakening naturally occur as one grows out of the pack mentality of adolescence and into some sort of adult wisdom? Or do they need to actually experience for themselves the pain and humiliation they were so willing to dish out?
Of course there are other disturbing questions in this tragic tale: Where were the school administrators? Where were Prince’s parents? Where were the freakin’ adults?? Unfortunately, adulthood doesn’t automatically bestow good judgment—not all bullies grow up. Our national scene is rife with them: among the hordes Limbaugh, Coulter and Beck, Sarah Palin, maybe, to be fair, even Rafe Emanuel (although I have to admit that one person’s bully is another’s forthright advocate). Dick Cheney is the über-bully. Go to practically any town hall meeting about health care reform and take your pick. Bullying tactics seem to control debate, which has now deteriorated into a contest where the most strident voice prevails and where nuance and the acknowledgment of ambiguity are hallmarks of weakness.
The research I’ve done suggests that one of the most effective ways to combat bullying is to refuse to stand silently by. Bullies thrive in a context of alliance; their promise is: Support me, join me or don’t confront me and I’ll include you in the sphere of my influence. And in all bully-follower relationships, the hanger-on usually finds it the easiest way to go. But easy comes with quite a price.
As much as part of me would like to see the bullies of Phoebe Prince suffer the same agonies as she did, I can’t bring myself to advocate ever bullying a bully. Stand up, yes; fight back, definitely; but don’t sink to bullying—it’s a poison that makes no distinctions. ‘Righteous bullying’ is no different, ultimately, from bullying in order to control and torment. For whatever reason one bullies, one will become corrupted by the act. Causing pain for the pleasure of it (even if that pleasure is rooted in justice) will destroy the power of compassion that, at our best, makes our nature slightly closer to the angels than the devils.