Bullies and bystanders: When cowards have audiences of cowards
by David Lacy
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” – Edmund Burke.
As new forms of bullying have increased in recent years (e.g., cyber bullying), one thing remains constant: Bullies have an extensive support system.
A support system of cowards, that is.
A sociological study (by Katherine Liepe-Levinson and Martin H. Levinson) revealed that juvenile bullying frequently occurs in front of a crowd of bystanders, a crowd that almost never intervenes in the bullying process and even frequently participates in verbally abusing the victim or, at the very least, rooting on the perpetrator.
Bizarrely enough, these crowds of bystanders are often made up of people who would never be direct bullies themselves. Many bystanders have admitted to researchers that they later felt disgust and significant self-loathing for even the most minimal involvement in a bullying event.
In junior high and most of high school I was more frequently ostracized than targeted. As an overweight kid who hadn’t been born in the same clique-ish small town as everyone who knew each other their entire lives, I did face my share of verbal abuse (sometimes serious and degrading) and was occasionally pushed around as well. (Ironically in my early 20s I began forming close friendships with a number of the people who were “popular” back in high school.) However, I mostly spent every lunch break of my junior high years wandering the perimeter of campus alone, waiting desperately for the bell to ring to signal our return to classes. Without exaggeration, I can state that I had ZERO friends for years.
I’ve told very few people what was going through my head during those seemingly endless lunch hours. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit it now but I’m still confident enough to do so:
I imagined I was part of the cast of a show nearly identical to Beverly Hills 90210. Yes, you read that correctly.
I am not making this up, nor am I attempting to be humorous. I played out, in serial continuance in my mind, soap-operatic scenarios featuring the cast of the ’90s teen show, a few of my high school crushes, and myself. In these imaginary episodes I was one of the popular kids, dealing with dating and break-ups, drugs and teen angst. It’s pathetic, I know, but it’s honestly the only thing that kept me distracted enough from breaking down and crying in some darkened corner of Emerson Junior High.
Which I have done.
And here comes the hard part to admit. Here comes the part that hits my brain and my gut simultaneously so hard I sometimes want to vomit. I sometimes HATE myself over this.
I have witnessed bullying.
And I have been a bystander.
Standing in a crowd, watching a fight that wasn’t really an equal fight but rather a ring around harassment. I remained silent. I remained standing with the group. And I did so because standing with the group was so much less painful than standing in the middle of the circle side-by-side with the victim.
Because standing in the group meant I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t the target.
It takes a lot of courage to stand up in a crowd and defend someone who is being humiliated.
It takes tremendous strength to break away from a mob of cowardly tormentors and lend a hand to someone who is being humiliated and harassed.
I had no such strength as a kid.