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Anti-Bullying March for Day of Peace

Believe it or not, for someone so socially conscious and politically active, I’ve never participated in a rally. Today’s Day of Peace rally was glorious. From the incredible music by Be More Heroic members to the chants and cheers of both humans and their dogs at Bo Diddley Plaza to the adorable skits done by students at my research school, Duval Elementary, today’s event was A+! I wore a shirt bearing words such as “slut” and “nerd” and carried a sign that read, “Words DO hurt me.” I was interviewed by a local paper, which was nice, but most of all, I got to see firsthand the passion and joy that stirs the hearts of those who speak for compassion and peace. Let’s face it, those people who rally for hate just don’t have that same joy.

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Publication of Bullying News Media Analysis [ABIBS Research Update]

Exciting news: My semantic analysis of news articles on bullying, that I presented at the IASESP conference in April, was accepted for publication in the Journal of Contemporary Anthropology Vol. 4! The title of the article, “The Social Construction of Bullying in U.S. News Media,” describes my contextualizing research for my upcoming documentary. I am thrilled to have this validation and exposure for an anthropological approach to bullying, and the boost it will give to the future stages of my research.

Some highlights from the reviews:

The author has provided a thought-provoking and well-written paper on the topic of bullying and the application of folklore and media studies methodologies in the study and prevention of the phenomenon. I think that the paper adds much to the discipline with respect to its multidisciplinary scope. The author does an excellent job of backing up the use of the folklore/media studies approach. The paper is also an important addition to applied anthropology and can serve as a catalyst for further studies related to  bullying and other social phenomena.

This article discusses an interesting topic relevant to our contemporary society, cleverly set
against the backdrop of folklore studies and media culture. Overall the article has a strong potential and
displays a good understanding of related theoretical and contextual framework.

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Retail Hell: Blame Privatization

Cross-posted on class blog, Misanthropologist.

The study of customer service seems primarily reserved to business-oriented, sociological research, or so my database searches would suggest. However, it is certainly a problem for anthropology. Bullying behavior does occur among adults, and notably in the customer-server sphere of interaction.

Jürgen Habermas notes in chapter V of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere that as the market has become privatized, businesses became distinct and protectionist; meanwhile, the public sphere experienced “stateification” to the point that the line between public and private became permanently blurred. I believe this blurring accounts for the problems of interaction in the world of customer service: vestigial conflict between public and private, business and consumer, is played out through servers and customers.

According to Habermas, the public service sector was developed to alleviate the imbalance created by increasing social costs upon economic growth (p. 147). This “intervention” also increases tension between oligarchic reality and public consumption. Furthermore, service representatives become the face of an organization to a consumer; their privacy is temporarily suspended, their identity conflated with that of the company or government, for the sake of mediation between disparate levels of production and consumption.

Put simply and applied to contemporary America, state/public agencies and private businesses are often self-contained and run by private individuals, even if the company is publicly owned. Their interests may be at odds with their economic and social costs. They also require the public’s attention. Through public service announcements, advertisements, press releases, and other types of marketing and promotion, they negotiate their relationship to the public. This means that an employee of any type of service establishment is representative of the organization (see p. 153), yet a private person; they interact with the public, which is also comprised of private persons. See the potential for conflict?

Examples: A customer attempts to return an item but is outside the return period set at the executive level. The cashier declines to give the customer money back for fear of losing his job, or having the money taken from his pay. The customer takes the denial personally and insults or bullies the cashier. The cashier defends himself by citing the business’ policy. The customer requests a manager, by whose higher authority is more representative of business interests. The manager is actually more concerned by the business’ interests and fears losing respect, privileges, or even her job if she drives away a customer. She makes an exception to the policy; the customer believes the cashier to be wrong, bullheaded, or just discriminatory by denying the return, but is the only one to walk away feeling resolved.

In addition, the public sphere has devolved from a distinctie sphere of public intereaction into an artifically connected web of private spheres (see pp. 162-64). The extraordinarily wide gap between the producers and consumers contributes to this tension. The closer one gets to the top, the easier to alleviate (hence why customers have learned to call for managers or otherwise escalate the issue). You will see less of the “customer is always right” attitude, although this too has changed from its original conception and has a distinctive American iteration, in smaller or independent businesses.

Although childhood bullying is a more pressing topic in the news, I am fascinated by these tensions and resulting behavior in the public sphere, if only to answer my own questions about how I’ve been treated on the job I worked to support myself through undergraduate to the present. Examples:

  1. A pleasant customer, attempting to make conversation, asked me leading questions about whether I still lived at home, when I graduated high school, and what I liked to do when I wasn’t working. I made the mistake of answering honestly, that I had moved to Gainesville as an adult and had just begun to pursue a Master’s. He suddenly changed in demeanor and said, “Oh, yeah, in what, fish-catching?” [I work in a pet store.] and laughed derisively. I said, “No, anthropology.” He said he didn’t know what that was, glared at me, and was unpleasant for the rest of the encounter.
  2. I get told I “must like working here” several times a week. Yes, told, not asked. Usually this is combined with an overuse of my name (or, if you’re like one customer we have, addressing all employees by the name of our company) and slower-than-normal speech when addressing me.
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Bullying in the Media

My primary research interest, and my intended career, is to work in and study film and theatre as means of social change. Obviously this is a broad area with many applications. One particular focus, and one that encompasses and requires the study of mass media as well, is on the phenomenon of and sociocultural response to bullying in schools.

Bullying has garnered much national attention in the past few years, in part due to the controversial anti-bullying laws passed in states such as Massachusetts and the increased reportage of suicide among young people who have been bullied, such as Phoebe Prince and Tyler Clementi. The media has even adopted a phrase for this horror: “bullycide.”

As many have noted, bullying was given new wings by the advent of social networks and an increased percentage of user-generated content. Current opinion in the field of child social psychology holds that bullies are not “kids being kids,” nor products of broken or lower-income homes, nor inspired by violent video games. Bullies bully because they can and want to. (See the writings of Barbara Coloroso and Jessie Klein for more information.)

Even the entertainment media reflects this change in attitude: no longer limited to childhood adventures in which the school or town bully (singular) is an obstacle or challenge to the protagonists, films like Mean Girls and Bacheloretteand TV shows like “Glee” and “30 Rock” address cruel behavior among teens and adults, in school, work, and social venues.

Thankfully, the same technology that empowered bullies can now be used to stop them, and, we hope, to dispel information and ideologies to cut bullying at the roots.

The media has a pivotal role in the campaign against bullying: by portraying the victims of bullying in a sensitive, if sometimes oversympathetic light, and reporting in full detail the nature of the incidents, they change what would have been a sad but pointless story into a piece of a larger story that is depressing enough to motivate action. Their real challenge, though, is not to demonize the bullies for the sake of a dramatic story, but to report them as people who made costly mistakes that, to an unbiased observer, are able to see how to prevent those mistakes from happening again:

The first step, however, is to dispense with the image of bullies as mere Scut Farkases waiting to be challenged and conquered. Bullies are not adverse object lessons for an educational system; they are the very antithesis of education. They are no more a natural part of learning than is parental abuse a natural part of growing up. (source)

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Linkblog Double Feature: “Bully”

Okay, I admit, I might be a little disappointed that someone beat me to creating a major documentary film on bullying. But truthfully, there can never be too many, and my project takes a different tack than Bully, Lee Hirsch’s devastating portrait of the blind-eye teachers, school administrators, and bus drivers who don’t see the pain and torment within their walls. The film has become a hot topic in Hollywood thanks to Harvey Weinstein’s campaign to overturn its R rating…a debate that has, more clearly than ever, revealed in the MPAA the same stilted values and black-and-white thinking that allows for bullying.

Marlo Thomas writes an impassioned plea for your ticket money:

Adults may be horrified by what they see in Bully, but the kids know this world all too well. Directed by Lee Hirsch, the film captures the wrenching drama of schoolyard bullying — the hitting and harassing, the tormenting and tears, the grave suffering — in unflinching detail, as it zooms in on the daily battles waged by five bullied children, two of whom ultimately commit suicide. But sitting through the film will be worth every harrowing minute, especially to the children, whose only hope against this ever deepening crisis is the visible and vocal support of the adults in their lives.

Consider me convinced of the film’s worth.

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Bookblog: Self-justification, the engine of bullying

In my previous bookblog, I discussed the rise of cultural narcissism, particularly among adolescents, and its social and psychological implications. My working hypothesis:

In the United States of America, bullying and workplace harassment are linked phenomena encouraged by an ethos that emphasizes supremacy, competitiveness, and replaceability, and reflective of hierarchical social institutions as well as economic and cultural markets that are oversaturated with choices. The ideals of individuality, self-reliance, and dominance embraced by Generation Me, combined with tremendous socioeconomic pressures to resolve the practical discrepancies between ideals and ability, lead to bullying among adolescents, and those same ideals combined with the tensions of the sociopsychological history of their elders, lead to harassment among adults.

In a recent post I offered a hypothetical example of a bullied teenager whose diagnosis of “mental disorder” absolves his tormentors of responsibility, and even bolsters their behavior. Labeling theory holds that the word in question itself is culturally salient, and it is so in part because of both parties’ ability to rewrite experiences in their heads. Self-justification is a mental process discussed in the dissonance theory of psychology, which holds that humans will say or do contradictory, unsavory, or dishonest things in order to reduce cognitive dissonance, the perceived disconnect, and the discomfort resulting from that, between an expectation and an experience.

In Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson compile hundreds of sociological studies, politician snafus, cultural documents, and pop culture dramas demonstrating the reign of self-justification in all aspects of human existence:

Dissonance reduction operates like a thermostat, keeping our self-esteem bubbling on high. … [W]e are constantly interpreting the things that happen to us through the filter of those core beliefs [about ourselves]. When they are violated, even by a good experience, it causes us discomfort. (pp. 30-31)

Discomfort that is easily resolved by little lies or excuses to ourselves, that happen so frequently we don’t even process them. I could not even guess when the last time I did this was. I can say that within the past week I have likely pretended a text was lost to cover for not responding to it immediately, swiped a pen because mine kept getting stolen, and cut someone off on the road because they tailed me for a long time before getting ahead of me. These aren’t great moral missteps, but in a situation with patterned stimuli, e.g. an office where the same boss makes ridiculous demands of you or a school where you pass the same awkward-looking kid at his locker every day, it’s not difficult to (a) project insecurities and stress onto others and (b) justify further bad behavior, to the point where you must justify that pen swipe or locker shove by convincing yourself of your rightness so well, you eventually have no problem with stealing money from the company or beating the kid with a baseball bat behind the school.

Indeed, both the (in)famous Milgram experiment and a similar experiment by Ellen Berscheid, the perpetrators in the artificial social situation belittled their victims and in post-study interviews explained that the victims “deserved” the shocks. In the Berscheid experiment, half the perpetrators were told that they would later be the recipient of shocks, and as dissonance theory would predict, “when victims are armed and able to strike back, perpetrators [would] feel less need to reduce dissonance by belittling them . . . . [T[he only participants who denigrated their victims were those who believed the victims were helpless” (200).

Interestingly, the authors don’t address the realms of customer service or office workplaces, or the experience of bullying, but it isn’t difficult to apply their observations. In a store, for example, a customer feels dissonance when they expect one price and get another and decides to belittle the employee to resolve it. Dissonance theory explains why otherwise rational people deal with such confusion in this way, rather than politely asking the staff to check or change to price. Furthermore, they feel able to insult the employee because the rules of customer service dictate that employees are not allowed to retaliate. (This doesn’t seem to be true in other countries.)

Needless to say, it’s much more serious when dissonance reduction of this type occurs among adolescents and leads to bullying, which has a much greater capacity to be fatal or at least permanently psychologically damaging. Self-justification seems to be a natural process empowered by the human brain’s complexity and plasticity, and has many positive effects, including transmitting culture, allowing forgiveness, and bolstering imagination, but we must understand that of all the factors of bullying and harassment, this is likely the only one that’s unchangeable.

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Linkblog: Can we stop diagnosing and start solving?

As anyone slightly familiar with psychiatry knows, psychiatrists reference a text called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders both when diagnosing the source of their patients’  troubles and when determining how to treat them. Among the DSM’s many criticisms is that it enforces cultural stereotypes and its use is subject to the observer’s biases. In addition, the particular sets of symptoms have undergone alteration over the years (the next edition, DSM-5, is to be released next year), and even the names of disorders are cleaned up or rearranged, such that someone diagnosed with multiple personality disorder years ago would be described as having a “dissociative identity” now, and someone termed schizophrenic before may be bipolar, manic depressive, dissociative, or chronically depressed now.

The problems with defining mental problems have been dramatized endlessly in films, plays, and TV shows, and one in particular is the most compelling reason to change or eliminate the method. In anthropology, “labeling” is more than an action; it’s a set of symbolic actions, words, and sociopsychological connotations, in which labeling both produces the label and the associated activity that confirms the label. In adolescents this can both reinforce stereotypes about adolescents, contribute to “typical” adolescent behavior, and, for bullying victims, in particular, be potentially damaging.

Interestingly, the DSM is under attack:

Many [clinicians] will participate in “Boycott Normal,” a demonstration planned for May 5, when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) meets in Philadelphia and is likely to vote to go forward and publish the DSM-5.

[snip]

Foremost among these advocates is feminist psychologist Paula J. Caplan, a fellow in the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and the Joan-of-Arc of the new PLAN T Alliance (Psychiatric Labeling Action Network for Truth). The alliance is a coalition of individuals and organizations formed because of frustration with the unscientific nature of the DSM, the harm done to many people who receive arbitrary diagnostic labels, and the unwillingness of the APA to undertake serious reform.

Imagine being a troubled teenager, bullied, ostracised, and confused, and going to a counselor who recommends a psychiatrist who tells the student that they are A, so take B, and behave like C to “get better.” It frees the tormentors from responsibility because the victim was “just that way to begin with,” frees school counselors and administrators from responsibility to provide a safe, judgment-free school, and it slaps the “crazy” label on a vulnerable person in an overstimulating environment.

Am pressed for time so will continue this topic on my next bookblog, which is on the topic of adolescent culture.

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Bookblog: The Cultural Roots of Bullying

Thanks to Dr. Jean Twenge, one of my key questions, i.e. key aspects of my core hypothesis*, is a step closer to being answered, by accounting the self-esteem movement as a primary psychological factor among people under 30. This also means that my project will have to take generational differences into account, particularly when analyzing workplace harassment (BWAISH).

Twenge’s 2007 book, Generation ME (the “ME” is short for Millennial Edition but reflects the selfish attitudes of the folks in question) makes one argument and makes it well: that the children of Baby Boomers and their children were raised to believe they were special, and this has massive implications for all of American society, particularly in schools and workplaces, by causing a sense of entitlement and an abandonment of responsibility. Twenge writes in a snarky, lighthearted style even when doing a big sell, which is good because most of her data is statistical and based upon personality questionnaires and survey data going back decades, which is a fantastically scientific approach but hard to digest without a little humor. Twenge impressively crunches this data, comparing results across economic and political factors to demonstrate large shifts in basic American personality over the past 40 years. She also demonstrates that the changes are still occurring (boosted, perhaps, by technology, a factor Twenge will hopefully address in her next book). Twenge’s age (she’s just past 30 as of publication) is occasionally a distraction more than an asset (she references “Avenue Q” a few too many times), and her cynicism threatens what would therefore be inappropriate ageism. Twenge is attempting to apologize for her generation, but doesn’t address the same behaviors and tendencies as conducted by older generations (and trust me, from working in retail, I can say with certainty that 80-year-olds can be just as bratty and snooty as 20-year-olds).

So, the self-esteem movement has produced feelings of entitlement in people under 40, particularly the tweens, teens, and twentysomethings. This leads to bullying, harassing, and violent behavior when those feelings are challenged or otherwise need to be reinforced. This isn’t the only factor, of course, but I strongly believe that any narcissistic tendencies mixed with a capitalistic one-upmanship worldview means not only acceptance of psychological cruelty, but acceptance of, and furthermore excuse-making for it. (This is an excellent source on this topic.)

* Roughly: that bullying and workplace harassment are linked phenomena encouraged by an ethos that emphasizes supremacy, competitiveness, and replaceability, and reflective of hierarchical social institutions as well as economic and cultural markets that are oversaturated with choices. See also here.

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Bullying: a silent killer

Bullying has received nationwide attention thanks to a string of high-profile suicides prompted by relentless bullying. Tagged an “epidemic,” “media hype,” and everything in between, public outcry and legal action following each suicide case is changing both the definition of and the response to a common childhood experience. Considering all this, it seems inappropriate to call bullying a silent killer. Yet only bullying in the context of suicide is being reinterpreted as a destructive symptom of a social problem endemic to young people; lines have been drawn around “bullycides” as separate from bullying in general, and this subtle change in definition has both structural and psychological ramifications. Meanwhile, “regular” bullying continues to occur everyday, and while our use of terms suggests it vanishes once people leave high school, it merely becomes recoded and renamed.

Which is where the anthropologist steps in, to elucidate on why and where bullying happens, and to answer critics’ biggest question: Are the “bullycides” really the direct result of bullying? I am of the opinion that both bullying and teen suicides are surface indicators of a deeper structure of interaction, internalized by children and coded into both adolescent and adult institutions. An anthropologist well acquainted with communication theories has a unique perspective on the phenomenon of bullying. When the tragedy of suicide strikes a community, it ripples throughout the nation thanks to expanded media coverage, coverage using the same technology now employed by bullies and manipulators of all ages. Bullying is a silent killer in that its effects are only loud when they are made loud, and even then, for every case that receives media attention, countless more have occurred and will continue to occur.

So my current independent research project is to examine the underpinning causes of bullying and harrassment, and its implications for anti-bullying laws and other measures to counter bullying. I would rather not divulge my theory just yet, as it is never wise to put the cart before the horse, or conclusions before data. Currently I am devouring as many news and academic articles as I can find on bullying, suicides resulting from bullying, and legal action related to bullying and harrassment in schools (I had to limit it somehow, and my particular interest is children and adolescents). I am also reading The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future(Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30) by Mark Bauerlain
and The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager
by Thomas Hine for answers, and intend to conduct some interview- and survey-based research. Below is my research statement:

Anti-bullying laws exist in 45 states, with Massachusetts being the most recent. These laws give law enforcement officials and educators new avenues through which to apprehend and prosecute bullies, particularly in cases that result in suicide. In addition, they require programs that give victims a way to have their stories heard and their cases investigated, and that promote compassion and tolerance in the hopes of cutting bullies off. Unfortunately, cases of suicide still occur, and bullying still occurs among adults, where it goes by other names. This project consists of preliminary research into the social negotiations of children and whether bullying has responded to anti-bullying programs, the ramifications and effectiveness of the new legislation, and possible anti-harrassment measures for adults. In addition, I hope to draw conclusions about the structural and ideological characteristics of the United States that allow for bullying.