Group Bullying (part one)

  1. The individual is a member of an identified out-group (enemy).
  2. The individual is not yet established as a member of the in-group (newcomer).
  3. The individual is a member of the in-group, but breaking some social norm of the group (law-breaker).

What Shape Has Only Two Sides?

As the old riddle goes, the answer is a circle, which has an inside and an outside. Just as a circle has to have two sides to define it, every in-group REQUIRES an out-group to define the boundaries — and the benefits of being a member.

Three important things about groups:

  1. The group boundary is defined by who is excluded.
  2. Membership defines who is worthy to fair treatment.
  3. Status within a group is a zero-sum game.

The Four Social Roles

For social animals, all behavior has a social meaning or use. For primates, elephants, meerkats, etc — a member of the community often acts as a “look-out”. They give a warning cry to alert everyone else of a predator or outsider. The “look-out” defines the boundary and identifies the stranger. Often, look-out duty is reserved for high-ranking members.

  1. Defining boundaries and rules (Leaders & Look-outs)
  2. Defending boundaries and rules (Soldiers & Police)
  3. Deferring to boundaries and rules (Rank Members)
  4. Defying of boundaries and rules (Criminals or Enemies)

The Incentive to Be Mean

Each of these roles offers an opportunity for social profit by instigating or participating in aggressive behavior.

Defining boundaries & rules:

Children will ignore significant things — including race in many cases. But, they will find the most trivial excuses to define group boundaries — things never noticed until they became socially significant — or could be made socially significant the executive order of a leader.

Defending boundaries & rules:

We see this symbolically “courageous” activity in the comments about the above poster. They included a variety of agreements, praise, “volunteerism”, and sadistically creative enhancements (one-upsmanship in posturing to gain social status). Those remarks included:

Deferring to group action:

When people “go along to get along” they gain by not risking their group membership. They avoid falling into the social status of Defier of the social order or group boundaries.

Defying group rules or boundaries:

Just as adult dissidents and whistle-blowers are subject to police brutality, persecution, or exile — children who defy the social order are subject to the same kinds of reprisal — from social demotion, to exile from the group, even physical harm.

  1. Redefine group leadership (conduct a social coup)
  2. Redefine the group culture (foment cultural revolution)
  3. Redefine their own membership (exit the group)

What Can You Do?

  • Understand the primitive and simple structure, and the four social roles involved in group bullying. Understand EVERYONE in any group occupies one of those roles.
  • Notice that children in those roles are spontaneously recreating unspoken rules and roles that are formalized for adults. Help them develop awareness, and the ability to discuss these roles.
  • Notice the limitations they have in terms of genuine possibilities for shifting their roles. Acknowledge, discuss, and help strategize around the real dangers and consequences of challenging the group in the three paths above.
  • Notice the ways adults model social profiting by participating in informal four-role structures like the political poster above.
  • Ask yourself in a very frank way how you may be modeling this sort of social step-stool in your words or actions.
  • Explore ways to challenge and shift your own roles, and model aware and responsible behavior.
  • Ask yourself how you may learn to notice this behavior more in the world around you — and how you can point out the structure to your children in age-appropriate ways.
  • Through this process, help your children identify the structure, and the four roles, and the pathetic nature of trying to socially profit by attacking weak targets.
  • Most important of all, suggest, model, and facilitate adventurous and genuinely contributory pathways to self-esteem and durable social standing.



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