Monday, April 19, 2010

Bullying and the Limits of Empathy

I have it on good authority that teenagers no longer talk to each other very much. They text. They text all the time; they text to people sitting in the same room; they text and text and text. It sounds to this older person like they are all suffering from textomania.

Texting is a form of communication. It might work well as an adjunct to face-to-face talking, but, once it becomes a sole means of connecting, the children who are doing it will naturally start losing any sense that they are connecting other human beings.

Once you learn that your fellow texters are not quite human, then it is easier to bully them. Given that bullying falls within the category of sociopathic behavior, it makes some sense to say that children who bully other children have no real empathy for their victims. So says Time Magazine, representing the wisdom of the psychological profession. Link here.

These reflections were provoked by the January suicide of South Hadley High School Student, Phoebe Prince. Link here.

When faced with adolescent bullying, what is the real issue? Are we being called upon to understand it, to discover its psychological origins, and to provide effective psychotherapy for both tormentors and victims? Or are we adults being called upon to stop it, to put an end to it?

The psychologists quoted in Time Magazine seem to be proposing a warm bath of empathy for all of those involved. They want everyone to do exercises in fellow-feeling, become more aware of their own feelings, and gaining a feel for the feelings of others. In other words, they are proposing psychotherapy.

Not psychotherapy for bullies-- because no one even pretends that therapy works on psychopathy-- but prophylactic exercises in empathy. They want us to teach young children how to feel empathy, so that they will not grow up to become bullies.

It's a nice idea. It makes you feel good. It is probably not going to work.

In fact, if you have a very refined sense of empathy, you might recoil at punishing bullies because you will feel badly for the pain you would be inflicting on them.

Empathy does not tell us what adults should have done when they discovered that Phoebe Prince was being bullied by a gang of 9 students. I can easily imagine that the counselors and teachers and school officials who heard Phoebe's story or witnessed the bullying, felt her pain. They are surely warm and caring people. And they may even have tried to understand it. They just did not know how to stop it. They did not even try.

For all its virtues, empathy says nothing about how to behave toward others. You can be filled with warm and fuzzy feelings toward others-- you can be genuinely feeling their pain-- and still act rudely. Through no fault of your own. All that time learning how to feel the right feelings was time that you did not learn the codes of proper behavior.

Of course, when you are unintentionally offensive, and the other person gets angry at you, you will not understand why they are feeling that way, and will tend to blame them.

As for teaching a child how to be polite and respectful toward other children, every parent resorts to some level of sanction. Hopefully, parents do not beat their children any more. But they certainly use mild forms of shaming: calling a time out, expressing disappointment at a child's behavior, and accusing the child of not acting his age.

These children would better learn respect through training in etiquette coupled with sanctions to punish bad behavior.

But, to do that, children need strict parents, not kindly, empathic therapists.

As everyone has noticed by now, one of the tragedies of the Phoebe Prince suicide is that the adults were not acting like adults. School officials may well have empathized, but they did not create an environment where bullying was forbidden and where the bullies knew that they were risking severe punishment.

Again, how do you put a stop to bullying?

Elizabeth Scheibel had one idea. As the local District Attorney Scheibel decided to indict the South Hadley 9 on criminal charges... assault and civil rights violations. I am not competent to judge the merit of the charges. And I am also not competent to tell you whether or not these students should be sued for the civil tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress. Link here.

These cases are difficult to prove, but that is not really the issue. Most importantly, in the absence of action by school officials, the case arrived in the legal system where the town had one adult who was willing to exercise her authority. Scheibel did not empathize; she stood up and said: enough is enough.

However the trials work out, now the South Hadley 9 have been publicly shamed. And not in the somewhat restrained way that parents shame their children. The indictments, representing community rejection of these children, punished their behavior with the strongest moral sanction, shame. They have been cast out of the community; they are now pariahs; their reputations have been seriously damaged.

As People Magazine reported recently, life has not been very good for the South Hadley 9 since their indictments. The community has turned against them. They have been harassed and tormented. One of them can no longer live at home. Another is terrified for his future. Some have received death threats. They are, dare I say, being bullied. Link here.

It should never have come to this. That it did come to this reflects the simple fact that, before Elizabeth Scheibel, no one in South Hadley took the problem of bullying seriously. No one seems to have recognized how wrong it was. And no one seemed to know how to make it stop.

Would the South Hadley9 have refrained from their bullying if they had been able to feel Phoebe's pain? And after all, they were trying to get Phoebe to feel their pain, the pain Ashley Longe had felt when her boyfriend left her for the new Irish girl. Their bullying showed an understanding of empathy; they were forcing Phoebe to empathize with them.

Or would they have been more likely to refrain if they had known that their behavior would subject them to criminal prosecution and ostracism? Would it have bee enough if they had known that bullying would get them expelled from school and that their school records would always include a note explaining why? Which one would have worked better to stop the bullying: a strong feeling for the feelings of others or a strong moral sense.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is one of the most mature and reasonable essays that I have read on this subject. Too many people do not understand that there are consequences for everything that we do. But we also need to recognize that those charged were not bullying. They are charged with felonies. Stalking, civil rights, statutory rape, and harassment are clearly over the line from bullying and there seems to be no understanding for many in the town of South Hadley that this appears to be an extreme case for which the DA could not and would not ignore. There is also a sexual element that may indicate predatory tendencies by both the girls and boys that is especially disturbing and viewed nonchalantly by many in the press and commentariat. Learning empathy is only the first step. Understand consequences is next. Punishment and contrition is necessary to make these damaged kids whole.