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Unfinished business: Phoebe’s Law

A bit of unfinished business has been nagging at my brain.

Last night, an invitation from a friend to join the Phoebe’s Law group on Facebook (there is also a site devoted to contacting your state legislators) reminded me that I intended to write a blog entry about the issue. I joined the group last night and am writing the blog entry now. There was a vague feeling of urgency, with regard to the blog, that caused me to drop what I was doing and write this. I have learned to go with my gut feelings, because they are usually right.

For those who do not know the story, Phoebe Prince, age 15, committed suicide in January in Massachusetts, by hanging herself in a stairway leading to her family’s apartment, after being subjected to a bullying campaign that lasted for months. Prince had moved from Ireland to South Hadley with her family in the fall of 2009, and the bullying (“verbally assaultive behavior and threats of physical harm”) appears to have resulted from Prince’s brief relationship with a male student.

In all, SIX students have been charged, and all have pleaded “Not Guilty.” Ashley Longe, Flannery Mullins, and Sharon Chanon Velazquez, all 16, “are all charged with civil rights violations resulting in bodily injury, criminal harassment and disturbing a school assembly. Mullins and Velazquez are also charged with stalking, and Longe is charged with assault with a dangerous weapon.” According to the CNN article (since minors are involved, and legal proceedings are underway, I quote):

“Three other teenagers — Sean Mulveyhill, 17, Kayla Narey, 17, and Austin Renaud, 18 — pleaded not guilty Tuesday to charges in the case. In the indictments, which were returned last month, a Hampshire County grand jury charged Mulveyhill with statutory rape, violation of civil rights with resulting bodily injury, criminal harassment and disturbance of a school assembly.”

“The indictments charged Renaud, of Springfield, with statutory rape.”

“Narey, of South Hadley, was charged with violation of civil rights with resulting bodily injury, criminal harassment and disturbance of a school assembly.”

Since the legal cases are ongoing, I will discuss, instead, bullying in American society (and likely, since human personality types and institutions are involved, in all other societies as well).

My father gave me good advice with regard to bullies. Sadly, many rules, regulations, and laws, which serve to protect the people and institutions “in power,” tend to limit the solution. However, many of the instances of bullying occur OUT OF SIGHT of these authorities and institutions. Simply stated, the way to deal with a bully is to “bloody” his nose. Admittedly, this solution is not always feasible, and it does not necessarily entail physical violence – sometimes publicly ridiculing the bully’s efforts are enough. The solution recognizes that a bully “needs” an audience, and his/her humiliation in front of that audience, in his/her failed bullying attempt, will discourage repeat attempts (at least with the target who defends him/herself). Sadly, not all personalities are willing or able to defend themselves, and not all situations allow self-defense. In my childhood, I had the opportunity to use the solution once in defense of a younger brother. We never had the problem again.

The tendency to be a bully is rooted in personality type. Certain Myers-Briggs personality types can tend to be bullies, if they don’t monitor their own behavior. The behavior can be aggravated in situations in which there is an extreme imbalance of power, such as graduate schools and the workplace. I experienced bullying in both of these places. Probably, most of us have experienced bullying in schools and at work.

There are other institutions in American society that glorify bullying and use it as a technique to build teams and achieve cohesiveness. Bullying works as a technique with some personality types and fails miserably with others. As for these institutions, there is no need to name them here – you know what they are.

The problem of bullying is made worse by the unnatural selection of bullies (and psychopathic personalities) at higher echelons in the workplace, and by the personality cloning that occurs in the workplace environment. Since bullies are REWARDED (with higher positions of responsibility and pay) in some workplaces, and CLONED to create groupthinking environments of bullies, the natural tendencies of such folks is to master the mental mechanism (or defense mechanism) of PROJECTION and to project the perceived problem onto the target. “I don’t have a problem (I am doing things correctly, and I am being advanced and rewarded); YOU have the problem.” (I have experienced this projection, as the target, firsthand. Groupthink is tough to fight, because you firstly have to know (and refuse to be dissuaded from the the fact) that you are right, and secondly must realize that you are outnumbered, by people higher in the “food chain.”) Bullies can create a dysfunctional workplace and “tend to target co-workers who are the best and brightest employees.”

(By the way, the Wikipedia article on “Defence mechanism” has a “Child’s [and adult’s] Garden” of “Pathological,” “Immature,” “Neurotic,” and “Mature” defense mechanisms, with appropriate hyperlinks.)

An emeritus professor of one of my alma maters said it well in the title of his online article in Psychology Today: “Myers Briggs: The Message is Tolerance.”

Clearly, the self-perpetuating environment of the workplace is not the best place to create change. Maybe the time and place really is in childhood, with a SHARED responsibility (it is not the responsibility of the schools alone) of families, communities, and the schools.

A society that kills its children is a society that needs such change.

(Note added May 18, 2010: Today I had the opportunity to view the film “Teen Truth: An Inside Look at Bullying and School Violence” and listen to its producer in the company of an entire Middle School. The good news is that the kids were responsive and that people CAN change their environment by refusing to bully and by not tolerating bullying. All of the adults in the very large multipurpose room remembered having been bullied, and the names of the bullies involved. When I stood, I remembered not only childhood bullies but the management and executive bullies I have known.

The bad news is that even if the last traces of bullying are removed from America’s schools [unlikely], America’s corporate cultures [and a number of our other institutions] will sustain bullying as a management technique. There is no need for me to name the managers, executives, and CEOs who I have seen firsthand use bullying as a management technique. You can supply your OWN names.

The saddest part is having to tell kids that bullying does not end when you get out of school. Bullying will continue your whole life; the bullies will be rewarded with high salaries and advancement, and you must develop your own strategies to combat it and them.)

-Bill at

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