Inside the bully economy

A provocative new book argues that deregulation is leading to more school shootings. We speak to the author

Published March 4, 2012 7:00PM (EST)

As the details of this week's Chardon, Ohio, school shooting emerged, they seemed eerily familiar. On Monday, three students were killed when a gunman emptied 10 bullets into a group of teens sitting at a cafeteria table. Once again, the alleged shooter, T.J. Lane, a 17-year-old fellow student, was described as a "loner" with a "troubled" family history. And, once again, other students described him as the victim of "bullying." And so Chardon joins the long list of violent school incidents with a connection to America's rampant bullying problem.

According to Jessie Klein, the author of the new book "The Bully Society," it's a problem that's only getting worse. In her excellent examination of the school bullying epidemic, Klein, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Adelphi University, takes a broad approach to the subject. She first lays out the scope of the problem, before explaining how kids' changing attitudes towards masculinity, the birth of child-targeted consumerism and the erosion of our compassionate society have all helped to create a culture in which children are increasingly feeling overwhelmed and helpless, and, in some cases, prone to violence. Most provocatively, she ties the rise of bullying behavior to America's economic move to the right.

Salon spoke to Klein over the phone from New York about the Ohio shooting, Facebook and why the current election cycle is bad for bullying.

What is your immediate reaction to the Ohio shooting?

I think the whole controversy about whether [the alleged shooter] was bullied or not is very interesting. It's clear he posted these rather miserable poems on Facebook that conveyed that he was unhappy and angry, and a number of kids say he was an outcast, he was isolated, he was picked on -- and then others said he wasn't. People are always arguing about what it means to be bullied. It seems clear this kid was not treated particularly well, he didn't have a lot of friends, he was isolated, and he was unhappy. A good community would see a person who's having a hard time and figure out ways to reach out to them and care about them. It seems less important to his experience as being bullied or not being bullied, than figuring out that he wasn't in the middle of a social environment that was caring and compassionate.

You argue that the bullying problem in the United States has been getting worse in the last few decades.

Yeah. Between 1979 and 1988 there were 27 school shootings. From 1989 to 1998 there were 55 and then they continued to increase from 1999 to 2008 to 66, so there were 148 shootings in the three decades from 1979 to 2008. What's most disturbing is that in the three years since 2008 there have been 43 shootings, and that's almost two-thirds of the number of shootings that occurred in the preceding decade.

What do school shootings have to do with bullying?

I started studying the school shootings when I first heard about a school shooting in 1997. I was really struck by why he said he committed the shooting. He talked about how he had been picked on, and called gay, and harassed for being fat. And I thought that's really not that different from what many kids experience. For the book, I interviewed kids across the country and asked them about their experiences, and I realized school shooters are really complaining about the same things that almost every American child could talk about.

We have an increasingly high depression rate, anxiety has increased among children. There are so many different ways that the children are acting out their despair -- suicides, self cutting, substance abuse -- and so much of it relates to school bullying. So, what I try to show in the book is that school shootings are the most horrific response to school bullying but they're not the only response at all, and mostly they magnify what's happening at schools. You know, most of the kids who committed shootings really wanted to tell the world that they were so miserable and they were treated so badly and this is what they felt forced to do.

What differentiates America's attitude toward evil from that of other countries? And how does this relate to school shootings? In "We Need to Talk About Kevin," for example, the new Lynne Ramsay film about a school shooting, the perpetrator is seen as intrinsically, almost cartoonishly evil.

There's the way to define evil as taking pleasure in other people's pain and feeling pain in people's pleasure. And that characterizes a lot of what goes on in schools -- kids are encouraged to be envious of other kids and if other kids get a high grade or a boyfriend or girlfriend or win a game or whatever else, they end up feeling envious and angry and hateful towards those people rather than supportive and excited and part of a community where good things are happening. When school shootings occur people like to say, "Oh that person was a psychopath." And it's a way of personalizing the issue and not taking responsibility as a society. As Durkheim, a classic sociologist, said in his seminal work called "Suicide," when you see the same thing happening over and over and over again, you can't keep blaming the individual. You have to look at the social environment and say, why is this happening over and over again? There must be something in our social environment that's having this effect.

Most of us who grew up in North America have experienced first-hand how important social status is in high school. Many of the shooters talk about how their killings were a way of upending that hierarchy.

One of [the shooters] said he thought the shooting would make him more popular and, in prison, he said, "I feel more respected now." These kids really were willing to do anything to increase their respect in the school. They'd been so harassed and so degraded. It was such a miserable experience that they thought if they picked up guns they would finally feel powerful and gain some respect. And I think that is a very sad statement in our society that kids get that message: To get respect they need to be dominate and aggressive and violent.

You argue that the pressure to be hypermasculine has increased in the last few decades. Why?

I think our whole society is more masculine. Capitalism as an economic system has become much more so. Our social services have been cut significantly. The media is much less regulated. They used to not be able to advertise to children, and now they advertise plastic surgery to them. There's just so much in our society that's concerned with how to perfect yourself, how to look, how to become as powerful as you can be, regardless of how it affects others. I don't think that message was quite as prominent in previous decades, and all those values are related in some ways to masculinity. So what I show in the book is that masculine values of aggression, violence, dominance are not specific to men. Girls and women are increasingly pressured to demonstrate those values as well.

What's most fascinating to me about your book is what you describe as the "bully economy" -- the idea that economic conservatism is fostering this epidemic of bullying.

George Ritzer wrote a fascinating article about how the economy affects our social relationships. Now, when you go into a store there's a scripted relationship. Somebody is going to say, "Is there anything that you want?" And you say, "No thank you." "Do you have everything you need?" "Yes I do." And that kind of conversation is organized so you won't have a long personal conversation that will prevent you from buying things. Telemarketing is the same way. So that even when people come together and could have a human experience, they're prevented from having that experience by these kinds of scripted conversations. Sales people actually get docked in pay or punished if they deviate from these scripts. And I think those kinds of new dynamics have had an effect on our social relationships. And what's fascinating is that social isolation has increased. It's tripled since the '80s, and depression and anxiety statistics are extremely high. These are, I think, indicators of what's going on in our society more generally.

In the book, you argue that much of this can be traced back to Reagan and the Reagan era. Why?

He came to power talking about deregulating capitalism. There are many people who do believe that the more you help people, the less they will work, the more lazy they will become. There became an entire culture against people on welfare. Even Clinton after Reagan developed this program called Welfare to Work, where even if you were disabled or had six children you were forced to find some way to work 20 hours per week. And I think since then society has gotten more and more harsh in that way and I think people feel strongly in our country that that's the way to get ahead. We're the only country in the industrial world that doesn't have a paid leave for women who have children, whereas other countries in Europe go out of their way to make sure there's a long paternity leave. There are countries that help families to stay home for 3 years and they'll pay 80 percent of the salary. For the most part, people here believe that if you make money you'll get support but if you don't make money, you're pretty much on your own. And I think that's what kids in schools feel. A lot of the school shooters said, "The principal wasn't doing anything, the guidance counselors weren't doing anything, so I had to take things into my own hands." And that's pretty much the message that people get, whether you're an adult or a kid.

You also take a very pessimistic view of Facebook and the Internet.

With Facebook, with a lot of social media, there's a lot of harassment. The whole cyber-bullying phenomenon is just awful because people don't even necessarily know who's harassing them. A lot of the people I've interviewed say as the technology developed the harassment has gotten worse. And there are so many ways we use technology to disconnect from one another and to have relationships that are only in cyber space.

But isn't the Internet also a tool for kids to escape isolation -- gay kids, for example, can connect with each other over the Web in ways they never could before.

Technology isn't necessarily evil -- it can be used towards very constructive ends by people who are very isolated. There are ways technology can be used to help connect people and hopefully you have face-to-face connections following that. But I think because so much of our social relationships have become commodified, about getting ahead and having status and having popularity. Many relationships are almost entirely implemented on the Internet and people have few face-to-face relationships. Studies have shown that kids today don't even necessarily know how to have face-to-face relationships anymore. People see people in cafes and they're sitting right with each other, texting with other people. Friendship has decreased. In the '80s, the average person had three confidantes. It's down to two. At the same time we're finding out that for mammals it's actually organic to develop friendships and to care about other living beings. Our social and economic environment is undermining us.

In the book, you looked at bullying in both upper-middle class and working class schools. How do those environments compare?

What I've found is that it's pretty bad everywhere. There are different products that people are pressured to buy. In suburban areas it's Louis Vuitton, in urban areas it's Nikes or Michael Jordan sneakers. People often feel that unless they purchase them they'll get bullied. And parents are in this terrible position where even if they don’t believe in branding or buying these commodities, they worry rightfully that their kids might get bullied if they're not wearing the right clothes or sneakers or have the right cell phone. And of course there are companies that actually go into high schools to try to get kids to wear their clothes or items so that other students will want to buy them.

If you're tying bullying to deregulation, how does America compare to other countries where the economy is far less deregulated?

It's an interesting question. We have more school shootings and violence than anywhere in the world. Certainly there are much less school shootings [in industrialized European countries]. They do have a big bullying problem, and I think in some ways America has become globalized -- there is a McDonald's in every country. But most of what they try to do in response to school shootings is not the zero tolerance policy that we have of suspensions, expulsions. It's much more about, how do we build relationships among people? How do we create communities?

The cultural dialogue around school shootings seems to have shifted in the last decade and a half. When Columbine happened, video games and violent movies were really being blamed. This doesn't really seem to be the case anymore. It's more about bullying.

In 1997 I wrote an article about how people were blaming single parents [for shootings], and I think that was really interesting because at that time in almost every school shooting at that point the perpetrators came from families with two parents, often a stay at home parent. They blamed the violence in the media -- and there's a lot of data that shows it increases aggression but not that it necessarily causes violence. And of course the gun control issues were big. Right now people are looking at the bullying issue instead of looking at external symptoms, but I don't think that we can discount them. Media violence is part of the deregulated society we have today. There used to be many more limits on what kind of things you can show in movies, what kind of advertisements you can have. Everything is much more sexual, more violent, more callous.

I think many parents these days are being faced with a lot of conflicting messages. On one hand, they shouldn't be helicopter parenting. On the other hand, they should be very concerned about whether or not their kids are being bullied at school, and monitoring them for signs of distress.

Those are very interesting, important issues. People want to blame somebody. Teachers are getting blamed. Parents are getting blamed because they're not raising their children correctly. Certain students are getting blamed because they have the profile of a bully. These are all distractions because it's not about individuals doing a certain thing it's about a socioeconomic environment where people are pressured to act in particular ways. Parent get so little support for navigating a very cruel and scary world -- if kids are going to school and getting shot, why wouldn't a parent want to coddle their child and make sure that they don't meet such a horrible end? We have to look at a much broader level to think about how do we change a society that’s become so cruel and callous and dangerous.

Well, even under Obama, the American economy is still extraordinarily deregulated, and will continue to be so. We're going through this election cycle in which, once again, welfare recipients are being demonized, and the GOP primary has become a race to out right-wing Mitt Romney. Given what's happening in America right now, do you see any hope?

I do actually feel hope. I feel like people are really concerned about these issues. I think schools could become leaders in a movement to make change in our society. At a minimum, they could create a reprieve from the harsher environment that kids have to deal with outside of schools, and if schools are successful, different kinds of people will come out of them. Right now kids are trained to be heartless and pursue success at any cost. If schools really worked to create community and to help children value themselves and one another, different kinds of people would come out of those schools, and I think different leaders would end up leading the country.

I think people can create change on a very interpersonal level by refusing to be objectified, by refusing to be defined by their brands, by their shoes, cars, clothes, bags, by refusing to identify other people in terms of what they've bought, and to be present with other human beings, emotionally and intellectually.

By Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is Salon's former Arts Editor. He has written for the Globe & Mail, the Village Voice and other publications. He can be reached at @thomasmaxrogers.

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