I was bullied intermittently throughout my childhood, but in seventh grade it became particularly severe. One boy named Tim bullied me daily until I came up with the idea to pay him a cookie at lunch in order to turn him from my tormentor into my protector. That he accepted the idea—that in fact he one day punched another boy who'd started pushing me around—astounded me and only testified to the capriciousness with which bullies often choose their targets.
Bullies do in general tend to stand down when their victims stand up to them. But circumstances often make that quite difficult. Especially when the bullying is condoned by the social group in which it takes place, standing up for oneself takes enormous strength that few children—few adults, in fact—have acquired. But the opposite also seems true: when no one in the social group tolerates bullying, bullies not only have trouble finding a victim but also often feel intimidated enough to stop seeking one out.
Thus the responsibility for preventing bullying lies with all of us together. Group dynamics may produce many negative effects on individuals, to be sure, but it's also hard to dispute their beneficial capacity to promote pro-social behavior.
Often, however, for a group to be mobilized into action, a spark is required—a single person standing up loudly and firmly against the action of a bully. Where such sparks go wrong, though, is in standing up against the bully himself. This simply provides the bully a second lone target. Instead, when observing bullying behavior, a better strategy might be to initiate a reaction in other observers to quickly form a vocal group consensus. With others behind you, then, you present the bully with too many targets to manage. Like an alcoholic facing a group intervention, the likelihood of changing the bully's behavior increases dramatically.
This same principle applies in the adult world as well. Though childhood bullies can outgrow their bullying ways, many times they don't, growing into adults who bully not with their fists but with their words. Standing up to adult bullies, however, may be hard in a different way (for example, the bully against whom we must stand may be someone in authority, like our boss, and standing up to them may risk more than just more bullying)—but the principle remains the same: find the bully's peer group and enlist them in creating disapproving public opinion.
It remains all too easy in life when we aren't the victim of bullying or abuse to tell ourselves another person's suffering isn't our problem. But whether we recognize it or not, we stand or fall together. For what isn't our personal problem today may easily become so (or become the problem of someone we love) tomorrow. The power inherent in groups is both enormous and something any one of us can trigger. It's something we don't hesitate to use for selfish reasons. Why then shouldn't we trigger it for selfless ones too?
Dr. Lickerman's book The Undefeated Mind will be published in late 2012.