If Malcolm Gladwell were to write about bullying, the result might look something like Jonathan Fast’s new book, Beyond Bullying: Breaking the Cycle of Shame, Bullying, and Violence. Fast draws upon underlying historical themes, shocking facts about perpetrators, and revealing studies to make his case that there is one thread throughout all bullying: shame.
And yet, Fast, a writer and professor of social work, reminds us, shame is an unfamiliar word. In several popular psychological texts, he tells us, shame is rarely mentioned, which is surprising considering that shame has an evolutionary function: to keep groups together. When shame is the result of violating social norms, we are less likely to jeopardize our group affiliations, he writes. But shame also regulates the attachment process — indeed, there is a stage devoted to it (autonomy vs. shame and doubt).
“Shame can be a powerful constructive force for helping children master the skills requited to move into an adult role,” Fast writes, but the modern-day version, he posits, has become “weaponized shame,” designed to intentionally injure a person’s self-concept.
Shame can also emerge as state shame (which is associated with situational conditions) or trait shame (a characterological feature). But, in either case, Fast writes, it causes people to act in one of four ways: withdrawal, attacking others, attacking the self, and avoidance.
One of the most common causes of shame in any form is bullying. “Seventy percent of people get bullied at some point in their childhood,” according to Fast. Why kids resort to bullying is a larger question with many possible answers. Children who didn’t bond with their parents, were allowed to act out aggressively, witnessed parental models of aggression, are larger or stronger than their peers, or have an inborn penchant toward violence all have a tendency toward bullying, Fast writes.
Fast shares a long, thoughtful email he received after he published a book on school shootings. The man who wrote it recalls his wanting to kill a boy named Matt when they were young. Why? Because Matt bullied him incessantly. But, the man tells Fast, even after he thought about how he would stab Matt in the gut, he saw Matt’s name on a sign-up sheet for a grandparent’s dinner at school. “The notion of him having grandparents was an epiphany, pregnant with implications, like NASA finding an empty Fresca can on Mars,” the man writes. “Were I to kill, or seriously injure Matt, some old Italian nana I’d never met would likely be very upset. Unlike her grandson, I didn’t wish her any harm at all.”
And so, the man realized, although Matt bullied him every day and made his life miserable, he could withstand that bullying more than he could withstand “the thought of weeping old ladies.” Despite having a knife at the ready, he never hurt his bully. And now, years later, Fast writes, composing this email clearly helped the man process his shame.
Unfortunately, epiphanies like these did not happen for Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber. Fast offers Kaczynski’s account of a major turning point in his life, after he had experienced a sense of shame and humiliation. “I burst from the ashes of my despair to a glorious new hope,” Kaczynski said. And: “What was entirely new was that I really felt I could kill someone.”
While it is not surprising that Kaczynski had been the target of verbal bullying and teasing, what is surprising is that during his days at Harvard, he participated as a subject in the infamous MKUltra experiments secretly sponsored by the CIA. The aim of these experiments was “the research and development of chemical, biological, and radiological materials capable of employment in clandestine operations to control human behavior.”
These clandestine operations unfortunately exist in many societal forms. There was the early Minutemen Project where men, as Fast writes, “could play the part of an authority figure and dress like a soldier, and because of the nature of their ‘mission,’ they felt free to bully and demean Mexicans.” There was the “rule of thumb” law which for many year allowed men to beat their wives as long as the stick was no wider than a middle finger and no longer than a forearm, and the “scientific racism” that spawned the eugenics movement, whose epicenter was none other than Harvard University.
What ties these awful moments in human behavior together, Fast writes, is that “the assumptive superiority of the dominant culture, if it is to remain dominant, is constantly reinforced by a subtle, persistent, and often unconscious shaming.”
And yet as much as shaming exists in our culture, and is often denied, many people believe that it has a place in retributive justice — even though “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” method often comes with poor results. We can see this, for instance, in the high rate at which people who have been in prison get arrested again in a cycle of incarceration.
As an alternative to shame-based programs, Fast offers the SaferSanerSchools program, which boasts that after two years of implementation at Palisades High School (a small black high school), there was a drop in disciplinary referrals from 1,752 to 1,154.
Fast offers this example, from an anti-bullying event, of how talking openly about shame, rather than using shame, can help our world: “A small boy arrived at the microphone and talked about how another boy had bullied him throughout middle school,” he writes, “Then the bully himself, who was in the auditorium that morning, ran up to the microphone and apologized. Then and there, in front of everyone, they hugged it out.”
Beyond Bullying: Breaking the Cycle of Shame, Bullying, and Violence
Oxford University Press, November 2015
Hardcover, 264 pages