What is bullying?
Bullying is a contagious social disease that flourishes in the absence of a legitimate social order, creates a toxic environment and an unhealthy community life, all while causing psychological and physical harm to victims. I attempt to answer: What is bullying? How does it arise? How can we prevent bullying? And how can we create healthy community in multifamily housing?
Bullying consists of the following combination:
- aggressive words, communications, and actions;
- intent and repetition; aggressive actions that are repeated and continue over time. intent may be difficult to determine, however repetition tends to exclude other, more innocent explanations;
- attempting to control one or or more others but without having the appropriate role or authority;
- actions that are based on or seek to create a power imbalance;
- causing harm or with the potential to cause harm; intent to harm is not always present; harm may be difficult to evaluate formally and may require, for example, evaluation by a mental health professional; often intuitively obvious. However, many people do seem oblivious to the dangers of bullying.
Bullying in the residential community restricts a victim’s rights as a tenant and citizen and is therefore a civil rights and human rights violation. Bullying has a terrible impact on victims, causing stress, emotional pain, mental disease, and physical disease. Bullying is bad for the institution as well as for everyone in the institution—the housing provider, bystanders, staff, service providers, and also for the perpetrators—those who bully.
The ability of bullying to flourish depends on the social setting. Subsidized multifamily housing brings together unrelated people from diverse social and cultural backgrounds, and mixes elderly individuals with younger persons living with a variety of disabilities. All have experienced significant loss, all are poor, and all are insecure and afraid. In the absence of commonly agreed norms and methods for resolving disputes and maintaining social order, people may seek to control the resulting chaos through banding together and may use inappropriate methods to gain their goals.
Bullying is an attempt to aggressively control and manage interpersonal relations. While there may well be characteristic personality or behavioral characteristics of some people who use bullying or of some who are targets and victims of bullying, the administrative, social, and cultural context of a residential facility and the surrounding community determines if, and how, bullying will flourish. Bullying in an institution emerges and flourishes in the context of a social, cultural, and administrative system, and cannot be adequately explained by the psychology of perpetrators or victims. Therefore remedies must consider all the stakeholders including those in the wider community as well as housing providers, managers, and those living and working within the facility. An effective remedial and preventive program must be comprehensive and engage the whole residential community and beyond.
What “causes” bullying?
So, if bullies only seek to improve their status and their tactic is to dominate and inflict pain on others; and good leaders provide a useful function and provide benefits to help the group survive---why does bullying emerge? Or more usefully, under what conditions does bullying emerge?
Some people (including resident, staff, manager, owner) will use bullying regardless of the context.
Bullying can start with housing providers who hire and fail to supervise poorly trained managers who use bullying to control staff and/or tenants; or who ignore and condone bullying.
Bullying sometimes emerges as an informal system of social control when the formal system is ineffective. Thus, when management is aloof and unresponsive to the needs of residents, people tend to come together in groups and create an informal set of rules and interventions. At Bleak House, management tended to be out of the picture and groups like the Guardians and New Guardians created their own version of an informal order.
Bullying emerges when people must adjust to living together and cannot escape; and where there is no shared framework for creating and preserving social order, or where the framework is rejected, or where managers choose to use bullying as a means of control. Insecurity and fear are driving forces. Bullying also emerges as a way to prevent change and preserve a toxic environment. Insofar as bullying and mobbing are features of certain social systems and types of institution, change must address the whole institution.
Criteria for a healthy community
A bullying-free community can flourish as a well-regulated, open environment in which bullying is not allowed to gain a foothold under a positive, caring, collaborative, and comprehensive approach to management. Everyone shares responsibility and no person—housing provider/landlord, manager, staff, resident, visitor, or others either bullies or is bullied. Everyone is respectful of all others.
The underlying assumptions are based on the civil rights of all persons and additional protections created in Federal, state, or local law (such as Fair Housing Law) and administrative rules (of HUD, other federal state and local agencies). Everyone is entitled to peaceful enjoyment in their home. Persons living with disability are entitled to reasonable accommodations. Persons who have difficulties in social interactions may well be entitled to professional support as well as some leeway from their neighbors. People whose disabilities or health status pose a challenge for their neighbors, are nevertheless entitled to appropriate support and intervention so that they can continue to live independently without disturbing their neighbors. Bullying, however, deprives others of their rights, and is not protected behavior.
There are five key elements needed to stop bullying and create a healthy community; these ingredients help to create a polity, a form of governance with accepted norms and rules that are enforced, and with a means to resolve disputes.
- housing provider and all agents take responsibility, and there is external oversight;
- there is trained, professional support to help resolve conflict, support the growth of a positive community, and to provide necessary social, psychological, and medical support for all residents;
- all residents can participate in a democratic, representative tenants’ association through which they negotiate and collaborate with the housing provider;
- social, educational, and cultural activities organized by residents or staff help to create a healthy community;
- what happens in a residential setting is influenced by the relationship to the surrounding community and the dominant values in that community; and by the actions of the local and state elected legislators and officials.
I have proposed how we might go ahead to better understand and remedy bullying. And I here reach out to you, and ask that you suggest how to adapt or modify these ideas, or to support them.
This essay is based on the book by Jerry Halberstadt, Stop Bullying: Creating Healthy Communities for the Elderly and Disabled, (Peabody: Togethering Press, 2017)