Politics & Law

How not to govern through crime: Insights on bullying

Jonathan Simon

In her New York Times op-ed on bullying (and I presume her book), journalist Emily Bazelon provides a powerful critique of why not to govern through crime and more importantly, some keen insights on alternative ways to govern a problem that has some crime like properties, but other features as well (read it here).

Bullying among children and in schools, on-line, and in person, has become a recent focus of alarm by many parents, schools, and increasingly legislators, often fueled by media reports of children or young people who seriously harmed, or who have taken their own life, after aggressive treatment by peers or adults.  Bullying has many crime like attributes including an identifiable victim, identifiable wrongdoers, harm, and bad motives; but until recently it has not generally been a crime in itself (even though the mechanisms used in some bullying like assaults or threats are undoubtedly crimes, or juvenile violations, under existing law),

teenage girlsWhile bullying has long been a noted feature and minor concern of childhood and schooling, the emergence of a distinctive government-rationality around crime (which I describe as “governing through crime“) in recent decades, has led to laws that compel schools to treat bullying more like a real crime and law that make it a crime.  Generally it is hard to opposed these laws, just as it is hard to oppose most forms of criminalization, because to do so seems to share in the indifference to suffering which is part of the harm of bullying itself.

Bazelon, who has been studying and writing on bullying for several years, focuses her argument  first on the difficulty of defining bullying:

The word is being overused — expanding, accordion-like, to encompass both appalling violence or harassment and a few mean words. State laws don’t help: a wave of recent anti-bullying legislation includes at least 10 different definitions, sowing confusion among parents and educators.

All the misdiagnosis of bullying is making the real but limited problem seem impossible to solve. If every act of aggression counts as bullying, how can we stop it? Down this road lies the old assumption that bullying is a rite of childhood passage. But that’s wrong.

Laws that sweep all manner of behaviors into a box lead to unreliable enforcement and overtime a sense of futility in any effort at  social control.  Given that those boxes once labeled crimes (or even expellable school discipline violations) tend in a society like ours to result in discrimination and exclusion against already demonized segments (boys of color).

Bazelon favors a definition developed by treatment professionals  to includes three elements, physical or verbal abuse, repetition, and power imbalance.  Most legal definitions leave the third out and some even the second.  Both are critical to assuring that the acts involved reflect a concerted and intentional threat rather than just a difficult moment in a changing flow of events.  Bazelon argues that this can also lead us to focus on the wrong features of the situation that are actually placing a child under distress.

But when every bad thing that happens to children gets called bullying, we end up with misleading narratives that obscure other distinct forms of harm.

The exact same problem applies to virtually every crime; the elements of which are always miles wider than the core examples of what most people have in mind by robbery, burglary, or even homicide.

Bazelon also offers some ideas about how schools should address bullying that could have wider application to other social problems that we currently criminalize.

  • listen to bullying victims in trying to define the features of the problem and what solutions matter to them
  • Address the lack of social ties that foster victimization and the lack of empathy that fosters aggression
  • Give victims and potential victims the lead role in developing strategies to end it.

These criteria could apply to issues like gang activity, drug using and dealing, prostitution, and trafficking in migrants which are currently governed primarily through crime.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.

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Comment to "How not to govern through crime: Insights on bullying":
    • Michael

      Jonathan, very interesting article. I think it’s important what you write about how school should address bullying – hope this sparks some conversation and dialogue. We’ll share with some of our students.

      Thanks,

      Michael

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