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COPA Blog Repost: Bullying as Lateral Violence

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From COPA’s Capsule Families Series 2.

Those most at risk of lateral violence in its raw physical form are family members and, in the main, the most vulnerable members of the family: old people, women and children. Especially the children. 

-Marcia Langton, Australian Aboriginal activist, researcher and writer

COPA is a violence prevention education agency. Since 1995 we have been advocating for human rights, and in particular children’s rights by providing schools in Ontario with a unique and carefully conceptualized repertoire of programs and multimedia resources for students and adults.

These resources address the kinds of violence that children and youth are most likely to encounter; that is, all types of violence. Our strategies for addressing the issue of violence are based on a well-developed rights-based analysis, acknowledging young people’s minority status in society, as well as the intersection of vulnerability experienced by other marginalized groups. Strategies are carefully designed to challenge social factors of vulnerability that precipitate inequity and exclusion for a range of social groups whose members may experience many forms of violence and abuse.

Since its inception in 1995, COPA has been working with a range of adults affiliated with Ontario’s school system to articulate a feminist analysis of violence as an expression of power and control that manifests as a social problem. Those who hold less power and control in our society are more likely to experience violence – of all kinds. Those who are on the outskirts of our power centres are also more likely to perpetrate violence. This is known as lateral violence:

Lateral violence is a term that describes the way people in positions of powerlessness, covertly or overtly direct their dissatisfaction inward toward each other, toward themselves, and toward those less powerful than themselves.

COPA argues that bullying is a form of lateral violence; bullying in schools is widespread and symptomatic of children’s minority social status. Though far from an effective strategy, bullying by young people is violence perpetrated laterally – that is, against their peers – those who are more vulnerable than the perpetrators. It is a form of asserting social control.

Why do people who bully others typically choose those who are more likely to be ostracized by others, are thought of as different, and perceived as weaker or more fragile? Power over others is more easily asserted this way. Ironically, those who are bullied in greater numbers are those whose lower social status is further compounded by inequities related to gender, class, ethnicity, religious, civil status or sexual identity and orientation, physical or intellectual ability, etc.

Many adults continue to be surprised by the amount of cruelty we hear about among children. When asked if bullying is suddenly an epidemic, at COPA we answer that is as widespread as violence in adult milieux.

Bullying is not a mysterious ailment that attacks our society. It is embedded in social patterns of inequity that we often unwittingly perpetrate. Children – and all people – express themselves in destructive ways, when they feel angry, invisible, helpless and desperate. Children learn cruel behaviour from us, the big people, their role models.

Children who are raised in safe, strong and free environments tend to be less abusive, and exhibit more kindness and respect for others. They are more likely to be accepting and inclusive, and are less likely to hurt others, to target them and try to cause them pain and suffering, or to join in with others who do so. Research also shows that warm family relationships and positive home environments help to buffer children from the negative outcomes associated with bullying*.

Babies are not born as ‘bullies’; in fact, increasing numbers of studies show that we are born with a physiological capacity and evolutionary need to be empathic. Children who systematically terrorize others as a reaction are doing so in order to assert control where they can. Terrorizing them in response accelerates this vicious cycle. Conversely, fostering environments within which each person has a meaningful place, is welcome and feels that they belong is an essential step in the opposite direction – hand in hand with the recognition that social inequity is at the root of bullying.

We can challenge the cycle of violence that we seem to tolerate in all realms of our society and sometimes even perpetrate. In this way we will undo the complicated web of abuse that constitutes bullying and peer violence. Recognizing children as a group of people with marginal social status is central to our understanding. Creating conditions for meaningful change is essential to creating safe, strong and free schools, homes and communities all around us.

* L. Bowes, B. Maughan, A. Caspi, T. Moffitt and L. Arsenault, “Families Promote Emotional and Behavioural Resilience to Bullying: Evidence of an Environmental Effect,” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 51:7 (2010): 809-17.

COPA’s whole-school program, The CAP (Child Assault Prevention) Project and its follow-up whole-school program ACT (Adults and Children Together) explicitly address the issue of peer violence and bullying. COPA also offers a day-long bullying prevention workshop for teachers (The Power to Change) and a shorter session for parents (Strategies for Change). ContactCOPA for access to our programs and multimedia resources.

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