Bullies abound in the Comox Valley, and they come in many disguises, such as mayors or other elected officials, nonprofit board members, popular high school students or managers of businesses large and small.
There are so many bullies these days, especially lurking around social media sites, that studies report more than 60 percent of high school students have been bullied and more than 70 percent of Canadians fear for their psychological safety at work.
At a workshop in Cumberland this week, organized by Village Mayor Leslie Baird, a mixed-gender panel of six Comox Valley residents shared their experiences of being bullied.
The panelists, who wished to remain anonymous, represented a wide spectrum of people in business, nonprofits and schools. And although their experiences revolved around a variety of circumstances — poverty, race, power differentials, gender — a number of common threads wove their stories together.
Bullying behavior feels like “the new normal,” according to the panelists.
One panel member suggested it was a “rough and tumble part of life” because humans have evolved as pack animals that prey on those who don’t belong, or fit in or who present a threat to conformity.
Another panelist said this pack mentality was evident in the cyber world where personal attacks and degrading comments are now so common they have become accepted.
“It’s got to the point where, if I don’t have to read a negative comment, it’s a good day,” she said. “There’s something wrong about that.”
While individual panelists said they had been bullied for a variety of different reasons — for example, racism and poverty — the underlying motivation was similar: People whose power comes from defending the pack’s standards are uncomfortable with those who don’t conform or fit in.
Simply wearing the wrong clothes in high school, perhaps because a student can’t afford the latest styles, can be seen as a threat that needs to be attacked.
The panelists also touched the issues of how to recognize when you or someone else is being bullied, and the moral dilemma of how to respond or intervene.
“I pick up signs when bullying is going on. I get uncomfortable. My hair starts to stand up,” said one panelist. “Bullying can sneak up on you.”
Another panelist said, “You know when you’re being bullied.”
And when a person is bullied, some people shut down. They can’t think fast enough to react in the moment. Only later do they think of all the things they should have said.
That’s why the panel agreed that bystanders to bullying play an important role in shutting down the bully and supporting the bully’s target.
Even showing non-verbal availability of support, such as making eye contact with the bully, or standing near the target, can diffuse the situation, panelists said.
One panelist, who has expertise in this area, offered an acronym for action in bullying situations: STAC.
“Steal the show by taking the limelight off the bully and creating a distraction. Tell someone that you have been bullied to affirm that it happened and to push out your self-doubt. Accompany the target by showing support. Coach and have Compassion for the bully by helping them see the consequences of their behavior, and how the other person felt,” she said.
Mayor Baird thanked the panel for sharing their personal stories, some of which brought tears, and the audience of about 40 for their interest. Baird organized a similar workshop last year.