A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Bullying: A Truly Wicked Problem
June 22, 2003
bullying: to intimidate, to abuse. -- Concise Oxford Dictionary
Some years ago, in the course of studying for a Masters Degree in the United States, I came across the concept of a 'wicked problem'. Professors Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber made the distinction between more one-dimensional 'tame' problems and the others-which are complex, have inter-related causes and similarly have devastating effects.
These, the 'messy' ones, are usually by-passed by policy makers, PC-advocates, or planners who prefer the 'tamer' option.
From both personal and professional experience, I now know bullying to be among the most 'wicked' of the myriad of other such problems some of us face, but many others chose to ignore.
The frustrating thing is that so much can be done about this problem, but so little actually is.
Thirty-five years ago, unbeknownst to me, I became a statistic; that is, one of 75 per cent of the population who is bullied. In my case, I joined another set of statistics to become one of ten per cent of those so horribly hunted and abused that the effects became both life threatening and changing.
There are more statistics, but with a human face. The perpetrators, and there were six of them, make up the seven per cent of people who, for complex (make that 'wicked') reasons confuse leadership, strength and power with a delight in persecuting others.
I was in my first year at secondary school in New Zealand. They were second year students. Being an American who wasn't much good at rugby and cricket perhaps made me a marked person. My parents were overseas, and I had one older brother at the same school, but being a boarder meant there was no escape.
And there was none for a year. After the first night of physical, sexual and psychological abuse, the day dawned with even more horrible encounters. These went on for a number of days. I asked for help from teachers, and even my brother, but was given the impression this was "all part of the programme."
So, with very little choice I learned tremendous skills of stealth, hiding and not drawing attention to myself. I also learned how to survive. It all ended after that year. I went back to the United States, but the time bomb started ticking.
I went on to achieve some rather remarkable things, particularly in the context of being told daily while at the school that I was "useless", "a disgrace" etc. Being from a proud and old family I guess I had other messages that also were playing.
The past finally caught up 2½ years ago. My partner and I were on holiday in Fiji, a place we love and the first time we took our little daughter Holly away. I had been very concerned and obsessed with the many 'what ifs' prior to the holiday. In hindsight, being prepared and 'on alert' for the worst possibilities had punctuated my life since the bullying began.
I had done 11 years of martial arts to be prepared for any situation, but the residue of all this was a depletion of my serotonin levels. We arrived and I was like a coiled spring - what if one of those boys trips her? what if she gets lost? what if she drowns? Finally the spring broke.
It was like having a heart attack. Huge chest pains, loss of breath, dizziness. I was rushed to an A&E clinic in Nadi and pronounced in 'good health'. Maybe just a little tired, but you're in great shape, I was told. Just check in with your GP when you're home.
I made that appointment which then began a journey that was both devastating but enlightening. I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and was, in a supportive way, told I was the most traumatised person the doctors had ever seen that wasn't dead or institutionalized. "You must be made of strong stuff," they said.
I had periods of contemplating suicide. I went through situations when I 'took on' bullies everywhere I could, which finally cost me my job. I was a mess.
But then, through a combination of good counseling, good exercise and good medication, I re-learned' how to live life. Strongly, peacefully, with no fears and no expectations. Instead of blending in, I now love standing out, and where I was frightened to give I now love sharing. The experience left me with a desire to find out more about bullying and to fight it where I can. But in a calm, constructive and powerful way.
This is what I have learned about bullying:
1. What it actually is
Bullying is physical and emotional abuse that, stripped of its 'social conditioning' would often amount to criminal violence. Children rank it worse than sexual abuse, and second only to losing a parent as the most traumatic occurrence in their young lives.
2. Its extent
Bullying in New Zealand and around the world is at epidemic proportions. Almost three-quarters of New Zealand school children report being victims of bullying. Its destructive impact on the lives of individuals, families and society is enormous.
3. The 'Blind Eye'
Unlike, for example, social education about domestic violence over the past generation, bullying remains largely socially acceptable as 'part of growing up'. As a society we largely turn a blind eye to the true nature of bullying and its social costs.
4. Bullying harms everyone
Research shows it is bullies, as well as their victims, who suffer with bullies being five or six times more likely to end up in prison. Making New Zealand free from bullying is as much about safeguarding bullies from a life path of anti-social behaviour as it is about protecting those bullied.
So that is how 'wicked' the problem is. Sadly, like so many wicked problems, it takes vision and leadership to make a difference. Facts and evidence say that bullying CAN be stopped. With a group of others sharing a similar vision we're now working to this end-where there is a will there is a way but to date those that could help us make a difference prefer the less messy, 'tamer' view of the world.