Bully decoder

Parenting guru Barbara Coloroso says there’s a thin line between classroom thugs and genocide perps

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What does the macho kid calling the skinny boy “faggot” in the playground have in common with Hitler?

Bullying. That’s Barbara Coloroso’s opinion anyway. The parenting guru has translated the tenets of her book The Bully, The Bullied And The Bystander for the international stage in her Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History Of Genocide.

Heartsick over mass killing in Kenya and the rest of Africa, she brings her schoolyard warnings to Toronto in a Hope for Rwanda’s Children funder Monday (February 11, see Events, page 26.)

As we consider the implications of the Falconer report and grapple with the fact that young bystanders stay silent about violence and gang sexual assaults, Coloroso offers her prescription for stopping demeaning gang-ups, here and on the world stage.

We’re not long into our conversation before she lambastes George W. Bush. Look at the bully’s list of qualities, she tells me. Check them off and you’ll see he’s one of the worst.

“Sense of entitlement: ‘I’m the one who decides.’ Liberty to exclude: ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us.’ Intolerance of difference: ‘It’s my way or the highway,’ all of which gives Bush permission to do further harm and increase the aggression. And, amazingly, he pulls it off,” she says on the phone from her Colorado home.

But she warns against confusing bullying with ordinary interpersonal animosities.

“Usually, whenever there was a bullying problem at a school, you’d bring someone in to do conflict resolution. But that’s not going to help in a situation where people are demonizing other people. Bullying isn’t about conflict it’s about one group with power treating another group as if they weren’t human beings.”

The paradigm Coloroso uses in her book identifies three archetypes in a recurring scenario and applies them specifically to acts of genocide. The bullies are the perpetrators, the bullied are the victims and the bystanders are all those people who could but do not resist.

The worst situations occur, she says, when you have two bullied bullies – the least liked of the bully types – pitted against each other. Think the Middle East.

“People being bullied respond in one of two ways,” she says. “When targeted individuals are repeatedly tormented, most go into despair – even commit suicide. Fewer strike back.

“The school shooter syndrome [is an example of striking back] and exactly what happened at Columbine. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were targeted first by members of the high school football team, Eric from the day he arrived at the school. Classic situation: high-status students who had complete contempt for the boys they degraded.

“The degraded kids who strike back, these are the kids who are feared the most, the kids who can’t take it any more, who turn their experience into contempt for others. And who gets blamed? Did anybody even bring up the issue of the football players? No, people went directly after the parents of the two shooters.

“Parents tell me, ‘I’d know if my kid had a gun.’ And I asked one of them, ‘How old is your kid?’ ‘Five years old.’ I said, ‘Come back to me when he’s 16.’”

I’m wary of Coloroso’s paradigm, only because it doesn’t take into account crushing poverty, cruel racism or any of the other barriers that can prevent cooperative behaviour.

But Coloroso says that when she talked to rescuers in Rwanda, people who had shielded potential victims, she discovered that poverty is not a variable when it comes to bucking a bullying trend.

“I met young adults who as boys rescued adults, hid them and fed them bananas. I met a woman who rescued a newborn. When asked why she took the risk of giving aid to a Tutsi, she said, ‘This isn’t a Tutsi, it’s a baby, and I’m a mother.’ This was a woman living in extreme poverty.

“And I talked with people who said only, ‘I did what I had to do. That’s the way I was raised.’”

Which is why her next project deals expressly with how to raise resisters. As one of her starting points, Coloroso makes a useful distinction between values that are taught and values that are caught. You can teach kids not to discriminate all you want, but what you show them may matter more.

“How do you treat people who work for you? You can say, ‘Don’t be bigoted,’ but your children are watching.

“What do you do when someone tells a racist joke at a family dinner? You have to speak up even though you know everybody’s going to roll their eyes and tell you to get over it. I always know I’m on the right track when I walk into a room and everybody shuts up.”

Not that social change ends with what happens at the dinner table.

“It’s not just about the family. It’s about community, it’s about culture,” Coloroso explains.

“It’s even better when you have a whole country. Jean Chretien did an amazing thing when he refused to send troops to Iraq.

“I was so impressed, I sent him flowers.”

Audio Clips

On the difference between bullying and conflict:

Genocide in Kenya?

Download associated audio clip.

On America’s control of info on the Iraq war:

Download associated audio clip.

On suicide bombers:

Download associated audio clip.


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