Jonathan Kay, National Post opionator, never misses an opportunity to describe the world in neoconservative terms. Last year he wrote an article about bullying in which he argues that 1) bullying is evolutionarily adaptive 2) anti-bullying messaging programs can’t overcome the pull of evolutionary adaptation and so 3) the only effective tool for bully prevention is threat of punishment.
This is a classic neocon critique of virtually every non-punitive social program. Underlying this critique is an assumption that humans are nasty and brutish clods, and that the only way to regulate our behaviour is to either create markets that incentivize good behaviour, or to punish bad behaviour. This idea is inspired by a hundred-year old half-witted interpretation of evolution by natural selection—that we humans have a fundamental nature that somehow defines the structure modern society. Advocates use this as a tool to squelch all attempts at social welfare. Publicly funded health care? Impossible! Our inner savages will abuse it. Alternative sentencing for minor offences? Ridiculous! It will incentivize criminal behaviour.
Assuming that bullying is adaptive, it still doesn’t follow that threat of punishment is the preferred tool of prevention, particularly for children and adolescents. First, I assume that Kay is mostly referring to non-criminal bullying since criminal acts are already covered by the criminal code. Non-criminal bullying takes a form that is, by virtue of its legal status, harder to quantify as harm. As a result, it may often be difficult to identify it, and indeed, hard to distinguish the bully from bullied. Who called who what first? Who started the fight? Who shot the first spit ball? Even carefully deliberated punishments could end up a form of bullying themselves, particularly when directed against innocent (or even partly innocent) parties. The high profile bullying cases that have made the news in Canada recently are, fortunately, rare, but the more common cases are likely to often reside in a grey and nebulous territory between right and wrong, and will very likely be hard for any figure of authority to identify for the purpose of meting out fair punishment.
Second, and more profoundly, Kay’s dismissal of messaging as a bully prevention tool is a pretty clear logical contradiction. The reason why he and most of us want to stop bullying is because of a widely believed social norm that bullying is wrong. This norm emerged not out of threats of punishment, but through a gradual shift in definition of right and wrong. Sociologists spend their careers trying to understand the cause of these normative shifts, perhaps with little demonstrable success, but it is clear that the communication of shared experience between individual citizens–a form of grass roots messaging–is a necessary part of the process. So even if Kay’s assertion that humans are natural bullies is true, it’s clearly irrelevant since we currently define bullying as wrong in normative terms. The emergence of a near consensus that bullying is wrong is itself evidence that anti-bullying messaging must work in some sense.
Still, Kay suggests that the real problem is the adolescent brain—adolescents are particularly unreceptive to anti-bullying social norms because they are hardwired to use bullying to advance their placement in the “high-school hierarchy”. While he cites some evidence in support of this claim, it remains contentious even among the very authors he refers to. For example, Volk et al. 2012 (one of the studies he cites) do not reject outright the idea that bullies are the “result of impoverished individual or environmental factors” but simply argue that there are bullies of different types–including some who use it to advance their position in the adolescent pecking order. This is the standard nuance we should expect to see from good researchers, but missing from Kay’s analysis. In fact, Volk recently wrote a piece for the Globe & Mail in which he clearly contradicts Kay’s argument, writing that “dollars spent on understanding or on prevention are dollars far better spent than dollars spent on punishment.”
Kay’s generalization about adolescent nature also seems to be an empirical falsehood; high-schools today are not immune to the many changes in social norms that have occurred over the last century—such as an acceptance of racial and gender equity and tolerance towards the gay and lesbian community. A natural extension of Kay’s argument is that high schools should be a hotbed of regressive thinking and conflict on racial grounds, but in fact, high schools have not only changed in line with broader society, in some cases they have pioneered positive social norms in their communities.
Human beings prove very capable of creating social institutions that are generous, cooperative and sympathetic in spite of our genetic selfishness. These institutions should never be condemned because they guide us from our ‘natural’ selves; indeed, that is precisely why they deserve our praise. Kay misused academic research to make broad generalizations about the nature of human adolescent behaviour, and to recommend future policies on bully prevention that are counter-productive. Putz.