An entire industry has recently emerged to exploit bullying. Filmmakers, politicians, lobbyists, corporations that sell in-school programs, authors, social media marketers, and others, hawk their wares—they all promote themselves under the guise of fighting the problem. In New Jersey, for example, anti-bullying policies cost school districts more than $2 million in 2012 just to implement a law that involved little more than extra staff. One consistent element is that "solutions" such as this one never explicitly regard bullying as a symptom. As such, when causes are discussed, they are couched in terms of character defects. They insist that bullies feel bad about themselves, have deep insecurities, and crave attention. In some instances, the culture of the school is said to play a role, but only to the degree that it allows for bullying to thrive as opposed to contributing to its creation.
Just like failing to acknowledge that boxers are frequently punched in the head, the dominant cause of bullying is the elephant in the room. Children are confined in schools, often against their will, and deprived the capacity to make choices that affect their lives, yet policymakers ignore these conditions when analyzing their behavior. Responsible scientists who study animals are keenly aware of the possible impact of the captive laboratory environment on their subjects, which includes the capacity to foment violence. Yet, inconceivably, the captive environment of school is rarely, if ever, taken into account by researchers or faculty when assessing the behavior of students.
The most widespread catalyst for bullying is when adults render children powerless and subject them to an environment from which they cannot escape. As much as some people might try to deny this blatant reality, many students have absolutely no power in schools. The law requires children to be in a place many of them do not want to be, where they must associate with people they do not like, and where they must take arbitrary orders in a docile manner.
People have a fundamental need for a sense of power over their lives and a need for self-determination. Deprived of agency, many will bully others to attain some feeling of control over their lives. This basic understanding of human nature is scandalously absent not just from a bulk of the books and research on bullying, but also from intervention programs, media coverage, and classroom discussions.
Policies and solutions designed to deal with bullying have drawn from this outrageously distorted conception. Legislators typically favor creating a climate of intolerance. In this framework, efforts to define the problem are so off-base that even playful derogatory banter among friends has been regarded as bullying. Another approach involves the creation of a "snitch" culture in which everyone is encouraged to report incidents they witness. This breeds anxiety and paranoia because every observation is subjective. The remaining rhetoric is deceptive and misguided in that it ultimately forces the children to find peaceful solutions in an environment where "nobody should be mean to others."