MIIS Speaks – Anti-Bullying Approaches

By Jacob Dwyer and Pushpa Iyer

We truly appreciate the time and effort that each of you put into reading, answering, and commenting our polls.

Look out for our next poll on the topic of Conservatives Voices in Academia to let us know your perspective. Click here to read about the topic, and here to take the poll.

Sincere thanks to all those who filled out our most recent survey on the topic of Anti-Bullying Approaches. We received 125 responses to the survey with comments to help illuminate our collective understanding and approach to bullying at MIIS.

Our first question was, “Do instances of bullying (targeting anyone not just yourself) on our campus impact your well-being?”. 47.93% of our community members said they are not impacted by bullying that takes place on campus. A slight a majority (52.07%) report that they are impacted either “A little” (28.1%) or “A lot” (23.97%).

When asked if they feared anti-bullying policies will negatively affect free speech, a majority of respondents replied “No” (61.98%). However, 38.02% of respondents believed that such policies either may affect free speech (17.36%) or will negatively affect it (20.66%).

Lastly, when asked “Do you think we as a community could benefit from trainings on how to be better allies?”, 59.02% thought they would be beneficial while 25.41% of respondents thought that such trainings could be beneficial, and while 15.57% felt that our community would not benefit from this approach.

The comments further illuminated the differences in perspectives that exist on our campus when it comes to bullying. While some respondents were clear that bullying, if it did exist on our campus, did not bother them, others thought we should simply just grow up and not make a big deal of it. Many others are deeply troubled by incidents of bullying and see it as a chronic problem that we must address in some form or the other. Some of the recurring themes from these comments can be found below.

Bullying as a concept is too broad or too narrow

Only a couple of people raised questions about the definition of bullying but we feel it is important to note those here. Their point was that a definition that caused someone else pain or discomfort made it all about perceptions. For some, the definition of bullying needed to be narrowed down to a specific list of approaches used: social media, humor, silence, generic statements but directed against someone. Bullying seems to manifest very particularly and uniquely in each instance, and this vagueness reflected in what the respondents identified as bullying. It is important to note that the definition of bullying we used in the article is supported by most. The logic here is that if a person experiences pain or discomfort, they have the right to make those emotions known. Policies should not be defining what experiences or emotions are valid, but rather should provide the space to address our differences and foster understanding. Giving our community members the leeway to define their own experiences allows the institute to create space for learning and, eventually, a more inclusive community.

Bullying no longer just takes place in person and what does this say for a policy on Bullying?

Respondents mentioned hearing, witnessing or experiencing bullying on campus, and many of these were references to bullying on social media. Perhaps given the availability of sites like Facebook where hundreds can read posts and comments, instances of bullying are more frequent and recognizable there than in person. However, the shift to the virtual brings up an important question regarding school policy on Facebook groups, such as the “Official” and “UNofficial” MIIS groups. Does Middlebury’s jurisdiction end when it ventures online? Or does it encapsulate the words and actions of its community members even when they are off campus? California laws are quite exhaustive and are clear that off campus comments, actions and cyberbulling are part of bullying; so, it is now for us as a community to think about how we want to word our institution’s policies.

Bullying is another form of racism, and therefore requires a more nuanced approach.

Some respondents mentioned that the experiences of bullying they had at MIIS took the form of microaggressions, or discriminatory comments typically aimed at an outward identity. Others also mentioned how bullying at MIIS frequently targeted international community members, although at least one person mentioned witnessing contra-bullying where an international student bullied an American student. That bullying is connected to race, ethnicity and other identities is the most distributing aspect of bullying on our campus. What this suggests is that we need to find solutions to bullying that are tied to the ways we address racism and related discriminatory acts. This makes it very difficult for us to know what comes first – address bullying or address racism?

The ‘Bullying vs. Free Speech’ argument frames the issue incorrectly.

It may be true that the ‘free speech’ argument is used as a way of silencing opposition to discriminatory practices. Free speech in academia refers to our ability to express opinions and views on matters that may be controversial, unpopular or just contentious. But free speech comes with responsibility and any free speech that directly impacts another person and causes fear, pain or hurt is bullying and should be countered. A vast majority of respondents felt that hypothetically speaking, anti-bullying policies would not limit free speech. Nonetheless, when drawing the line between bullying and free speech, it is important to remember Chief Justice Warren Burger’s decision in Bethel School District v. Fraser: “Even the most heated political discourse in a democratic society requires consideration for the personal sensibilities of the other participants and audiences.”

Training may be good, but have to weigh the costs with the benefits.

Many respondents found that training could be beneficial for the community when answering the above question. However, respondents raised the question, “Training For whom?” and “By Whom?” Some respondents felt that training should be focused on allyship and we agree. Bullying thrives when there is no one to stand for the one being bullied. The challenge in our institution is to ensure that many people take advantage of these training opportunities. Another concern raised by a respondent, which we believe is a crucial one, is to ensure that the institution does not organize a training to just check off a box. Yet another respondent referred to the most common and consistent critique against diversity and other related trainings and that is that by attending trainings alone you don’t change the attitudes of individuals. All very important concerns that must be considered when taking steps to address bullying on our campus.

Instances of bullying can affect the morale of the campus.

Although a sizable number responded that they were not impacted by bullying at MIIS, many in the detailed comments section mentioned the degree to which bullying affected them even if they were not personally attacked. One respondent mentioned how, although it may not affect their well-being, such instances affected the campus morale, thereby negatively affecting them too. Others mentioned how bullying, regardless of the target, negatively affects the victim’s work, which then impacts the educational experience of MIIS community members. From this perspective, comprehensively addressing bullying at MIIS will consequently make the overall climate of our campus more inviting and productive.

Overall, it does seem that we need to develop some concrete definitions and policies in our  efforts to end bullying on our campus. We need to be more informed, trained and legally backed. The need of the hour is action – we have to act, speak up and stand up against the bullies as a collective. Let us hope that all of our members will become part of this collective and that none in our community will carry the title of “bully.”