Bullying, Power & Civility

Bullying reflects a power imbalance. The perpetrator uses a power base to dominate another person. That power base may be physical strength, social status, or a way with words. In some cases, it may be as simple as being willing to act badly towards others.

Another quality of bullying is that is not legitimate. When someone exerts legitimate authority, the bullying label doesn’t fit, although it may be unpleasant. If you are driving too fast, a traffic cop has a legitimate duty to impose upon you. That action in itself is not bullying, despite being a power imbalance. But if the cop says insulting or threatening words, those actions would go beyond the legitimate use of power.

Anti-bullying laws provide a strategy for leveling the power imbalance. By giving legal recourse to people who feel bullied, the laws put the power of the state behind those on the receiving end of intimidating or humiliating behavior. Within schools, it puts pressure on administrators to take action where previously they may have tolerated bad behavior. Within workplaces, it gives recourse to employees, especially when managerial authority is the power base for bad behavior. In short, anti-bullying laws can give a potential for action for people who want to address intimidating and humiliating behavior.

The strategy has its limits. Here’s just a few:

  1. Legal Action is Costly. It takes a lot of time, energy, and money to take legal action. Few are willing to endure the process.
  2. Legal Action is Uncertain. Legal action does not always produce justice. People take on a risk when pursuing a legal option even when they have a legitimate case.
  3. Definitions are Fuzzy. In everyday speech, the definition of bullying has expanded to include a vast range of unpleasant behaviors. A specific instance or issue may fall outside the legal definition. Fuzzy definitions add to the uncertainty.
  4. Legal Sanctions may not Work. A conviction and punishment for bullying may not improve perpetrator’s future behavior.

It’s hard to stamp out bad behavior. Some forms of incivility are subtle. The most subtle occur in the absence of behavior: neglecting to greet someone can come across as very rude. Although it is possible to address physical and verbal aggression with legal sanctions, current concerns with bullying go much further.

A more lasting and thorough alternative is to promote civility and respect at schools and at work. An active group process can bring people together to identify their challenges in being a community. It can help members of a group to create constructive ways of working together. A culture of respect is a valuable thing for any community. It occurs through positive action, not simply by banning bad behavior. The CREW approach helps to build civil communities.


  1. Dear Dr:

    Three weeks ago, I’ve had a workshop about bullying with 16 – 18 years old students.
    One student asked my opinion about an usual expresion here in Mexico:”First me, then me, and at last..me”. It’s an expresion of individualism that justifies to have no respect for other people, in order to achieve our goals. I’ve said that this point of view doesn´t let us see that we are in risk if other people think in the same way, because they wouldn’t respect us in the pursuit of their personal goals. Civility allow us to achieve more personal and collective goals at the same time, instead of only one.This agreement promotes respect, confidence, self- steem and motivation to reach new goals.

  2. Heriberto
    You make excellent points on the importance of appreciating the contributions of your colleagues. Doing so requires people to get out of their more self-centered view of the world to appreciate another’s perspective. This is important when driving in traffic as well as in working as a team.

    A difficulty is that people need more guidance in developing that appreciation. As you note, a generous attitude does not simply develop on its own.

Leave a Reply