The Myth of Bullying and Harassment: Redefining Masculine Culture in Schools
The Alphas, The Betas, and The Gammas
If schools are to provide a space in which boys can reflect upon masculinity and sexual identity, they need to deliberately consider boys’ experiences as sons and brothers within their families and as lovers and sexual partners and members within their communities. Teachers and administrators and school counselors also need to assume the responsibility for unpacking masculine culture and eventually severing the ties between masculinity and violence during the course of a child’s school day.
There are several myths that need to be tackled in order to address this work. They have to do with how boys narrowly categorize themselves within the frameworks of social relationships. We need to understand when boys are actually voluntarily willing to break free from these destructive tendencies and narratives, such as, but not limited to, bullying and sexual harassment.
Typically, boys divide themselves into three fairly rigid social groups which serve the specific purpose of maintaining patriarchal constructs: Alphas, Betas, and Gammas.
Teachers and administrators and school counselors also need to assume the responsibility for unpacking masculine culture and eventually severing the ties between masculinity and violence during the course of a child’s school day.
Alphas are leaders who set the social and therefore academic agenda as well. They are often admired (and praised) for some perceived strength which also makes them admired by both other students and adults in schools. It can be academic strength, verbal skills, sports prowess or physical size and stature or other achievements. Their ways of utilizing that leadership and status can be positive, negative, or both. They can use their status as tools for a positive social agenda or as weapon to denigrate others and create judgemental or even violent hierarchies, where intimidation, physical and sexual assault can be used to control or maintain power over others. The cliche of the top dog or the leader of the pack holding on to some deep seeded insecurity which fuels his behaviors is mostly unwarranted.
Betas are alpha wannabes.They dress like alphas, attempt to use language like alphas but often lack both the self confidence and skills to assert themselves like alphas. In attempts to ward off becoming the target of alphas, they assume these narrow definitions of their emerging masculine selves and often support and execute the denigrating work of alphas to protect themselves. When these boys are asked privately, they can often express and verbalize a very different value set than the way they act in school. They go along to get along even though they do not necessarily believe that the way they are acting is right or appropriate.
Gammas are the targets. They do not present as fitting into heteronormative frameworks. They may present as feminized in some manner or form. Everything from mannerisms to verbal tones to interests do not align and adhere to binary presentations and performative productions of emerging manhood. They present more than just a challenge to alphas, but an affront. In other words, alphas must do something about gammas and treat them in a certain manner in order to keep their power, maintain codes and structures, and assert their authority over others.
In attempts to ward off becoming the target of alphas, they (betas) assume these narrow definitions of their emerging masculine selves and often support and execute the denigrating work of alphas to protect themselves.
The behaviors and actions that maintain these systems can be overt. Bullying, physical and sexual violence (one in five men report being sexually harrassed or assaulted by the time they are eighteen and these are the ones with the courage to tell their stories.) There are also more subtle uses of language, social norms, and responses used by both adults and students that reinforce this structure. A good example is when boys get into a fight or one boy physically attacks another, it is often dealt with as a normal form of human self-expression, almost praised for its honesty and directness.* This rationalization is maintained for males. When women fight, it is dealt with as a psychological pathology. The bar for intervention with male violence is so high that males have to go on murderous rampages before we are willing to identify it as a sickened mental state.
And, there have been a number of popular myths that make us feel as if there is nothing we can do about these behaviors in schools in order to create a different reality for our schools.
Myth #1: Boys will not step up against other boys who bully and marginalize other students.
False: When boys see some direct impact on something within school which is of value to them, they will speak up. They seem more than capable to interrupt bullying and disruptive behavior when there is a value to it, whether academic or social. The reward must outweigh the risk. A good example is classroom behavior where boys feel that another student is disrupting class to assert his power over classroom dynamics. If other boys feel that the outcomes of this disruption will impact future academic success or standing in the class, they will speak up.*
Myth #2: Confrontation with adults in schools is just for excitement or goofing around.
False: There is real value to this behavior which we do not recognize or acknowledge. The questioning of authority inside of the alpha-beta-gamma paradigm is a form of psychic income used to establish social power.
Myth #3: Females are just innocent bystanders or victims in this social construction.
False: Females can play a role in supporting this dynamic in very destructive ways. They can also suffer or benefit from their positions in this dynamic within the social dynamic of schools.
Myth #4: The failing or struggling or insecure student is the main culprit. They are just compensating for feelings of social or even economic inferiority by being cruel and violent towards others.
False: The more sophisticated and developed the social skills and acumen, the more likely the bully. This gamesmanship takes intelligence. These are males who are invested in maintaining this system of power because they benefit from it significantly.
Myth #5: These incidents are happenstance and occur randomly. They are not planned or intentional. These are just kids.
False: The actions of boys are far from indiscriminate. Their actions are calculated, then executed in places where they know they can do so. The environment matters. If there is lots of bullying going on, it is fostered through an adult vacuum of presence and attentiveness and therefore supported by the culture of the school. Schools should not just jump to blame the community or home life for the violent behavior of a student towards others. The people who work in schools also create the circumstances where such behavior is acceptable and can flourish.
Beyond the fact that they cause damaging experiences for their peers, the greatest danger is that these alphas are rehearsing and practicing, preparing for adult versions of this violence which yielded clear benefits when they were younger. Why not continue? Schools are the practice facilities and experimental playgrounds for patriarchal beliefs and misogyny. So, what can we do? How can schools fill the vacuum and create experiences which at least minimize these types of attitudes & behaviors?
1. Don’t just protect your gammas, which they have a right to be. Normalize and promote them. It amazes me that most schools have banners hanging in the gym and trophy cases in the hallways just for the sports teams. Sometimes you’ll see a plaque for the excellence of a school newspaper or the robotics team. Have “homecoming” events for other activities at your school such as arts and drama. Hang banners for student achievement in many fields which sends a message about a more diverse set of values. Make your gammas proudly front-and-center, acknowledged members of your community.
Schools are the practice facilities and experimental playgrounds for patriarchal beliefs and misogyny.
2. Identify and work with your male betas. They are the largest segment of your school population, and they are also the most unacknowledged and unrecognized group as well. We are either hoisting our heroes or running around with the troublemakers or having to support children who are victimized. Betas are kids who do well enough to get by, they sit on the sidelines, when they act out it is often to please their peers. We need to see them and point out that under the false disguise of an alpha, we know they can rise to be their best selves.
3. Promote and publicly acknowledge your upstanders. The students who stand up for others. It is not their job to fix the culture of the school, but when they support the values you seek and desire, they should be recognized in a timely fashion. They need plaques on walls, mentions and rewards at assemblies. There are often not a lot of them. They are the students who stay away from the Alpha-Beta-Gamma game. The school should provide opportunities and incentives for young males to assume this role. Ironically, boys are more likely to step up when needed in difficult situations than females. Call it the First Responder Principle. Make these behaviors the centerpiece of the school’s value system. Then, schools can make the alphas, betas, and gammas feel as if there is a new game in town.
* Lunneblad, J. & Johansson, T. (2019) Violence and gender thresholds: A study of the gender coding of violent behavior in schools. Gender and Education. Routledge. 1 (vol. 33) 2021
*Gilbert, R & Gilbert, P. Masculinity Goes To School. (1998). London. Routledge. 172