This month’s cover story is on bullying, a terrible societal concern among our youths, but also one that still occurs regularly in the adult population. Although some studies indicate that physical bullying is declining among school-age youths, relational aggression and cyberbullying have yet to peak. The humiliation experienced by victims of any kind of bullying is devastating — at any age.
One of the factors often linked to bullying behaviors is the environmental context. People who experience bullying behaviors do not feel safe in their environments. They also feel disempowered to make the behaviors and insults stop. We have made great strides in passing policies and codes of conduct, but we have a long way yet to go.
Unfortunately, bullying is not an act that occurs just between the bully and the victim. Bystanders and witnesses (youths and adults) perpetuate and support this behavior by failing to intervene. The same is true in relational aggression, cyberbullying and even gossiping — all are aimed at destroying the social connections of the victim. Making society a more peaceful and equitable place requires constant vigilance; quick, thoughtful actions; and mutual respect among all people. How we deal with conflict, gossip and the people affected is a reflection of who we are as professionals — and as human beings. We would never treat our clients and students that way; there is no place for physical or relational aggression in the safety of a confidential counseling relationship based on genuineness, respect and empathy.
As a professional community, we are a microcosm of this larger society and have the opportunity to create an environment for respectful, peaceful discussions about issues of importance to express opinions and forge consensus. Often we are successful; sometimes we fail. Some of you are aware of the recent conflicts that have played out on professional Listservs, where counseling professionals have engaged in what I can only describe, in the politest terms, as uncivil discourse. Although I heartily support freedom of speech, the tone of the “discussion” on one Listserv led to dozens of people leaving the Listserv altogether. I imagine many, many more removed themselves without signing off publicly. This incident made me recall that just because we have the freedom to say something doesn’t mean that we have to — or even should. There truly is a difference between a right and a responsibility.
ACA is committed to sustaining the environmental context of respectful discourse that our members expect — one that treasures the richness that comes from diverse thoughts and perspectives aimed at elevating our clients and students through legislative and social justice initiatives. The “soft launch” of ACA’s exceptionally improved website in mid-January is a testament to this mission. It provides cutting-edge professional information, such as the new ACA Practice Briefs, and allows groups of members to connect in safe environments for educational, professional and interpersonal development.
ACA respects and values the diverse beliefs of our members and believes the path to meaningful professional and social change is through engagement, discussion, collaboration and thoughtful, proactive professional and legislative initiatives. This path is the polar opposite of physical, cyber- and relational aggression. Words mean things; behaviors matter. How we treat others and mind our manners are extensions of who we are at our core.
My deepest hope is that from these events, a culture of civility, nurturance and forgiveness will continue to be forged, and that ACA, its divisions, branches and professional partners will continue to represent a place where all members feel welcome and where all voices — not just the most persistent, the loudest and certainly not the rudest — can be heard. We need to model for our students, clients and each other how to resolve conflict productively and create an environment of safety, respect and support. It all starts and stops with each and every one of us.