Marjorie Harness “Candy” Goodwin, author of a recent ethnography of girls on a playground, joins our growing pool of Savage Minds “occasional contributors” with the following response to a recent NY Times Magazine article, “In Defense of Teasing.”
Dacher Keltner in his recent article on teasing in the New York Times magazine argues that “in seeking to protect our children from bullying and aggression, we risk depriving them of a most remarkable form of social exchange.” While ritual insult or trash talking among friends (as Labov told us long ago) can serve important functions by communicating complaints about someone in a playful and indirect way, there is often a murky line between ritual and personal insult. As Donna Eder (in her book School Talk) has alerted us, whereas the intent of the actor of a tease may be friendly, a recipient may interpret it as a hurtful insult, and not necessarily show the pain. Jaana Juvonen, my colleague in psychology at UCLA, who has done extensive research on bullying among elementary school and middle school children (see for example her book Peer Harassment in School: The Plight of the Vulnerable and Victimized edited by Juvonen and Sandra Graham, feels that (counter Keltner) there is not any easy way to distinguish teasing from bullying, which includes forms of social aggression.
In my own work among elementary school children (The Hidden Life of Girls) in California over a three-year period I also find that what begins as playful may very quickly become harmful. A working class girl who initiates playful ritual insult sequence (“When you grow up you gonna be working at Pick and Save”) might receive in return from girls in a mostly middle class clique hurtful personal insult, alluding to the target’s status as working class, not being able to afford braces, jobless in the future, rejected by everyone, including the gutters, and without friends. When multiple members of a clique ratify a particular version of reality of this sort that is hurtful we come face to face with forms of everyday micro-aggressions that often go unnoticed in “progressive” schools – schools where there are routine exercises is sorting out blue and brown eyed individuals in exercises that promote notions of fairness to all ethnic groups, but never attention to “the hidden injuries of social class.” The girls I studied routinely excluded a working class African American girl they called a “tag-along” and insulted her to her face so that by the end of sixth grade she was often eating alone on the playground during lunchtime. What may be thought to be teasing by some group members, may be experienced as hurtful by the target. The form of recipient response is critical to how we view an activity as either teasing or bullying.