One of the most influential psychologists of all time passed away on September 20, at the ripe age of 89. Professor Dan Olweus is not quite a household name, and few people know how to pronounce it properly (ol-vay-us). But he is nevertheless a legend in the field of bullying.
In 2011 and 2012 he received American Psychological Association Awards for Distinguished Contributions, the first for the International Advancement of Psychology, and the second for Research in Public Policy. Bullying researchers treat him with reverence befitting a deity, the absolute authority on bullying. Olweus has helped change the mentality, vocabulary, and behaviour of the modern world.
Just ponder the following graph. It tracks the appearance of the words bully, bullies, and bullying in books from 1800 till today. You will note the asymptotic increase that began in the last decade of the 20th century, when the Olweus approach to bullying began rising in prominence with the emerging awareness that many school shootings are committed by victims of bullying, and that many suicides follow bullying victimization. For this we can thank, in large part, the professional mission undertaken by Olweus.
Amazing, is it not, that there has not been a single mention of Olweus’ passing, let alone a tribute to him, in all the general news media? Though The New York Times has written about him several times during the course of his career, the “paper of record” has so far ignored his passing, as have other newspapers, print and digital. In an age when celebrities can be the center of constant media attention for doing little more than promoting their fame (think of the Kardashians), it is painful to realize that a major shaper of society, after a lifetime of dedicated service, can be so disregarded in death.
Bullying, of course, has always been around. Almost every one of us has revelled in revenge-of-victims-against-bullies stories in both child and adult literature and film. But today, thanks largely to Olweus’ efforts, it is a pervasive part of our lives. These annual bullying awareness months have led to bullying overtaking drugs as the number one fear of parents. Bullying has become a common topic of news stories. All branches of mental health fields now give serious consideration to the role of bullying in causing emotional harm and trauma.
Awareness of the need to protect people from bullying has moved beyond school to the workplace and even the home, with talk of sibling bullying, elder bullying, spousal bullying, teachers bullying students, students bullying teachers, teachers bullying teachers, parents bullying their children, and children bullying their parents.
Even more significant is the impact of the anti-bullying laws for which Olweus advocated. All 50 states of the U.S. and many nations have passed school anti-bullying laws, and there is ongoing pressure to pass workplace anti-bullying legislation as well. These laws are related to the definitions, assumptions, and recommendations of Olweus.
Laws are among the most consequential of all interventions. Once a law is passed, it is difficult to repeal. It must be obeyed under threat of punishment by the government. Thus, schools the world over are using Olweus’ approach to bullying. It’s precisely the anti-bullying law that has made Olweus so influential. There are no laws requiring the public to implement the teachings of Freud, Skinner, Beck, or Maslow. But we are now mandated, in a sense, to implement the teachings of Olweus. And his influence is growing by the day, with nations steadily joining the Olweus-spawned campaign against bullying.
Considering his profound influence throughout the world, Olweus certainly deserved tribute in the news upon his death. The public, who overwhelmingly support the anti-bullying movement that Olweus spawned, certainly deserve to be informed about Olweus. Especially in National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month Olweus’s death is the most significant bullying story of all.
Unfortunately, Olweus’s legacy has not necessarily made us better off. I’ll explain why in my next article.