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The strange case of Karen Klein and the dynamics of soft power

July 17, 2012

Bullying is not a new experience to most of us; as children, we experience it in schools, as adults, we usually experience it in relationships or at our workplace. When I first came across the bullying video, my reaction was horrified silence. I was so disturbed by what I saw that those taunts echoed in my head for hours after. What was it about the Karen Klein case that made us sit up and take notice?

Photo courtesy:  Thomas Ricker (Creative Commons)

Writer: Meera Vijayann

Here’s what; through the entire video, where the boys taunt her repeatedly, you wait for her to do something, hoping that at some point, she rises. But she doesn’t. Similar to our own childhood experiences, she takes the taunting and jeering sitting down. Above everything, from a bunch of sixth graders. When the video went viral, thousands of people clicked away at the donation fund set up by an anonymous benefactor, Max Sidorov, whose website went on to gather over half a million dollars in funds. But questions remain: what is it that made people donate so much without questioning where their funds were going? Why did the children behave the way they did? Is there a lesson to be learnt in Karen Klien’s case? Indeed, there is. 

It is important for us to understand that as a people, we sub-consciously use power in various ways; the parent who scolds the child, the child who bullies his classmate, the hacker who steals information and the doctor who tries to save a life are a few examples. In every aspect of life, we are looking to making ourselves more powerful. Alvin Toffler, a renowned futurist, explains in his popular book ‘Powershift’ that the three basic forms of power are ‘Knowledge, Violence and Wealth’. Largely, this is our understanding of power. But what worked in favour of Karen Klein in the video was ‘soft power’, a kind of power that few people readily identify.

Soft power, in contrast to other forms of power, remains largely behavioural. The children in the bullying video, for example, are in a way representative of a power exercise. In a social environment such as a playground, children first feel the need to act out on their own grasp of power. This need for power escalates as the children become teenagers, which is why teens feel it is important them to be perceived a certain way at school. But does this justify the cruel act of these children to simply say that it’s only human that we all exercise power in any way we can? Certainly not. But it has to do more than the lack of good parenting and discipline; it is that children aren’t taught to be empathetic.

Empathy is a quality that must be cultivated at a very young age. It gives children an early understanding of moral decisions that they need to make as members of a society. Dr. Lawrence Kutner, a renowned clinical psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School, points out in this piece that ‘To empathize with someone is to understand what he is feeling or, more properly, to understand what you would feel like if you were in his situation. Children who are empathic tend to do better in school, in social situations, and in their adult careers. The aggressive child does not know what to do with the skill he’s been developing.[An] other child’s pain makes him feel uncomfortable. Instead of running away, as he might have done a year earlier, he feels frustrated and lashes out.’

The trouble with the children in the video was exactly this. They were a frightening example of what the world would be if we found negative ways to use our power in a society that needs to come together not disintegrate. Bullying knows no age nor background. If the cases of Tyler Clementi, Phoebe Prince, Karen Klein, Aman KachrooDominic Crouch, and Pvt. Danny Chen, were to teach us anything its that bullying knows no race either. Unbelievably, bullying takes on so many forms as well; racist bullying, cyber bullying, homophobic bullying, teenage bullying and endless other variants.

As far as numbers go, people seem largely ignorant of what is happening around them. A recent global poll noted that Indian kids were the worst victims of cyber bullying with nearly three out of ten parents claiming that their children were victims of cyber bullying. In the United States, 77 percent of students say they were bullied mentally, verbally and physically. A report also claimed that bullying as the biggest problem in American school playgrounds. In the United Kingdom, one in five children have been victims of cyber bullying. Bullying is not limited to youngsters alone. Robin Bonifas, a professor at Arizona State Technology, suggests that almost 20 percent of elders living in care homes face bullying by their peers too.

The Karen Klein story not only opens our eyes to the horrific side of our own nature to exercise superiority by cruel means, and also sheds light on those positive qualities that can help us overcome such negative emotions. In her article ‘Empathy gone viral – The Case of Max Sidorov and Karen Klein‘, Laura Zax writes, ‘Whether viewers saw in Klein a mother, a grandmother, a friend, or even themselves, the outpouring of empathy for the bus monitor from Greece, New York was an inspiring and encouraging reminder that empathy is a natural, native, and widespread human skill.’ In short, the challenge we have ahead of us is one that begins with us.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 18, 2012 3:31 am

    Nice thought! This is an issue I haven’t been able to wrap my head around. I do agree with you about kids cultivating empathy from an early age. My only question is: Can empathy be successfully instilled in the minds of immature adolescents? We can all know, at that age, what empathy means, but to understand it’s essence is a completely different thing.

    • August 14, 2012 7:05 pm

      Empathy can definitely help instill a sensitivity in children to the world around them. Of course, you are right in saying that to understand its essence is difficult, but it is surely one positive way of shaping a child’s thinking and behaviour. It’s a tough, difficult subject even among parents I guess. Most of the time, they are blamed for the choices and actions of their children, which is quite unfair.

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