By Maureen Duffy
When can social experiences cause as much suffering and hurt as physical pain? The answer is when they involve rejection and social exclusion. There are endless ways, both small and large, in which people can reject and exclude you and participate in making your life miserable.
- Your mother cuts you off because she didn’t like the way you said something to her and refuses to talk to you for years.
- Your friend — well used to be — invites all your other friends to a party s/he’s having and doesn’t invite you.
- A classmate who tells the other kids that you’re mean and not to hang out with you. S/he ignores your friend request on Facebook or unfriends you.
- Maybe s/he starts a conversation with someone else in the hallway when you pass them by at work and pretends not to notice you. S/he can stay quiet when other co-workers start to distance themselves from you. Later when they really start to gang up on you, s/he does their best to rain trouble down on your head.
These examples of social exclusion are person to person or, in the case of the groups of school kids and co-workers, a group to an individual person. Institutions and organizations can also formalize social exclusion through practices like indoor and outdoor school suspensions; forced leaves of absences and requirements to withdraw from universities; and demotions, firings, and layoffs in workplaces. Invariably, for the person excluded, the experience of rejection will be hurtful. Even the smallest slights and rejections cause emotional pain, if only fleetingly so. The degree of hurt and pain caused by rejection and exclusion is probably related to the degree of importance placed by the rejected person on the individual or group doing the rejecting.
Social rejection and exclusion impede or prevent full participation in social relationships that people regard as important and meaningful. Rejection and exclusion tear at the fabric of belonging and can call into question one’s worth and identity given that social relationships are so central to who we are and to how we make sense of our lives. We are, after all, social beings dependent on others and on membership in a group for our survival. So it isn’t actually a surprise that physical pain and social rejection and exclusion act similarly in the body; they signal pain that signals trouble.
The effects on a person of being rejected or excluded are by this point in time well researched and documented. Social rejection and exclusion are associated with emotional numbness, increased aggression, reduced prosocial behavior, increased anger and reduced impulse control, impaired performance on complex intellectual tasks, sadness, depression, anxiety, reduced immune response, and poorer sleep quality to name just some of the more common consequences. Ongoing social exclusion that is characteristic of workplace mobbing, for example, can be associated with even more severe physical and mental health consequences including cardiovascular disease, post-traumatic stress syndrome, complicated depression and anxiety, and suicide.
Why then, given all that we know about the damaging physical, psychological, and social consequences of rejection and exclusion, do schools and universities continue to formalize and use policies like suspension and “required to withdraw” as routine rather than extraordinary disciplinary practices? In schools, suspensions isolate and exclude kids for offenses ranging from poor academic performance to violation of school rules and regulations to showing symptoms of public health problems like substance misuse. School suspensions segregate and stigmatize kids and outdoor suspensions often leave them to their own devices with little supervision and no intervention to help them learn and grow from whatever they did that got them into trouble. Because they are forms of social exclusion, suspensions hurt children, literally, and there is no evidence that they help them. School suspensions are increasingly being talked about in the context of the “school to prison pipeline” in which the proliferation of zero-tolerance policies and the increasingly tough enforcement of school rules are regarded as criminalizing children at younger and younger ages, and ultimately as pushing them from school into prison.
Most zero-tolerance policies end up being good examples of member-class confusion. The class of behavior is what’s not supposed to be tolerated but it’s the person not the behavior that usually gets kicked out and excluded. For example, suspending or expelling bullies doesn’t stop bullying. Bullying is a complicated social process that is not going to stop by aiming interventions primarily at targeting perpetrators. Similarly, expelling kids for substance misuse is not going to get rid of the problem of drug abuse. Trying to get rid of the problem by getting rid of the person with the problem is a theoretical confusion of logical types that has unfortunate actual consequences and effects.
At the university level, forced leaves of absence and requirements to withdraw for behaviors and offenses similar to those generating suspension at the school level do not fare well under scrutiny either. These disciplinary practices probably have their origins in the archaic practice of “rustication” in which a university student was “sent down,” sent to the country, and banished from the university community for a year or two. The requirement to withdraw is just another form of social exclusion and carries with it the same painful and frequently damaging physical, psychological, and social consequences as any other form of social exclusion. It’s hard to see how the requirement to withdraw is going to help a student learn the proper procedures for constructing academic citations or better manage their relationships with their peers. It’s easy to see how the requirement to withdraw interferes with academic and career trajectories, family and friend relationships, and the sense of being supported and cared about in the world when one makes a mistake.
If we want to hurt young people in schools and universities we will continue to use forms of social exclusion like suspensions and requirements to withdraw as fairly routine punishments that banish them from their primary life-stage communities and stigmatize them in the process. If we want to help young people we will work a lot harder to develop more restorative responses to problematic behavior that help them to reintegrate into their life-stage communities when they become estranged from them.
Maureen Duffy is a family therapist, educator, and consultant about school and workplace issues, including mobbing and bullying, and is the co-author of Mobbing: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions. Read her previous blog post “Seven ways schools and parents can mishandle reports of bullying.”