I came across Zan Azlee’s article in my Twitter timeline on Friday. It wasn’t hard for the title to catch my attention. Bullying was making its annual run for the headlines but this year was most distressing. There were immediate, affirmative responses from the police force, institutions and government; one major case saw significant judiciary progress. Why this still happens is – unfortunately – a popular narrative on social media; the country trying in vain to understand these seemingly evergreen aggressive behaviors among our youths.
Where are we lacking in existing preventive and punitive measures against bullying at schools? Or are we not looking at this the right way – that bullying is not just an issue on its own; it’s also symptomatic of society’s general disposition and attitude?
Does Zan have a case here – that our youths are bullying because they are emulating us?
“Most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others, one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.”
Above is the key concept in Albert Bandura‘s social learning theory. One of the most influential psychologists ever, he is only behind Skinner, Freud and Piaget as the most cited psychologist of all time. As he outlined in 1963, social learning theory asserts that learning is not a purely behavioral process; instead it’s a cognitive process that takes place in a social context.
The existing models of social learning during Bandura’s time were limited. He began to focus on how children acquire novel behaviors via social observation. This led to his famous Bobo doll experiments in 1961 and 1963. Using a Bobo doll, he studied children’s behaviors after watching an adult model act aggressively towards the doll. He found that children exposed to the aggressive model were more likely to act in physically and verbally aggressive ways than those who weren’t. He also found – unsurprisingly – that males tend to be more aggressive than females.
It also offered practical working hypotheses – one of them being how children are influenced by violent media.
Social learning theory is influential in socio-economics, organizational behavior and pop culture. Its application includes criminology, management, school psychology and media violence. It is used to create social change using media, such as film and television, by modeling emotional experience. In his 2004 paper ‘Social Cognitive Theory for Personal and Social Change by Enabling Media’, Bandura said media representations gain influence because people’s social constructions of reality depend heavily on what they see, hear and read rather than what they experience directly.
This begs the question – have we used our art to help address aggressive behaviors in our society?
Buli was Afdli Shauki‘s first directorial debut. He adapted messages he learned from the stories of some orphans he visited plus his own childhood self-esteem issues into an existing script, turning it into a film. Buli premiered on 11th March 2004 to a positive reception. It made RM1.6mil, won awards and while it lost out in the Best Film category at Festival Filem Malaysia ke-17, it scooped the Best Screenplay and Best Original Story awards.
Buli was a story about a computer programmer who had been facing self-esteem issues since primary school. He thought those issues have left him until the bully that he had faced during his school days reappeared and started working at the same company. The bully continued his bullying at the workplace and story ends with the programmer eventually overcoming his past and fears with the help of friends and surroundings.
This is a typical example of entertainment-education (portmanteau: edutainment). Pioneered by Miguel Sabido in the 1970s for the Mexican national television, he created the telenovela and soap opera formats to create social change via stories. This has been used worldwide since and is known as the Sabido Method. Sabido credits Eric Bentley for his drama theory, Carl Jung‘s theory of archetypes, MacLean‘s triune brain theory and Bandura’s social learning theory as his influences.
Buli is one of the only few examples of us directly tackling bullying in local films. Its sequel Buli Balik included, the only other films that tackled bullying – directly or indirectly – were the Juvana trilogies starring Zahiril Adzim from 2013 to 2016. Told in a high school setting, the Juvana films were stories about youth rivalry and friendship in the backdrop of socio-economics – gangsterism, delinquancy and poverty. There was also the popular Kami in 2008 starring Liyana Jasmay.
So how do should we look at this? We’ve used media to help create social change but are these enough? Looking back, there is an alarming lack of films that address any social issues – let alone bullying or other aggressive behaviors in youths – constructively, regardless of genre. In fact, the trend since the turn of the century is the exact opposite.
The 2000s was a slow decade. The low film count meant there were lesser films that depicted reality. These films focused on the underground scene, marginalized groups and sub-cultures, introducing the public to the youth lifestyle of the time. From Dari Jemapoh Ke Manchestee and Spinning Gasing to KL Menjerit and Remp-It, there was a somewhat diverse yet limited depiction of youth issues of the decade. None of of these though, aside from the Buli films, looked to create social change a-la Sabido. They mainly tried to tell compelling stories in settings relevant to the decade. While they were socially aware at the time, they may not have been as socially conscious.
This expanded in the 2010s. The industry improved. With accessibility to internet and social media, film making was democratized. The industry had more reach and influence. Gangster films became a huge archetype, followed by rempit films. There were at least 14 films using the word ‘gangster’ or a gang-related term in its titles in the last 6 years alone, while at least 12 others indicated or implied gangsterism, delinquency or other aggressive behavior in their titles.
This is a huge departure from the melodramatic romance popular throughout the 1980s and 90s. The motivation is financial – these films make the best returns on the studios’ cinematic investment.
Legendary Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying, wrote “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”.
Bandura and Sabido have reaffirmed this. Society is a product of the exposure it experiences, its interactions with its surroundings and how it processes these exposure and interactions, which is influenced by its inherent characteristics and values.
The rising trend of aggressive films do not mean much on its own – the above are just 26 films out of over 400 local films produced in the last 6 years alone. But when taken in a bigger context, it paints a more serious picture. A majority of the 400 films deliver on common social stereotypes and archetypes, regardless of genre, story or setting. Questionable characters, out-of-touch stories and writing are common. These perpetuate existing social norms such misogyny, conservatism and mob (or herd) mentality along the race-class divide. Films like Ombak Rindu are celebrated despite its deeply worrying glorification of misogyny, while others like Lelaki Harapan Dunia are criticized for apparently misrepresenting Malays and the kampung life.
There is nothing to discourage the aggressive behaviors, as a matter of fact it reinforces it. This is especially so in the cases where the aggressive behaviors target the weaker social stereotypes such as the poor, the marginalized, the effeminate, sex workers, minorities or those who don’t comply to socio-religious norms. Casual aggressive behaviors and apathetic responses towards them become commonplace as attitudes and societal stereotypes have become normalized.
Compounding this further, television reinforces these stereotypes and norms further via dramas series. This is supplemented by other mainstream media like literary publications in pop culture such as novels and magazines.
The Sabido Method and the social learning theory have been applied in reverse.
In 2013, Oxford Economics reported that the Malaysian film and TV industries contributed (an estimated) RM2.9bil to the national GDP. TV programming and broadcasting contributed RM1.6bil, while film production RM540mil. These numbers grow steadily by the year.
Media is a huge global economy. With the amount of money in the local industry, it is reasonable to ask why are they not assertively affecting social change? In fact, why are they seemingly taking the lead in perpetuating societal stereotypes, helping reinforce the apathy and ignorance that has shaped the general public’s attitude and disposition? The fact that bullies (or perpetrators of any aggressive behavior) do not feel any common sense, compassion or restraint while conducting their acts is damning.
Social learning theory draws heavily on modeling. There are 3 main types – live models (demonstrating the behavior), verbal instruction (instructing the behavior) and symbolic (model via media such as movies, television, internet and literature).
Zan Azlee wasn’t just correct in his observation. He was also shook.
What kind of role models are we?