On bullying and society

The recent suicides from bullying and the attacks in Boston and elsewhere have made me thoughtful (again) about what sort of society we are creating. Many words have been spoken about how tragic these events are and the need to prevent them. But classicly, having made these pronouncements, our PM goes on the attack against the newly appointed head of the federal Liberal party. And attack ads, as were so effective against others, have also been released. Sort of an early pre-election shelling to soften the electorate, it would seem.

So we have words saying something is bad followed closely by examples of those bad behaviors by the folks in power. Curious, which will be more effective — what they say or what they do? I don’t know about anyone else, but my kids were pretty sensitive to these issues.

Similarly we have popular culture that glorifies violence and revenge as the way to solve problems (just flip on the TV). And increasing numbers of people who just run amok, killing a bunch of innocent people before (sometimes) killing themselves. Probably not what happened in Boston but how do we tell?  In John Brunner’s novel ‘Stand on Zanzibar’ (set in 2010) these folks went crazy because of the unrelenting pressures from their employers, governments and society that made life increasingly difficult — until they snapped. So to relieve the pressure somewhat, governments legalized marijuana (think ‘soma’… a gram is better than a damn). We are surrounded by businesses and governments intent on pursuing their own agendas and being, at best, unresponsive and indifferent to the complaints of the citizenry — when pushed past a certain point, what do you do to get relief?

While one line of argument is that we need more and harsher punishment and more guards and controls on society to force everyone to behave — or arming the teachers… This approach has been tried elsewhere with  no demonstrable success save higher costs and higher prison populations. And a fondness for an exceptionally harsh interpretation of Sharia should not make the Taliban approach more attractive — but listening to our leaders one could be confused.

Problem is that short of killing all of us (do we have a Doomsday gap?) there is probably no way for the harsh thumb of oppression to keep people down.  For the Romans the question was “Sed Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?” — who will watch the watchmen? The problem of control and corruption are closely linked. No, I suggest the control and punishment argument is completely off base — and substitutes a fantasy for real human nature.

When I was starting university I made a serious attempt to join the USAF ROTC program. Had no problem learning various things, but organized drill destroyed it. When the squad was being marched around the armory, the sergeant would yell ‘left, right, left’ but something in me made me go ‘right, left, right’… not everyone is cut out to be part of the military, it seems.  Folks just don’t respond well to being told what to do or being forced into changes they don’t want — when they cannot see how it is in their interest to comply. And some rebel instinctively.

It seems a question of culture and values rather than control. If we want a society where people do not feel the need to fear for the safety of themselves and their children, where individuals are cared for and respected, we have to build it. The challenge is not to make it impossible for bullying or random attacks to occur but to make it unthinkable — a very different issue.  But we have centuries of social conditioning to undo — that rules of behavior are really just situational guidelines.

One of the problems of the Crusades was to get people to accept the validity of ‘Thou shalt not kill” but restrict its application to less than the entire human race — ok to kill the Moors but not your fellows. Our leaders need to behave in ways that show a respect for the ideas of others and work together rather than attacking and bullying those with whom they do not agree. Similarly, I am sure, one could say ‘stealing is bad’,  but then show that the real phrase adds ‘unless I benefit one way or another’. It should not matter if it is speculating with other people’s money, padding an agency with rich jobs for your buddies or ensuring that only the folks at the club get to bid on a special project — it is all stealing from the public. The public examples of bad behavior are manifold. Diogenes would have a very difficult time.

Don’t know how we will get there. Looking around at the bullying in public life and the glorification of violent revenge and the shameful treatment of our fellows, the lies, the spin… the list seems endless. Without authority figures and societal messages that exemplify a better way — but an oversupply of bad examples, the end is likely to not be good. I hope the people I care about will be among those lightly touched — and not the victims of a bombing, shooting or speculative financial collapse.  But with rising unemployment and continued deterioration in the public discourse (no, Premier, conversations only happen when both parties are listening…) the auguries are not promising. We are getting the society we have build so assiduously through word and deed — why do we seem surprised?

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