“If they sent you over to cover the Gulf War,” I was once told, “you’d somehow turn it into a story about relationships.” What’s wrong with seeing the world through a social lens? In 2009, I wrote a book documenting the importance, for better or worse, of “consequential strangers”– everyone other than family and close friends. Most of these acquaintances are beneficial, bringing novelty, new energy, and support into your life. Others can make your life miserable. .
So when a friend recently theorized that Occupy Wall Street is the latest sign that people are standing up to bullies, I immediately saw her point. That Kaddafi was brutally stoned and shot to death bolstered her argument. And weren’t the various civil rights movements essentially a case of victims rising up against their oppressors? Coincidentally, this conversation took place a few days after New Jersey passed its new anti-bullying law.
Bullying is an apt “frame” for a lot of what’s wrong in our financial institutions, our governments, and our schoolyards. At the very least, greedy bankers need to learn to “share,” and elected officials who refuse to rise above politics in search of common ground could do with a lesson in “use your words.” We try to teach children that they’re not the center of the universe. We obviously have to extend that lesson to grownups as well.
To borrow from the movie Network, the victims of injustices here and abroad are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it any more. To wit, UNESCO voted to admit Palestine last week-107 were in favor, 14 against; 52 abstained, and 21 were absent. People who alleged that anti-Semitism lurked beneath the vote missed an important point: The overwhelming ayes weren’t just about Palestine or Israel. It was a kind of Take Back the World protest against the America, the Bully. That the U. S., withdrew its funding to UNESCO in response–in effect, taking its toys and going home–has since inflamed that sentiment.
A bully is someone who doesn’t know how to have a conversation, no less a relationship. He (or she) takes hostages, uses some people and beats up others. Bullies don’t know how to interact unless they’re in control. They have little empathy or trust, even when it comes to significant others. In couples therapy, it’s not uncommon for a family therapist to label one partner the “distancer”-the one who masks his vulnerability, using withdrawal or bluster. He (usually it’s the guy) holds on stubbornly to his view of the truth and tends to blame his partner, the “pursuer.” At worst, he becomes violent.
Sounds like a lot like the 1%. How sad that a country founded as a refuge from tyranny has turned into a culture of bullying. How ironic that legislators are trying to pass laws against it-except in states where bullies control the vote. Last week, for example, Michigan Republicans managed to craft legislation that included a so-called moral exemption. Translation: It’s okay to verbally harass or beat up another kid if your message is, “God hates faggots.”
I have no great political insight that will solve the massive problems we face as a country and as a civilization. But I know a lot about relationships. Punishing bullies for their behavior doesn’t work without education aimed at the perpetrator and victim. Even the best loophole-free laws go only so far. Besides, don’t we all have a little bully in us, even though we may prefer to call it “competitiveness” or “ambition”? Don’t we crave our fifteen minutes-and want things to be the way we want them? It’s the American way.
Real change can’t come without dialogue and self-reflection. It’s not just a matter of making the bullies understand what they’ve done. Occupy Wall Street is certainly allowing the victimized to take steps that promote healing: speak about against their oppressors, seek others who share common ground, and gain confidence in themselves to affect change. It’s the way many social justice movements start (see an excerpt from the book about Freedom Summer in 1964). But it’s only a beginning. We live on a planet with just so much space and resources, and with vast inequities. For how long will we continue to nourish a win-lose mentality? It will take a lot more than protest to rid the world of bullies.
This entry also appeared on the Consequential Strangers blog on Psychology Today.