Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Bullying for a Good Cause: (Another Hot Potato Post that No One on Facebook will Dare Like)

When I was an even younger boy than I am now, there were two bullies in my life. I remember both their names but will not reveal them in case their family members might read this (or that they may still come after me).   When you were around them you remained silent and did not question them or even make eye contact. They ruled by how much they could hurt you. (Actually, in the interest of full disclosure one of them liked to shove you at the water fountain so your face would go into the water or your teeth would clang against the spigot. That ended, though, when for some reason I spun around and clobbered him right in the puss. It was a wonderful moment -- maybe the most important in my life.) Live was so much simpler.

Lately I have been applying the notion of a bully to law faculties and I really cannot say there are people roaming who I would regard as traditional bullies.  No one walks up and punches you in the stomach and says "for a dollar that will not happen again," Instead, it is white collar bullying and I have learned there is a huge literature on it.

 On my faculty I have seen people in fear and administrators paralyzed. No,  it's not fear of teaching 12 hours, or of a new Dean, or any of that stuff.   Instead it is the fear of being tagged with a label that could follow you forever. (And yes, you are right. It is the fear you are thinking of right now and wondering if someone is actually allowed to write what follows.)

For example, about a year ago in a prior Dean search one faculty meeting suggested that very well qualified candidate may have homophobic tendencies. Maybe someone asked why but no one pressed the issue. Evidently she just "knew" it. More than a decade earlier, also in a Dean search, someone indicated at a promising candidate had a "problem with people of color."  In neither case did anyone ask "why," "what happened" or ask for any kind of foundation. No one dared press the issue or maybe they just enjoyed watching bullying. More recently,  a person said about another person that "he was widely known to be an extreme homophobe." Was there a reaction? The victim, now deceased, could hardly respond which made it easier for those who mourned him and spoke so eloquently about him at his memorial to remain silent.

What makes this type of bullying so difficult to handle are four factors. First it is especially powerful, The victim cannot spin around, like I did at the water fountain, and stop it. In fact, in these cases any form of denial just means the bully must be right.

Second, some people  who spread the word that others are homophobic or racist or child molesters, may be right but even if they are not right they have conviction of a right wing Christian and, as in the case of other forms of bullying, there is no answer but to nod in agreement.

Third, those bullying are likely to have been bullied in the past. In fact, thinking of well known bullies throughout history, I wonder if this this a characteristic -- those bullied become bullies if it is possible. If this is the case, why didn't  the experience of being bullied result in some level of empathy?

Fourth, and this is the really tough part:  bullying, in the examples I have identified here, is aligned with a good cause. It's like bullying for better treatment of animals, children,  and adults. As for getting it wrong sometimes, an economist might say, "So there are a few innocent victims here and there but the costs of their careers is easily offset by the benefits." Some victims are just necessary collateral damage like the dead children after a drone strike designed to protect us all from another 9/11. I guess we can all understand that but it does not help those who find they are collateral damage.

The problem with this fourth point and possible justification is that it drives the evil that gives rise to the bullying underground. No one's mind is changed and on top of whatever ills there may be, there is now a further layer of resentment.

I do not like bullies of any kind because they get their way by threatening to harm people. Plus, they change  no minds and, if  they claim to be acting to advance a cause, they are more than likely to  set it back.


Tungster said...

This was a really great post.

Athena said...

Dear Jeff,

It makes me really so sad to read you were a victim of bulling during your childhood :( Fearing of being victim of waterboarding is something really terrible! You have all my feelings of sympathy and fraternal friendship.

On what you described as bulling in your professional environment i have to say that it is sometimes difficult to discern between defamation, "bulling", against opponents, who are competitors for a place of power, like the place of a dean, or the office of a political leader of a party and the normal reaction of people as a form of counter speech against a political speech of other members of a social environment.

For example, when i see someone making or saying something racist or wrong I have the freedom to criticize it. It is a part of the game in a democracy to have the right of political counter speech and the right to stigmatize antidemocratic behaviours. I am not sure i could accept the two boys they tried to torture you in the school as candidates for the high office of the dean in a university without saying i know that they did, something very wrong, when they were young, because their victim, a real person with a name, told it to me and I have the right to ask them for the reasons of their terrible actions, no matter how much time has gone from the time of the torture in the school. I have like everyone the right of public control and a right to investigate on the democratic feelings and opinions of persons they want to represent others or a whole institution in a society.

In any case you are completely right that when someone calls another one as racist or bigoted he/she must have good arguments and evidence to prove it, otherwise this "labelling" is bulling and defamation and it can be criminalized.

You wrote a very good article!