Control and compliance have become the most valued social behaviors in our society — while freedom, autonomy, and creative thinking have lost their luster. And, across our culture, force is the first option for coping with frustration.
If the kid doesn’t do his homework, we take away his recreation (his stress-relief).
When the clerk isn’t giving us the sale price, we demand to see the manager (so they can force the clerk to do our bidding).
When we want people to stop driving so fast on our street, we don’t appeal to their concern for children and pets, we call people with guns to hurt them by robbing some of their money.
When other countries want to do various things, we bomb them, or threaten to. Achieving compliance through force and threat is the first option and strategy in our culture. And, America is the biggest government-sized bully on the planet.
Popular television shows like “The Apprentice” and “Survivor” — where being lowest in the social order gets you banished. We call this “entertainment” demonstrating our pitiless disdain for whoever comes in last place.
Our entertainment also includes various make-fun-of-the-pathetic, like the long-running Maury Povich, and various court-TV offerings, and many others that pander to our Schadenfreude — the joy at seeing others fail and fall.
Our favorite pastimes and sports are fiercely competitive. It’s nice win a championship, but at least as much air time is given the team that comes in last place — as they are subjected to merciless ridicule lasting for months.
And the mean-spirited mockery isn’t limited to the team as a whole. Specific athletes are singled-out by comedians, news “professionals”, and fans alike — including the parents of children who are learning what it means in our society to be … identified by one of our most common verbal slurs: “loser” — him who was defeated.
Our government has become a labyrinth of petty bureaucratic fiefdoms where functionaries gleefully enforce “zero tolerance” of every detectable non-compliance. And, we as a country celebrate the incarceration of more people per-capita than any other industrialized nation — often for the “crime” of consuming or even just possessing a plant.
As a nation, we thrive on unfairness, and beating-down the lower classes. Popular Internet memes or posters advocate shortened menus of human rights for those who are poor, or have accepted government assistance, or who have been to jail ever, or who are from different countries, or who “look like they could be”.
We complain about the illegal aliens being here, but make sure laws are enforced against the workers but not the corporations that profit from the frightened sub-class — while the rest of us enjoy cheaper strawberries and chickens — and stock dividends.
At a still more local level, the very schools we are complaining about are often managed by people who returned to that environment because it was the only place they ever experienced superiority — when they stalked the halls as child bullies.
Now, in the same environment, they’re bullying and intimidating teachers and other junior staff as well as students. They calculate schedules and transfer staff to deliberately create hardships and inconvenience, threatening not only the livelihoods but the mental and physical health of the people who are supposed to be teaching and protecting your children. It is irrational to expect a child who spends 6+ hours per day in an environment of adult-level bullying NOT to adopt the behaviors of the adults around them.
They also wield the bludgeon of “no tolerance”, mercilessly expelling children who try to defend themselves from child-bullies, who are odd, who have “ethnic” hair, who wore their weekend clothes to school with nail-clippers in the pocket, or who pointed a finger and said “pow” while playing at recess — or who chose an unfortunate pattern of eating their pop-tart.
At school, elective courses and pastimes that are not aggressively stratified have been cut back — or cut out — often in favor of programs that are highly stratified. There is virtually no place for a vulnerable child to escape from the relentless zero-sum game of status — from the constant threat of being “the loser”. Thus, they cannot escape the primitive brain silently screaming that such status will deny them every desirable outcome in life — including eventually life itself.
Despite a clear body of behavioral science that shows shaming-style discipline often produces the opposite of the stated outcome, shaming is more popular than ever — with parents not only standing their children on street-corners wearing name-calling placards, but the videos they post go viral — and with high approval ratings from the parents’ digital “fans”.
From the top to the bottom, our culture wantonly bullies — and notoriously celebrates bullying in various forms — right up to the moment someone’s kid starts bawling — whether due to assault, being called a stupid name, being socially excluded, or digitally harangued.
At that moment, we suddenly want everything to change. And, we want SOMEONE ELSE to take the actions that will unwind an entire culture of bullying behavior that extends to the highest levels of our society. Ironically, as we justify heavy-handed, controlling approaches to supposedly create a safer, more civilized society, we are creating responses often less civil and more violent. (Gagné, 2003; Knee, Neighbors, & Vietor, 2001; Mask, Blanchard, Amiot, & Deshaies, 2005; McHoskey, 1999). All we know is we want SOMEONE ELSE to do something — but without having a clue about how we got here, how to get somewhere else, or what that would even look like.
People want everything to be good for their child, as long as they don’t miss “Dancing With the Stars” — because they can’t wait to see who gets kicked to the curb tonight.
What can I do?
The easiest thing an adult can do is to build their own awareness of the bully-celebrating culture around them at every level.
Turn the bully-celebrating culture on itself by being clear and open that celebrating bullying and meanness — or of the misfortunes of others — shows an insecurity about social status. Demonstrate disregard if not disdain for bully-culture shows and bully-rewarding structures of every kind.
Be active in your local school system, not just to demand management of bullying at the child level, but still more importantly to hold management accountable for the culture they create and maintain as a social model for children.
Lead by living sound examples of good strategies for dealing with the shifting tides of social power regardless of which direction the tide is going at the moment.
For example, show kindness and respect to waiters, janitors, and the mentally-challenged, and also demonstrate dignity and calm in dealing with bureaucrats, police, and loud-mouths. Require children to do the same things — and don’t avoid explaining explicitly the reasons for this: “It shows strength and courage” — guaranteed pathways to the ultimate goal of “respect” — a vital component of social status.
Next time: Who Are the Bullies?