Before you respond with an indignant ’no,’ please bear with me for a moment. The word ‘bully’ has undergone a sea-change over the centuries. It was originally a term of endearment. Only since the seventeenth century has it come to mean someone who tries to force another person to do their bidding. Thinking about the bullies I have known and the way in which they acted, I have frequently wondered whether there isn’t a strange mixture of attraction and repulsion about bullying behaviour. The worst bully I ever encountered was, I suspect, a psychopath, with all the deadly charm of such. On the whole, however, I think we are apt to downplay the bully and the harm they do. Why is that?
Our attitude to bullying
One reason is probably our distanced attitude to bullying. If it does not directly affect us or someone we love, especially a child, it remains an abstraction. How many of us think of bullies in terms of the school playground — the bigger boy or girl who uses greater physical strength to humiliate someone who is ‘different’ or can’t fight back? Yet we’ve all met the bully who uses a constant drip of withering words to undermine another’s confidence. To an outsider, some marriages seem to be based on a bullying/bullied relationship which may not involve physical violence but is psychologically damaging. Bullying in the workplace is, if not a commonplace, certainly not rare, but comparatively few are ready to challenge it. Even in religious communities, I’m sorry to say, we can see bullying in operation, often thinly veiled by admiration of a ‘charismatic leader’ or the misapplication of a religious value such as obedience. We are aware of online bullying and dutifully express our horror when someone is trolled or receives rape or death threats, but I wonder how many of us stop to ask ourselves whether we contribute to a bullying culture, not by our silence or timidity as many might think, but by what we actually do and say?
Dissent from popular opinions
You must have noticed, as I have, that any questioning of a current orthodoxy or popular opinion tends to be dealt with scathingly. There is no argument, simply a howl of outrage or dismissal. I almost fear to name some of the matters where expression of another point of view is effectively prevented, but try this list. It has no particular order but deliberately includes a few subjects currently generating more heat than light:
Black slavery and statues
gender-free and inclusive language, especially in the liturgy
Unless you have never expressed an opinion of any of them, can you honestly say you have always entertained contrary opinions with courtesy and open-mindedness? It has been made clear to me, occasionally, that I can only state my own view of some subjects if I am prepared to receive the equivalent of a tongue-lashing and, in some cases, the threat of delation to Rome. Usually, neither bothers me, but recently I have begun to find it depressing, partly because of the amount of time and energy it takes to try to clear up misunderstandings (especially when one can’t respond as directly as one would wish), partly because of what it says about the society we have become. I don’t mean I think we have become less tolerant as such, though we may have. I’m more inclined to think we have become lazier and more aggressive than I think we were, and I’d like to know why.
Are we lazier and more aggressive than we used to be?
One reason may be that we have confused equality with egalitarianism and in striving to achieve the former have ended up with the latter. If I’m right, everyone’s opinion is as valid as anyone else’s, no matter how ill-informed (though I’m not sure even I would dare to lecture parents on how to bring up their children). Remember how we all became experts in virology and associated sciences overnight once COVID-19 stalked the world? Or, for Catholics, how we all became experts in ecclesiology and infallible sniffers out of heresy once we discovered we could broadcast our opinions to the world? Many of us have become accustomed to seeing ourselves as victims, appropriating to ourselves the wrongs suffered by our ancestors or anyone with whom we can identify. People laugh when I say the Norman Conquest remains a bone of contention, but what’s a good Jutish girl like me supposed to say? That it was a Good Thing, with the advantages outweighing the disadvantages? My mention of the Norman Conquest may make you smile, but it is a useful example of how we can cling to our own version of history and refuse to accept that there may be another view worth considering. If we look further afield, we can see that the memory of colonialism and lots of other -isms continues to cause fury, heartache and division.
Technological change: lazy reading, lazy listening
What I think most telling, however, I’d call an unintended consequence of the technological changes that have affected us all. Thanks to the internet and the web, we are always connected, always able to share information and opinions but, at the same time, the sheer quantity of information, both real and false, available to us has made us lazy readers and listeners. Our online experience and manner of being increasingly carries over into our ordinary, everyday face-to face encounters. We react more than we reflect. Because we don’t take the trouble to read/listen closely, because we skim read and are anxious to give an instant response, we don’t necessarily absorb what anyone else is saying, much less take time to weigh it. In other words, as communication has become easier, we have actually become less inclined to communicate. As a result, we often don’t genuinely engage — and I plead guilty to that as much as the next person. That, I think, is where the desire to control comes in. To keep our own world safe, we create echo-chambers for those who think as we do and exclude those who threaten our security by thinking differently. We are often more aggressive than we intend to be. Perhaps you begin to see why I question whether we are becoming bullies. If we can’t be bothered to marshall arguments, to think as well as speak, why not just batter the other person over the head — not physically, of course, but with the kind of scornful put-down that makes anyone reluctant to engage further?
A pointer from the Rule of St Benedict
Today, in the monastery, we re-read chapter 20 of the Rule of St Benedict, On Reverence in Prayer. Every time we hear it, I find new depths of wisdom and insight. This morning I was struck by what Benedict says about how we should approach someone from whom we want to ask a favour, with humility and respect (RB 20.1). That brought me up short. I haven’t noticed much humility and respect in recent political debates, nor in many sections of social media, though often enough a favour was being sought, whether it be a vote, funding for a project or help of another kind. Maybe we should do a little re-thinking. Humility doesn’t mean pretending we are of no value, on the contrary, it means being honest about our real value; respect doesn’t mean fawning, it literally means taking a second look, i.e. giving enough time to the other to register their true worth. Humility and respect are, so to say, two sides of the same coin and both are necessary for genuine human — and consequently humane — engagement. If our interactions are characterised by humility and respect, there can be no bullying. On the contrary, there is much more chance of a meeting of minds, of co-operation and the creation of lasting peace and goodwill. Something worth aiming for, wouldn’t you say?