Are We All Becoming Bullies?

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:

Pope Francis
Donald Trump
Joe Biden
abortion
transgender persons
homosexuality
Brexit
COVID-19 lockdowns
mask-wearing
feminism
Black slavery and statues
gender-free and inclusive language, especially in the liturgy
Christianity
Islam
party politics
nuns’ habits
conservatism
socialism.

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?

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Respect

Respect. Our English word derives from the Latin respicio, meaning to look back, to look again. That has always suggested to me that an essential part of respect is giving time, pausing, weighing, deliberating a little. First thoughts are not always wise ones, nor are they always just. Yesterday we saw how quickly Twitter was awash with comments on the death of Margaret Thatcher. They ranged from instant canonisation to condemnation to the pit of hell. Personally, I found the gibes harder to take than the adulation, mainly because I regard death as important and am very conscious of the grief many must feel. In those first few hours after death we need to register what has happened and allow time for prayer and reflection. There is a kind of decency about allowing a little space before jumping in with our own summing up of another’s life and work.

I shall not be writing any assessment of Lady Thatcher. Others are much better qualified than I for such a task, but I do hope I shall give her respect. It does not mean that one waters down the truth or avoids unpleasantness, but it does mean that one tries to act with compassion. It is part of being civilized. Indeed, I dare to say it is part of being human.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Mocking the Faith of Others

When does making a joke about religion overstep the mark and become mocking the faith of others? Does it matter if it does? I was wondering about this as I checked my Twitter account this morning and noticed a few tweets about one of the more sensational saints of Latin America. Now, I have no devotion to the saint in question, have never lived in the country where his cult is popular, and have no desire to stir up a rumpus, but I did ask myself how I would feel if he were one of my ‘friends in heaven’, in the way that Our Lady or St Bernard are. I realised I might be a little upset. ‘Love me, love my dog’ has its parallel; respect me, respect what I respect, even if it seems to you a little absurd.

What do we mean by ‘respect’ in such a context? Are we to be afraid of saying anything for fear of giving offence? Perhaps this analogy may help. I may not be a Communist myself, but if you have little busts of Lenin all over your mantlepiece, I will take the hint and confine any remarks to discussion of his theories rather than make a joke you may find tasteless. I may not be a republican, but if you are French and ardent in your love of country, I would not choose today to make derogatory remarks about the fall of the Bastille and all that it entailed subsequently. In both cases, I would be doing no more than showing good manners. Would that mean I was truly respecting you? I’m not sure, but I find it interesting that St Benedict has a lot to say in his Rule about the dangers of scurillitas, a kind of mocking laughter that often degenerated into indecency. I don’t think he was concerned about his monks making an off-colour joke so much as losing that sense of respect and reverence for the person that is fundamental to his concept of honouring everyone.

Ultimately, mocking the faith of others is an act of derision rather than an argument. It may be effective in silencing someone but it can never really advance understanding. So, a thought for the week-end. When we are tempted to mock others, are we misusing one of God’s gifts (for laughter and fun); are we building up or tearing down? The answer can sometimes be chastening, especially for those of us who have a way with words.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A Question of Language

I don’t think it appropriate for a Catholic to comment on the debate about bishops within the Church of England, but @ellenloudon and @fibrefairy reminded me on Twitter this morning of something that irritates me profoundly: the use of ‘woman’ as an adjective. A woman is always a person, never a mere adjective. Use as an adjective is as demeaning in my book as calling a mature adult woman a ‘girl’. I’m not very keen on the use of ‘male’ or ‘female’ as nouns, either, unless we are talking about animals. Used as adjectives, no problem; though I often wonder why we need to make the distinction in the first place. Is it really so strange for a woman to be a lawyer or surgeon, for example?

Rocco Palmo has an interesting report of an interview with Lucetta Scaraffia, head of the new ‘women’s section’ of L’Osservatore Romano, in which she argues that, had the Church been more open to women in positions of authority in the Church, we might not have had so many of the scandals that have burst upon us in recent years. I have to say I agree with her in many ways. Perhaps the language used about women is an area we might all reflect on, because for a woman to be able to exercise authority — in whatever sphere, not just the Church — there is need for respect; and our use of language is indicative of the respect we have, or don’t have. This isn’t a question of political correctness, which tends very often to be anything but correct, but of simple justice, reverence and, dare I say it, accuracy.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail