Bullying opens a can of norms
Sydney Morning Herald columnist, author, architecture critic and essayist
Bullying is very big right now. Suddenly everyone’s a victim. It’s no longer just ambos, shopgirls and one in four schoolchildren. Bullying, like silverfish in your woollies, has gone top drawer.
Leading prosecutors, scientists and judges are all being bullied at work. Everyone from Kathy Lette’s autistic son to James Packer himself is a target. This, surely, is sit up and take notice territory.
But wait a minute. If bullying is everywhere, doesn’t that make it by definition normal? And if it’s normal, can we change it? Should we?
When you google ”bullying lawyers”, half the hits are for lawyers being bullied, and the other half for lawyers touting to help you litigate it. Bullies for hire.
So what are we saying exactly? Bullying is OK if you’re getting paid to do it but bad if it’s just a hobby?
Bullying is about power, and as primates we are power creatures. Put three humans in a room and their first act, even before the fight-or-flight, is to establish the power relationships between them. Power – specifically power over each other – is our medium, as natural to us as breathing. Bullying is simply the misuse of that power.
Of course, being natural doesn’t make a thing good. But it does mean, to pluck it out, we’ll need some serious precision tweezers.
Governments do what they can, but precision doesn’t figure highly.
Take last month’s National Day of Action Against Bullying and Violence. The website, bullyingnoway.com.au, offers (with help from its self-validating sponsors, including Channel “boned” Nine) a fully downloadable propaganda barrage of posters, press-kits and faux-hand-decorated Certificates of Congratulations. (Congratulations on what? On bullying? Not bullying? Surviving?)
Only marginally more acute, the NSW public schools website defines bullying as “repeated verbal, physical, social or psychological behaviour that is harmful and involves the misuse of power by an individual or group towards one or more persons”. It includes name-calling, physical aggression, social abuse like ignoring or ostracism, psychological abuse including rumours, dirty looks and nasty texts. It can happen anywhere and can traumatise even bystanders.
I suddenly realise I’ve been bullied most of my life. Picked on at school, tick (those horrid girls). Sexually harassed, tick (those lacy knickers, the perfume). Unfairly sacked, tick. Yelled at by those I trusted, tick. Lied about and abused in public, tick. Crumbs, I can hardly think of a boss in my life who hasn’t acted that way.
I know what you’re thinking. It’s OK for her. She’s tough. Different if you’re an Asperger’s child or a – well, a top prosecutor on half a million a year. Poor sweeties. But I’m not tough, just resilient – and that perforce. As Churchill said, and I paraphrase, success is simply the ability to keep on getting up off the floor, bloodied and with your feathers awry, and stagger in a direction approximating forward.
Sure, I make light of it, but there is serious bullying. People – teenagers, nurses, lawyers, scientists – are driven to suicide. They’re not just being pathetic. Not wimping out.
To isolate the trigger behaviours, though, we must first define them in a way that is not downright idiotic, being very clear about the difference between power’s use and its abuse.
We must also ask the unaskable: is there a systemic issue here? Does its ubiquity imply that bullying has been, evolutionarily speaking, useful? Is it still?
Humans can be divided into managers up and managers down. Usually, the managers down are nice, but the managers up are successful. Turds float.
In a corporate situation I, brought up to defend the underdog, reflexively nurture those beneath and deliver a straight right to the jaw of those above, telling the truth as I see it. Sadly, this behaviour is seldom appreciated, which is why I now work for myself (toughest boss ever).
Successful corporate behaviour, by contrast, kicks down and sucks up. In schoolyard terms, this is bullying. In corporate and government spheres, it’s just managing up.
This establishes an invisible line below which people are required to be nice, and above which they are expected to be ruthless. Below which heart, above which, head.
This is at its barest, a class system: a system that is itself a bully.
The difference between power’s use and its abuse is quite simple. The test is, who benefits. It’s like parenting. Tough love is good if, and only if, it benefits the child. If it’s about the parent’s gratification or benefit, it’s bullying.
On this test, we are habitually bullied by governments that use power to impose decisions which disbenefit the public while benefiting donors and mates.
When James Packer gets special treatment on his casino, or when the Obeids evade their $17 million smart pole while handing out coal licences to their creepy mates, that’s bullying.
When RMS refuses to repair derelict road bridges across NSW but devotes millions to destroy the one bridge that everyone (except the coal seam gas industry) wants to keep – one of the oldest in NSW, at Windsor – that’s also bullying.
And the consequences are not just personal. They’re societal.
Doctors who might usefully critique the health system are routinely silenced by punitive contracts. CSIRO scientists are habitually gagged by managers whose commitment to genetic modification derives from Big Agriculture funding. As former chief research scientist Art Raiche says, “scientific independence has been lost”. As to judges, the mind boggles.
Handing our core truths over to the robber barons in this way is a perilous practice. Like all bullying, it flourishes in closed and self-regulating systems, so we assume exposure is the answer. But there’s not enough public scrutiny in the world to watch everyone, all the time.
It used to be God’s job, watching the unwatched, but we are determined to go it alone. This is an experiment, civilisation without the Great Scrutineer. To pull it off we’ll need to get a whole lot better at doing the right thing just because it’s right.
Dunno about you, but I’m not holding my breath.