Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Power of Mean -- An Integral Look at Bullying

With the seeming failure of identity-based politics, Robert Fuller's new book, All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity, looks to rankism as a powerful opportunity to organize around social justice and equality. But In These Times writer Lakshmi Chaudhry argues that Fuller misses the point in her article, The Power of Mean.

The concept of rankism, on its surface, seems like a new way to deal with issues of power imbalance. Rather than identifying people by race or sexual identity, rankism looks to power relationships to clarify issues of bullying and abuse of those lacking power by others who have power.

A quote from the book:
Someone can hold a high rank in one setting (for example, at home) and simultaneously be low on the totem pole in another (at work). Likewise we can feel powerful at one time and powerless at another, as when we … experience the loss of a job, a partner, or our health. As a result, most of us have been victims and perpetrators of discrimination based on rank.
Fuller argues that recognizing these patterns can lead to a movement to create a dignitarian society, where all people's dignity is honored and respected.

Chaudhy disagrees:
Yet Fuller’s concept of rankism—which invokes our capacity for empathy as individual human beings—fails to address the darker side of our relationship to authority. Our everyday responses to abuses of power within the hierarchies that structure our lives, from the schoolyard to the workplace, are far more complex and muddied than Fuller acknowledges.
She goes on to cite a variety of studies that reveal just how pervasive bullying is, especially in kids. We are hard-wired, the studies argue, to identify with power so that those who are bullies are consistently seen as more popular than those who are victims. Even in our reality TV shows, Chaudhry argues, we like Simon Cowell and admire Donald Trump.

She also refers to studies that suggests adults are no better than children in this regard:
Kids will be kids, but as it turns out, so will adults—both in politics and in the workplace. Bullying is as common on the job as in the schoolyard. According to Bennett Tepper, a professor of managerial sciences at Georgia State University, 50 percent of workers say they’ve had an abusive boss at some point in their working career. Women may be more likely to be targets, but they are just as likely to be bullies.
Tepper also suggests that this behavior does not hurt productivity because employees feel they have no other choice, so they respond to the bullying with high performance. But not without cost. Apparently, a bullied employee will over time adopt the behaviors of the bully. This sounds like the same principal at work in passing along child abuse -- the abused becomes the abuser.

Chaudhry concludes:

Dividing the world into somebodies and nobodies does little to capture the complex dynamics of power within social groups. Unlike racism or homophobia, the underlying causes of rankism are rooted in the ancient hardwiring of our brain that associates aggression with status. It is why so many of us instinctively kowtow to our bullying boss, partner, peer, or even our president. In this, we are no different than our fellow primates.

Unlike chimps or gorillas, however, we do possess the ability to overcome our most primal impulse. “Is it natural?,” Juvonen asks. “Yes. Is it inevitable? Absolutely not.” Moral principles can indeed override the basic instinct for cruelty, but we first have to be willing to acknowledge the power of mean.

The book and the article raise important points. When in our bio-psycho-social evolution do we develop the ability to move beyond our biological hardwiring and act with morality?

Clearly we are unable to do so as kids, and as teens the overt bullying of the playground becomes in-groups and out-groups (clear ranking) in high school where there is still bullying, then becomes "motivational techniques" in the workforce. The ethnocentric developmental stage is dominant at this point in our evolution, so we are predisposed to rank us vs. them in a variety of ways, not only by ethnic group.

Simply recognizing rankism is not going to change our drive to engage in the behavior, either to become bullies or to identify with them as a means of not being bullied ourselves -- that's a "sensitive self" approach to change that simply cannot be effective when confronted with biology and with the current developmental stage of human growth.

The socialization process of many children creates an inner voice that says that bullying is wrong (assuming good parenting, which is a big assumption) -- what Freud called the superego, but in more recent conceptualizations might be considered an introjection of the parental voice, becoming over time an Inner Critic or another variation of a subpersonality. Still, that same creation is why we identify with power -- to gain its favor and avoid its wrath in the same way we do as kids with our parents. It's projection of a disowned self or a shadow element of the self -- we are drawn to those who embody traits we have disowned (even when we find them reprehensible).

Clearly, some of us can do shadow work to reclaim those disowned parts (thereby reducing their "charge") -- and most of us probably have already. But many more people cannot. So how do we deal with that reality? Do we impose behavior controls from the top down in the form of laws? Do we offer incentives for acting "morally" within power relationships?

I don't know what the answer is. As a former bully, I can say that the single greatest deterrent for me was introspection and reflection, combined with reading. When I was 18 I entered a self-imposed exile period where I read a lot of Plato, Shakespeare, and other thinkers while at the same time spending a lot of time looking at past behaviors and developing an inner moral compass that serves me to this day (although it continues to evolve). It wasn't a conscious choice as much as it was a inner need, but I think that's an important age for that type of work to occur.

Maybe the answer to ending the cycle is to create some form of year-long "ethics" class for high school students that is integral in nature, combing study, introspection, volunteer work, and whatever else might help kids to become more reflective, to act with morality from an inner place rather than have it imposed upon them.

What do you think?

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