When I was a child, bullying wasn’t just commonplace, it was actually encouraged. I knew quite a few adults who viewed bullying and corporal punishment as reliable motivational strategies. Some even had fond memories of being bullied and beaten as kids. I recall once, in elementary school, right in front of me, a teacher asked the classroom bully why he stopped picking on me. The response to bullying was to become a bully oneself. As much as I was bullied as a child, I can point to numerous times I bullied someone else, usually to make myself feel better.
Bullying was a chronic problem throughout the society in which I came of age. It was often a childless older woman in our church who was first to volunteer to look after the young kids, and at the first provocation would whack the crap out of any child who misbehaved. This behavior wasn’t condemned, but celebrated. If any kid complained about it, their parents or other adults would ask, “What did you do to deserve it?”
In my first job working grounds at an amusement park, particularly after I was promoted to assistant foreman, I learned how threats and intimidation were often used to get employees to perform. Cooperation and mutual responsibility paled in service to the chain of command. The work was seasonal , there were no unions, and if employees didn’t measure up, they could be terminated with or without cause. The work environment sometimes lent itself to an attitude that the job wasn’t very important, and quite a few people worked there just for free admission to the park, so it usually wasn’t hard to find a cause to justify termination.
Bullying persists in our society because it has been deemed an effective means of dealing with those who make us feel uncomfortable or who question why things are done as they are. Bullies maintain the status quo, insuring that average people can go about their lives undisturbed, safe from having to consider the needs or desires of others, or having to change their opinions or beliefs. Behind every bully is a frightened, uncertain, and uncomfortable individual, who feels constrained by whatever system they inhabit. Religious bullies aren’t the people who are most assured in their beliefs; gay-bashing bullies are often the ones most doubtful of their orientation. Stigmatization of class, race, and sexuality helps to determine the targets of bullying, and the economic and social marginalization of people sets up the conditions under which bullies operate without hindrance. One needs only to look at the previous presidential administration in the US to observe a master class on being an entitled bully.
I do not understand the psychopathology of someone like John Wayne Gacy, but I do know he was imprisoned for being caught in a homosexual situation, which was common in society at that time. This probably only reinforced the notion that if he was to continue his practices, he’d need to take steps to insure that he’d never be caught again. Other aspects of his personality suggest much deeper psychological trauma, so, perhaps, nothing could have prevented him from pursuing the path he took, but society’s attitudes definitely played a role. Almost every person convicted of child sexual assault was once an abused child, who was most likely told to keep the abuse quiet, or was otherwise ignored.
One needs only to look at the entertainment of the thirties and forties to see the glorification of bullying in all aspects of society. Live action shows, such as the Three Stooges, and animated programs like Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry are laced with levels of violence which, today, would earn a restricted movie rating in Hollywood. Most were geared toward adults of the time, but were later marketed as children’s programming in the sixties and seventies. Parents of today are confronting the reality that shows their parents encouraged them to watch are not acceptable for young audiences at all.
In fact, such programming can be dangerous, as a show like the Three Stooges can lead children to believe it’s acceptable, even funny, to hit someone in the head with a hammer, or otherwise strike out at someone. Contrast these with shows like The Little Rascals or Our Gang, which featured children of many races or socio-economic realities playing together and cooperating for their mutual benefit. These also contained stereotypes of the time, but dealt with them in a less toxic manner by ascribing the beliefs to children, who often learned to overcome or accept their differences.
Bullying often comes down to quid pro quo, with people reasoning that because they were bullied, then it’s acceptable for them to bully others. This attitude persists throughout society to this day, most particularly in politics. Oftentimes the response to criticism of a politician or political party comes down to “I didn’t hear you complain when your side did it”. Blood feuds have persisted for generations, guided solely by the attitude of “they started it”. As long as the Soviet Union was in control of Eastern Europe, opposing factions lived side by side without apparent conflict, but as soon as the USSR fell, these long-standing contentions led to genocide.
We appear to be experiencing the prolonged death of the tribal, patriarchal system that’s guided human society throughout recorded history and it isn’t going quietly. As a result, bullying is occurring at unprecedented levels as those who most benefit from this system struggle to maintain order. Conservative religious leaders and capitalistic politicians are condemning anyone and everyone who fails to follow their prescribed rules. The past four years in the United States has shown us the futility of following this model, and slowly but surely, individuals are emerging who are encouraging us to find new patterns for development. If we’re to survive as a species, we need to rely on the adaptability that’s governed our progress so far. We need to favor cooperation over competition and concern for others over everyone for themselves. History has shown us the alternative. It’s time to learn from this example.