Bullying is a species of torture

By Marilyn McCord Adams

Bullying is a species of torture. It shares with the practices of medieval dungeons, Japanese prisoner of war camps, Guantanamo Bay and Abu Graib, the goal of shattering the victim’s sense of self, of shredding any confidence in self worth, of dismantling the personhood of another human being.

Every day, we do and say things that hurt other people. Bad as these can be, bullying differs from the occasional snide remark in being consciously or instinctively relentless and systematic. There is no let up to words and deeds that send the message: not just what you do, but who you are is sub-standard, non-normative, so ridiculous and defective, so caricatured and twisted, so vile and disgusting that you are irremediably bad, unfixable, unfit for polite society. You deserve to be lonely and left out, despised and rejected, cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth!

Bullies gang up on individuals to create the impression of consensus. How could you be right in thinking you have any good points, when everybody else sees plainly that you don’t? Bullies prey on insecurities, bear down with jeers and accusations to make sure the victim finds and nurtures an intense hatred of self. Once this is achieved, the victim becomes the bullies’ best ally and his/her own worst enemy. Self-hatred works overtime to torment. Self-hatred is easily persuaded: the worst is too good for you; the world would have been better if you had never existed in the first place; really, the least you could do is not exist any more!

We wore purple on Wednesday to mourn teen suicides. But the bullies’ victory does not require that the victim literally separate body and soul. Bullying aims to give the victim a fate worse than death, once again, by destroying who s/he is as a person, by making sure that s/he goes to smash in so many pieces that even the best psychotherapists won’t know how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

This deliberate wreckage of human personhood is evil, the very worst sort of evil, because it aligns us with the powers of darkness–however we may prefer to think of them–that labor to unravel the Creator’s most precious work. Bullying is not just cruel and unusual punishment. Bullying is blasphemy because it tramples the sacred. Every human person is a temple of indwelling Holy Spirit. Bullying is an abomination to God!

Deep down, of course, this is what makes bullying so attractive. Deep down, we are scared that there is not enough to us to be worth loving, to justify our taking up space, commanding others’ attention, consuming scarce resources. Deep down, we are terrified that others will target us, expose our secrets, call attention to our failings and weaknesses, use their power to get us ousted. Well, everybody knows, the best defense is a good offense! Rising up to attack, we push down our fears with a surge of power. We take all of that self-hatred that eats away at our inner core, and turn it outward to join others in scape-goating, in playing god with someone else’s life.

When I was in grade school, we knew whom to pick on. First, the physically and mentally challenged: Bobby the hydrocephalic, Jimmy with the terrible lisp, Mary whose buck teeth would have paid for the orthodontist’s Cadillac. Then there were the kids who couldn’t read or did badly in math or were clutzes in sports or whose hand-me-down clothes didn’t fit and were grossly out of style. City bullying counted people out on grounds of race or national origin. Many of the recent tragic suicides have been sex-and-gender queered. Every society favors the survival of the fittest. Every society sends signals as to which groups you can get by with abusing, which citizens it will not bother to protect.

Bullying is torture, and bullying is blasphemy. Why, then, do we keep treating it as a peccadillo? Why do we dismiss grade-school and teen bullying as a normal part of growing up, a natural developmental stage? In several of the recent suicides, the young people and/or their parents had lodged complaints with school authorities, who found them easy to ignore.

One answer is that it is normal and natural because we inherit Darwinian fight-or-flight animal motivation. The instinct for bullying is not something we just out-grow, because we also are scared, feel better when we have someone to belittle. Like the Pharisee in the story, thanking God that we are not like other people, is a way of assuring ourselves that it is alright for society to keep privileging us while degrading others… perfectly fine to congratulate myself that I am okay, even unusually deserving, because those others really are not!

The truth is that “normal” and “natural” is not alright. Bullying is torture, bullying is blasphemy, and that means–in pre-Vatican II language–not only bullying but complacency about it, is a mortal, a very serious sin! Teen suicides are ghastly warning symptoms of deep social sickness. What are we to do?

The tax collector in the story shows us how to begin: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Like John the Baptist, Jesus came preaching repentance. But the old prayer book was wise. It is not enough to say the general confession. Being “heartily sorry” drives us to “works meet for repentance.” What might some of these be?

First, we must take bullying seriously, and we must teach our children to take bullying seriously. This means not treating it as a peccadillo but as a mortal sin when we or they commit it. It also means teaching kids how to recognize and protect themselves against bullies. It means insisting that our schools bring bullying out of the closet as a safety issue and institutionalize effective procedures for turning our schools into bully-free zones.

Second, moving from symptom to cause, we must be alert to identify the groups for which our society still shirks responsibility. In the eighties, our government washed its hands of the mentally challenged, the homeless, and asylum-seeking (legal and illegal) immigrants. Conditions in most prisons are still cruel and unusual. St. Philip’s has worked with others in Durham to take up the slack. But we are now half way through the first term of another president who promised. And hate campaigns are still running, teens are committing suicide, while state governments are still flip-flopping over LGBT marriage, and the fed’s are still hemming and hawing over LGBT don’t ask/don’t tell! In the face of this, we need–by who we are and what we do–to send the message: it is not alright for society to write off or abuse anyone, because it is not alright with God!

Third, reaching down to the foundations, we need to learn to love our children, friends, and partners, just as they are, for better for worse. Much as it is our role to help, even prod them to stretch up to be all they can be, we must not send the message that they count with us only if they excel in our favorite subject, that we are disappointed that they cannot pitch or run, that they exist to fulfil our goals and make us look good. We need to turn our homes and intimate relationships into safety zones where weakness and limitations can be faced as easily as triumphs and successes.

Bullying will stop, the instinct to bully will finally be quenched, when everybody feels safe and when everybody feels loved. God is the only one who can underwrite this conviction. We come to church to learn, and help one another learn, how to enter into the reality that God hates nothing that God has made, that God has no unwanted children, that God is for us through thick and thin, that God is with us no matter what, that God is willing and able to make good on the worst that we can suffer, be or do. Our calling is to become living advertizements of these realities. Time to get down on our knees, rise up, and go to!

The Reverend Marilyn McCord Adams is Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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