Sunday, 10 March 2013

Structural bullying


Structural bullying

The Oxford English Dictionary has ‘Bully’ as ‘a person who deliberately intimidates or persecutes those who are weaker’ and we hear a lot about the phenomenon of ‘bullying’ which goes on regularly in our schools and all our institutions. Clearly the actions of bullies on others are undeniably hurtful and cruel and are experienced as such. Rarely though do bullies themselves see it that way – they rationalize their actions as justifiable within the context in which they live.

I want to challenge the notion that bullying is something done exclusively by individual bad or misguided people. With the 1970s slogan ‘the personal is the political’ ringing written deep in my soul and having served an intellectual apprenticeship with largely leftwing structural analysts, I find it impossible not to see the social world itself as structured by the same abusive and bullying power relationship.  The boss requires you to do more. Your workload doubles for the same pay. The threat of unemployment delivered with ‘like it or lump it’ rationale preys on your mind. You see those beneath you duffed up by yet another restructuring and you pray that the same brutality is not coming your way. You see fat cats racing around in hundreds of thousands of pounds of fancy metal and various forms of dressage whilst you can’t afford the rent. You see the profit motive as the exclusive logic and God of our times and you feel abused by it. The pain and the unfairness of it all is not really very different and the only substantial distinction between personal bullying and institutional bullying is that it is our institutional customs and relationships clothed as ‘fair play’ rather than ‘a person’ that deliver the pain.

Such is the human condition and we are rarely able to escape the inequity that circumscribes how we live – I’m with Isaiah Berlin in believing that a liberal democracy is the best we can hope for – capitalism with its worst excesses under some kind of control.  But the mechanisms by which what are actually the structural rules of social reality, are translated into the personal responsibilities of the individual, are very subtle and have very negative effects.  They delude us and serve to subjugate our imagination. They also locate blame - with bad people - rather than the system. True, the consequences of our capitalist organisation realised as the oppressions under which we live, serve to maintain order and, ironically, engender the creative effort to seek free expression and pull back the veil of illusion. But they are still oppressions experienced more or less harshly depending on the position you find yourself.

I have met very few truly ‘bad’ people who would fulfill the OED’s description of a bully as someone who deliberately seeks to hurt and most of those I’ve met whilst working in prisons. I’ve met a lot of confused poker playing folk trying to get by with no time to empathize with others. I’ve met some genuinely uncaring people who operate with a malicious form of defensiveness but who are usually scarred in some way themselves. In the institutional world I’ve met a lot of people who play their hands with focused determination and with little mind to the effect of their actions. Such folk tend to claim to have learnt at the school of hard knocks and legitimate their actions by appeal to the tough but fair social rules under which we all live.

It is easier to locate the individual bully as the source of social evil rather than recognize the structural conditions in which we live as the grounds from which such bad behavior emanates – after all the distress we experience is nearly always delivered by individual human hands. Whether by means of religious mythology or the political manipulation of semantics, it is easier to see the human stuff as essentially flawed than recognize the mechanisms that give the lie to meritocracy for what they are. It doesn’t seem too far of an intellectual stretch to replace the OEDs definition of a bullying as ‘a person who deliberately intimidates or persecutes those who are weaker’ to ‘the social rules by which the forces of wealth deliberately intimidate or persecute those who are less wealthy into accepting their subordinate position’.

Ok. I admit that does seem a step too far down the path of leftist utopian delusion, but do you know what I mean?

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