As promised, Iâ??ve been looking at abuse of power, including bullying, ethical violations, exploitation, and conflict of interest. These past few weeks, Iâ??ve been researching workplace and school bullying. I find the topic to be really disturbing. If the literature is accurate, itâ??s a far bigger problem than I realized. Thereâ??s even a newly coined term, bullycide, to describe children who suicide because of being bullied. Itâ??s pretty much accepted that most mass shootings at schools were caused by bullying: the shooters were all targets of bullies who finally snapped.
One of the big controversies in the topic of bullying concerns attribution, or the causes of bullying. Here the research splits into two camps. One camp attributes internal or innate causes to bullying, such as a personality disorder. The other camp points to external (or situational) attributes: upbringing and social forces, group dynamics, socialization, etc.
A lot of what Iâ??ve read on childhood bullying posits external causes to explain why children become bullies. Thus, prevention focuses on creating empathy in children, teaching conflict resolution skills, and raising children to feel empowered, responsible, and empathic. Workplace bullying, however, is often explained in terms of internal attribution such as an underlying personality disorder, and prevention focuses on law, workplace tolerance, organizational norms, and policies. In the literature, the terms psychopath and sociopath crop up frequently, even though there is no hard evidence that bullying is a mental disorder. Even so, the tendency to diagnose it persists. Bullying, like so many other things that fall outside the bell curve of acceptable human behavior, is medicalized.
We used to use moral discourse; now itâ??s medical or psychiatric discourse that banishes criminal behavior and violence to the margins. Putting things into the medical model, as an aberration or disorder, is a way of containing the anxiety we feel over the incomprehensible cruelty that humans are capable of. For instance, Hitler is often called a sociopath, and those who did his bidding are said to have fallen under his hypnotic spell. It may be clinically the case, but it also obscures the fact that Hitler had many helpers. Was every German who followed Hitler a sociopath, or an anomaly?
Foucault famously said, weâ??ve come to view criminal as â??a kernel of danger, representing a type of anomaly.â?? I call this the â??lone gunman theory,â?? which states: some deranged wacko unlike you and me is responsible. Yet the truth is, none of us is too far from bullying behavior. Milgramâ??s well known experiment which measured the willingness of people to obey authority, even when it conflicted with their conscience, shows how amendable we are to so-called sociopathic tendencies. Seeking the cause of bullying as an internal attribution might help create workplace and school guidelines to prevent and curtail bullying, but it wonâ??t do enough because the question itself reflects a worldview that bullying is not a feature of human experience but a deviation from it. If on the other hand, we saw it as a continuum of behavior we are all capable of, we would learn, from an early age, how to deal with those tendencies in ourselves and others.
Bullying is abhorrent, but it is not an aberration of the human condition and calls for no special explanation. We all have bullying impulses â?? whether or not we act on them, or more accurately, to which degree we act on them. Bullying is defined as the use of power to hurt, demean, ridicule, abuse, torture, mistreat or exploit someone else to promote oneself at the othersâ?? expense. Is it not in our human nature to want to get our way no matter what? To exploit anotherâ??s weakness for our gain? To use emotions – pressure, guilt, threats â??to get our way? Isnâ??t mocking someoneâ??s point of view in public a form of bullying? When I tune in to Fox News or CNN, and watch political pundits hammering away at each other, or read comments on my favorite blogs, I find it rife with bullying.
The Workplace Bullying Institute has a simple explanation for what causes bullying: bullies bully because they can. There is a German expression: Gelegenheit macht Diebe (Opportunity makes the thief) There is opportunity and reward for those who use power to exploit others for their own gain. So bullying as a behavior cannot be addressed in isolation from the school, organization or society that promotes and rewards that use of power, competition and exploitation. Bullying is a use of power, and a poor one at that. If there is a disorder at play, it might just be a social one to which weâ??re all prone to varying degrees.