Several months ago the NY Times ran an article entitled “Publishers Revel in Youthful Cruelty,” describing how the topic of bullying has ignited a book bonanza on the subject over the last few years. This probably isn’t news to anyone since the ubiquitous nature of the subject is evident way outside of old fashioned print media. Many are the awareness campaigns about bullying, ads with celebrities, special emphases within the schools, anti-bullying surveys and petitions across social media, etc.
Bullying applies to every kind of potential victim: the overweight, the mentally challenged, the religious minority, the socially awkward. Frequently it is associated particularly with the gay issue. Bullying is no longer the straightforward thing we once took it to be. Now it can be subtle, nonphysical, a particular feeling one gets from another person. And of course there is cyber-bullying, a word nobody would have understood in my school days.
I will admit readily that anytime something like this leaps out of obscurity and onto the radar of political correctness, my knee-jerk reaction is negative. I can’t help it. I have such little faith in and respect for contemporary popular culture that I just assume that whatever captivates all of its attention at the present moment is probably idiotic. But that’s not really fair, so I have to back off and take a closer look sometimes. And even though the issue of bullying has popped up like a trendy ‘cause of the month’, if I think about the issue for what it is, disregarding some of the silliness that is currently written about it, I can’t deny that it is an important subject.
Bullying is necessarily a moral issue, since the word itself, like “murder” or “rape,” is morally slanted. It isn’t a neutral word. It is implied that you are doing something wrong if you are bullying. And as with any moral discussion, we have to make judgments about things that are right and things that are wrong. My specific interest here is not with bullying in the schoolyard but with bullies in the contemporary public discourse. These are the forceful voices who come strong with their opinions and use illegitimate bully-style tactics in order to twist the philosophical arms of people into agreeing with them (or at least into saying that they agree with them). My contention is that this kind of “Bully Bob” is problematic and needs to be confronted.
Bully Bob is a Big Talker
The first problem with the kinds of bullies I’m talking about is of a verbal nature. The general rule is that the bully in the yard with the biggest mouth is likely to cower the first time he’s confronted by someone whose toughness is more than talk. That’s why, when Wyatt Earp looked over & saw ‘Bully’ Bob Thornton as the belligerent Faro dealer bossing people around & doling out the threats (after having abused the regular customers and chased off all the high class play, according the bartender), Earp saw right through Bully Bob & realized immediately that he didn’t need to “go heeled to get the bulge on a tub” like him. A typical loudmouth, this bully – a “madcap” identified as “Johnny Tyler” by Doc Holliday (and based on a historical figure)- was all noise, too cowardly to “skin that smokewagon and see what happens” when stood up to by a confident and unarmed stranger.
If you don’t get the above reference, never mind the specific names & quotes (but seriously, how can you call yourself an American?). The point is that when someone talks too big a game it is an indicator of the high likelihood that the situation is exactly the opposite. And the odds continue moving in that direction with every additional bit of verbal abuse he adds to his swagger. When I hear someone using verbal and ideological bully tactics in a modern day debate, it automatically weakens that person’s position for me. I hear weakness masked by the noise of a bully megaphone.
And while the big talkers who bring the noise can be intimidating, a certain calm confidence on the part of someone who questions the verbal bully can cut right through his bluster. The worst thing you can do in response to his or her noise is to play the same game and try to talk more trash and louder. The best thing you can do is to ignore the petty stuff and go right to the heart of the person’s point of view. Ask her pointed and penetrating questions that require her to articulate and defend the view she is trying to bully people into accepting. It is sometimes surprising how quickly someone who seemed so sure of herself will back off once critical questions are put to her.
Bully Bob can be Anyone and Everyone
You’ll notice I switched genders in the last paragraph (Bully Bertha?). In discussion and debate today, anybody – young or old, male or female – can play the bully. The kind of bullying I’m discussing here doesn’t depend on looking big and mean. If we are painfully honest, there is a little Bully Bob in every one of us. We each have the potential, in certain circumstances, to devolve to the level of bullying, if only out of laziness. It seems easier sometimes just to pummel people with attitude and force of personality than to deal with their questions and arguments. Fair and careful analysis makes my brain work harder, but just throwing out cheap shots, one-liners and other weapons of the bully’s verbal arsenal can come so naturally and make you feel stronger, at least for a moment.
In fact, when you’re especially annoyed by someone who opposes you, you may get a subtle pleasure out of just smacking him around in the debate rather than legitimizing his point of view even enough to take it seriously and engage with it in a responsible way. It’s like when Homer Simpson was heckling Coach Flanders from the stands. Marge scolded him by saying, “You know, Homer, it’s really easy for you to sit up here and criticize Ned from a distance,” to which Homer replied, “Ya and it’s fun too.”
So anybody can feel the temptation to be Bully Bob. Christians can certainly be guilty of it. One of the reasons for the kind of ongoing backlash against Christians in our time is the animosity many people maintain stemming from past experiences where they feel they were browbeaten or spiritually guilted by people in their church past (family members, fellow church-goers, even friends). In the larger cultural conversation Christians have lost any edge they once had due to this kind of perception, and now it is often the case that the Christian view faces a negative bias from the start and finds itself on the receiving end of the bully treatment, ironically, because of a continued perception that the Christian view is itself the inherent bully.
But outside of the walls of churches, and aside from a tiny minority of Westboro types, the believing Christians of today, in the larger cultural context, tend mostly to be quietly making their way through the perceived minefield of political correctness where verbal bully tactics await them should they dare to converse about the current sensitive moral or political subjects. In any given workplace today, it is unlikely that the non-Christians feel some sort of pervasive intimidation from the Christians. It is probably more the opposite. In fact, people hostile to traditional conservative Christian views have become all the more emboldened in recent years due partly to a growing collective sense of ‘strength in numbers’ enhanced by media, entertainment and the vast online social universe.
And with boldness comes Bully Bob tendencies. This has been true especially of a certain vocal segment of the secular self-appointed intellectual tough guys of recent years. These swashbucklers love to kick up dust and blind the opposition with a storm of favorite words and phrases, along with a list of accusations meant to shame their conservative villains for all of the misdeeds of history. Usually they know precious little about any of these things, but they rely on their show of bluster to keep challengers at bay. They pretend to occupy the moral high ground with further crimes against language by tossing around words like hate, bigotry, intolerance, imperialism, oppression, thereby urinating on the memories of countless people who suffered all of those things for real. Alas, that’s what happens when you “let your mouth run kinda reckless,” to quote Bully Bob the Faro dealer.
There’s Only One Fair Way to Fight
The verbal games the bully plays need to be given the repeated Earp-slap until they cease. Disagreements are inevitable and not to be feared. But there exists only one legitimate format and process for attempting to settle such disagreements on important issues. There is a fair way to engage in debate, whether formally or informally, whether with friends or people hostile to your viewpoint. It doesn’t involve yelling, name-calling or insults. It involves more than sarcasm and treating your opponent like she’s evil or stupid.
When a contemporary big talker on a big stage (think Bill Maher) makes pretense to intelligence, reason and fairness while playing only to a crowd of inebriated fans and despising any voice that disagrees with him, just remember, you are not watching a legitimate debate format any more than you are watching legitimate family counseling when you watch Jerry Springer. It is entertainment masquerading as serious discussion about important relevant topics. But the whole thing is rigged and the debate is mostly punchlines at the expense of the view not represented by the powers at the controls.
Bullies love to manipulate all of aspects of a discussion. They can be the Don Kings of fight promoting and gas-bag with the best of them when there’s nobody to hold them accountable, but it’s empty talk. We need to find out if there is any real substance to what they are saying or if they’re just waving a gun around for show. If there are legitimate arguments to be made, so be it. Let’s hear them and consider their merits. It may well be that the first time the bully is removed from his turf, without his crowd behind him, and in a neutral environment that he doesn’t get to control, he has little to say. The first time he’s hit with intelligent questions and arguments that he is forced to deal with and respond to, he may be able to do nothing but “stand there and bleed” (yes I plan to keep the Tombstone references coming throughout this blog).
Legitimate debate requires a fair arena, civil disagreement, and none of the “Mean Girls” style insults that bullies love to substitute for arguments. You can’t employ the laser show of shiny objects in order to play to the cheap seats for worthless applause, and then congratulate yourself for winning the debate. Shooting off your mouth in front of your own fans tells us nothing about the quality of your point of view. It reminds me of the tradition in the sport of boxing where fighters and their promoters (again, like Don King) appear together for pre-fight press conferences and turn the events into sideshows of trash talk. A boxer’s (or promoter’s) prowess at talking smack tells me nothing about who is more likely to win in the ring. And so to defend your political, moral or religious views over against those with whom you disagree, you actually have to subject your ideas to genuine criticism and response, giving equal time on a level playing field.
C. S. Lewis cited this as the reason he founded the Oxford debate society known as the “Socratic Club,” which became the lively intellectual hub for so many Oxford students during the wartime era. In the Socratic Digest Lewis put it like this:
In any fairly large and talkative community such as a university, there is always the danger that those who think alike should gravitate together into coteries where they will henceforth encounter opposition only in the emasculated form of rumor that the outsiders say thus and thus. The absent are easily refuted, complacent dogmatism thrives, and differences of opinion are embittered by group hostility. Each group hears not the best, but the worst, that the other groups can say … We expose ourselves, and the weakest of our party, to your fire no less than you are exposed to ours… . The arena is common to both parties and cannot finally be cheated.
In other words don’t attack straw men – even actual, living straw men. Don’t pad your schedule with cupcakes. Lewis could easily have invited lesser representatives of the positions he opposed, and then he could have overwhelmed them with his library of knowledge, his nearly perfect recall, his pristine reasoning skills and his gift for words. It might have made him feel good for a short time and pleased those who agreed with him, but what would it have proven or accomplished? When Mike Tyson KO’d Michael Spinks in 91 seconds, it made him the rightful and legitimate heavyweight champion. When he KO’d lesser competition outside the ring (including women, allegedly), it just made him a psychologically unstable and degenerate bully.
But some bullies won’t even step into the ring (the ring, in this case, being a fair and legitimate environment of debate). They are afraid to face competition that challenges them. This is because Bully Bob’s insecurity needs to feed on hollow perceived victories over Division II opponents. Those who I believe best represent my point of view never get invited onto the talk shows. You’ll recall that Johnny Ringo invited Wyatt Earp to a ‘mano a mano’ duel figuring he was a faster draw and the likely winner; he was less than enthused to see Doc Holliday show up instead. He preferred not to square off with someone who was his equal as a gunslinger. And of course the single-bullet shootout didn’t end well for him. It turns out he was “no daisy at all.” If you want to get down to the nitty-gritty of theological or moral disputes, let the very best representatives on different sides meet on the playing field, and let their best arguments clash. The rules are fair, the opponents well matched and nobody is being bullied. As Lewis said, there’s no cheating involved.
Standing up to Bully Bob doesn’t mean using his tactics. You shouldn’t bully a bully any more than you should rob a thief or rape a rapist. In other words don’t take my ongoing Wyatt Earp analogy too seriously. The kind of “standing up” I’m referring to here doesn’t involve the back of your hand and the words, “I said throw down, boy.” It is enough just to let Bully Bob know that you see through his charade, that it’s not going to work on you, and that if he will drop the act and be willing to have a legitimate discussion/debate, you are ready to do so (you’re his huckleberry). But if in the end Bully Bob really doesn’t have anything substantive to bring to the discussion – if he’s just going to use illegitimate verbal bully tactics in the place of argument – then we can dismiss his antics as an unfortunate distraction, and after awhile say to him with the politeness of a true southern gentleman, “Oh I’m sorry, Johnny, I forgot you were there. You may go now.”