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The 1960s saw a broad social awakening that resulted in a rebellion against the many and various arenas of social, occupational and familial intercourse where violence and other abuses were visited upon the socially and politically less powerful. A fresh focus on the numbers and ways many women were being unfairly and sometimes cruelly treated in relationships and workplaces brought public approbation that over time improved women's lots tremendously, a trend which continues to this day. Attention to the abuse of children came next and later elder abuses enjoyed the spotlight, so that governments and community groups stepped in to put in place a great many safeguards to try to protect potential victims.
The latest frontier of abuse that has come to public attention in the last decade is bullying in homes, playgrounds, and schools. With a new appreciation of the vastness of the problem, scholars seek to understand why there are so many bullies amongst us. However, the answer is before our noses. Increasingly competitive societies foster increasingly competitive relations between individuals, pitting them against each other in the struggle for jobs, wealth, recognition, social status and personal and professional satisfaction. We witness the growing rancor most clearly in political discourse, but it is also seeping down into everyday life in families, schools, sports arenas, and community settings. Under such stressors, almost everyone feels inadequate and dehumanized, and so it is to be expected that some of the powerless will turn and kick others less powerful still.
Though at a first glance, it may seem that bullies are lording their superior power over others, it is generally recognized that bullying, whether it is a husband bullying his wife, a schoolyard bully terrorizing other classmates, or a clandestine cyber-bully that attacks others in cyberspace, comes from a place of weakness, rather than a place of strength. Jonathan Fast explores the phenomenon of bullying in his well-researched Beyond Bullying: Breaking the Cycle of Shame, Bullying, and Violence, and puts an emotional face on the emotional crime, explaining the critical link between the human misery of shame and the bullying behaviors that it spawns.
Where Fast's study splits off from many other analysts' positions is his argument that shame is a "powerful constructive force for helping children master the skills required to move into an adult role" (p. 6). Shame has an important evolutionary purpose, claims Fast, "it helps the human race behave acceptably in groups" by teaching the individual to follow rules (p. 7). Fast offers a dichotomous understanding of the painful emotion, splitting it into "healthy shame" that enables companionship, collaboration, religion, and nationalism (things he defines unequivocally as "benefits" p. 7) and "unhealthy shame" or "weaponized shame" that is used intentionally to injure a person's self-concept. Bullying is then defined as this weaponized shame.
Fast goes on to explore more subtle distinctions in this underlying emotion of abjection. Trait shame, in contrast to state shame, can become a permanent aspect of the personality; shame takes on a life of its own and spreads from generation to generation. Those suffering from trait shame are hypersensitive to slights from others that are readily interpreted as dishonoring. In poor communities or in families of alcoholics, addicts, or criminals, the smallest slights from outsiders can become matters for life and death battles over "honor."
Then Fast explores the victim experiences of individuals who belong to groups commonly subjected to bullying, such as bullying of women by men, bullying of Blacks and Hispanics by Whites, and bullying of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Transgender Teens, demonstrating the tragic consequences for individuals and their families. Given that shame lies at the root of bullying, it is easy to understand why coercive punitive responses to bullying crimes, from boot camps for young bullies to prison time for cruel fathers and husbands, will likely exacerbate rather than cure the problem of bullying, since punitive responses by definition, and these hidden places of punishment, serve only to further dehumanize their inmates and visit more shame upon the offenders.
As a scholar of violence, I must admit that I do not buy the distinction between good shame and bad in Fast's book any more than I accepted the distinction between good violence and bad violence in René Girard's Violence and the Sacred. I side instead with Plato in trusting that doing harm to anyone never improves the victim, and likely serves only to render him less good. Shaming is harming; it involves purposively psychologically harming a person to punish them for their failure to live up to other people's expectations. Even when the offender who dishes out the shaming, say a parent or a teacher, is trying to teach a favorable social rule (and this is always open to debate) and has the good intention of improving their ward by the shaming, the psychological punishment of shaming has a strong propensity to backfire and create, rather than cure, a bully. Moreover, the moment the administrator of punishment steps forth to harm the bully by shaming him out of his bullying behavior, we can be certain that the henchman must necessarily lose the moral high ground by taking up the very behavior that they wish to teach the bully is wrong. Harming others is wrong--universally and ubiquitously; if we did not believe this to be so, we would not be trying to improve all bullies, but only those bullies we do not like. Happily, Fast ends his meditation on this troublesome subject with a study of the superior strategy of "Restorative Justice" that has a far better chance of ending well psychologically and healing both the bullies as well as their victims, than the punitive justice that currently is applied to regulate crimes of bullying.
Jonathan Fast's Beyond Bullying is worth a serious read, if only to spark such important debates among scholars and lay readers about how to understand and address this ever spiraling problem.
© 2016 Wendy C. Hamblet
Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D. (Philosophy), Professor, North Carolina A&T State University.