Talking of bullying

Earlier this week I listened to a radio program about female teenage age self harm. It made for deeply unpleasant listening. All of the expert contributors stressed that bullying, real bullying, is frequently a catalyst for self-harm. The expert contributors were also unified in their belief that the scars from bullying, sometimes physical, but always mental, last for life. Anyone who has been bullied knows this.

One of the reasons why the scars run so deep, sapping the very soul, is that we humans often believe the things we are told. Humans, it seems, are hard-wired to believe; we are credal beings. We also find it incredibly difficult to let go of the ‘former things.’  At a very deep level I suspect that the bullies know this. They know the damage that they cause and they know that their taunts run deep.

Bullies understand, just like people of faith, that repetition is the tool that turns creeds from proposition to belief. Bullies know that the popular wisdom which suggests that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never harm me,’ is the worst kind of myth.

Bullies, the worst of bullies, are happy using all the tricks of the trade: sticks and stones, words, whatever has the most impact, whatever causes the deepest pain, whatever facilitates the possibility of self-loathing and self-harm. The ultimate genius of the bully is, you see, to deflect blame and attention away from themselves. This is their great deceit. If the bully can facilitate self-destructive patterns of behaviour in their victims then voila, they have been successful in using their power to shift the blame. It’s a strategy perfect in its wickedness.

Bullies are, philosophically, critical realists. They understand – fully understand – their victims areas of weakness and vulnerability. They know where their victim feels uncomfortable and exposed and direct their critique towards maximizing discomfort, in the hope that discomfort will mutate into self-loathing. Bullies also understand how to turn vulnerability into fear. Bullies know how to get people to turn in on themselves. They are experts in diminishing horizons and undermining community. Bullies also know that various types of people are inherently more vulnerable and they therefore attack their easy pray. Its all incredibly ugly.

Bullies clothe themselves in a variety of different robes. Sometimes they dress for war, their intent out there, on public display, for all to see. Sometimes the pattern of bullying is more nuanced, sly, seemingly clever, less obvious and implicit. ‘Good’ bullies know that the constant drip, drip, drip, of causticity can reap real long-term harm. They also know that the drip, drip,drip of carefully rehearsed and choreographed harm is less likely to be seen and called out. And it’s not just individuals that bully its groups.

Sometimes these groups are referred to as gangs; sometimes they are referred to as institutions.  Institutions and gangs often start to bully as a form of protection when they perceive a potential cost to their freedom, power, status or autonomy. Both gangs and institutions have their own way of doing things, their own rituals, their own procedures. Gangland and institutional bullies hide within the collective and either crudely, or subtly, use the rituals and policies at their disposal for their ugly and demeaning ends. The rituals and policies at their disposal often allow the bullies to withhold the freedom of the target of their behaviour to stake their case on equal terms. Is this the sort of bullying we have seen in the Christ Church saga where it appears that the Dean has had the rights associated with natural and procedural justice withheld?

Gangs and institutions frequently stigmatize, victimize and ostracize.  It happens. Victims frequently report that they have been offered little in the way of institutional support and whistle-blowers are often consigned to the HR file called ‘trouble-maker.’ Institutions often collude in the facilitation of abusive forms of behaviour.  Victims and whistle-blowers, whatever the PR rhetoric, are frequently considered to be problems.

Bullies refuse to accept that each and every human being deserves to be treated with decency and respect. Theologically bullying starts with a dismissal of the sentiment expressed in Genesis 1, 26 where are told that ‘God said let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.’  The ‘successful’ bully can never dare to take this foundational scripture at face value, for the bullies task is to erase equality, parity, and dignity. For the bully justice and love have little value, for their consequences stand contrary to the bullies destructive ends. The other, quite sickening, skill that bullies employ is role reversal. When it looks like they might not be able to secure their ends bullies are adept at saying ‘look at me, I am the real victim.’

The bullies ultimate aim is to get their victim to believe, truly believe, that they are not made in the very likeness of God, that they are somehow less, and what the bully knows is this: that if they can get their victim to feel that they are some lesser form of human being the result will be this: self-harm.

The church has a moral obligation to be a model institution. Bullying and abuse should never be countenanced in the church. Policies, (and even doctrine), should never be hidden behind, or worse still used, in such a way as to make people feel less than fully human.  The church should always ensure that its own house in order, that it is a place and community where ‘all may flourish and none need fear.’ The church should never allow that most corrosive of behaviors, group-think (even where it masquerades as catholicity and unity) to take hold. The church should always seek to be on the side of the marginalized, stigmatized and the ostracized. Surely this is a basic biblical imperative?

The Church should always speak truth to power.





One thought on “Talking of bullying

  1. Dear Andrew, as the person who was the main author of the 2010 Dignity at Work paper for the C of E, thank you for raising this very important topic. Sadly, I failed to persuade the then Bp Ripon and Leeds, John Packer, to remove from his Forward that bullying is rare in the church. Sadly it is all too prevalent. As you say the damage inflicted by bullying goes far beyond the scars inflicted by “sticks and stones”. Bruises and broken bones heal, but the damage done by bullying attacks people at the core of their identity. You are absolutely right that “the church has a moral obligation to be a model institution” But sadly there are too many unwritten rules and whispering behind closed doors and the need in some people to boost themselves by putting other people down. Until we all see ourselves AND OTHER PEOPLE as made in the image of God, or we at least, frail humans that we are, try to see us all as made in the image of God, then bullying in the church will continue to be rife. There are too many people posturing and viewing themselves as ‘right’ and therefore implying if not explicitly stating, that other people are ‘wrong’. Until we can ALL accept that we are flawed and just may have got something wrong, that none of us have the whole truth, but that we are all trying to follow Jesus to the best of our ability, then the Church is not able to be the moral or model institution is should be and could be. We need to be far more aware of the effects of our words and actions on others, how they might be perceived and understood by others, of understanding and accepting the needs that we each of us have which are not healed by our mistreatment of other people even though the temptation is to believe they are. The damage done to women by the institution of the Church as well as by individuals within it, lay and ordained, over many years will take a long time to heal and be put right. The damage done to individuals by the institution of the Church as well as by individuals within it, lay and ordained, cannot even start to be healed until there is recognition by the individuals as well as by those within the hierarchy of the Church that enormous damage has been done to particular individuals. And yet the Church has within its teachings the knowledge which is needed. Love your neighbour as yourself is probably the best place to start. If as an Advent penance we can all decide to acknowledge who the people are that we don’t love and discover how we are demonstrating that non-love – or even hatred – then perhaps we are ourselves taking a very, very small step towards healing ourselves so that we are able to stop the bullying behaviours we have become comfortable with.

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