Friday, January 28, 2022

Bullying and hate crimes...boiled in the same cauldron?

How to constrain a bully, in the school yard, in the board room, and on the international stage?

Negotiate with firm boundaries, and build up arms (defences, weapons, security) as a deterrence….goes one argument. And on the other side, de-escalate by disarming, resisting the urge to build up arms (defences, weapons, security) only to be dubbed appeasers by those seeking a frontal confrontation.

Hitler and Chamberlain revisited in so many times and places, it is impossible to count.

Of course, we have learned that neither extreme approach is effective, and that some attempt to bring the conversation to a place where two opposing sides are not so much talking as listening. Nevertheless, the perception of all individuals, and all political regimes as to whether or not they are being “respected” and “honoured” and “understood” and “treated fairly” is, almost like the weather, turbulent, unpredictable, and ultimately it seems, uncontrollable.

A brief anecdote from another life. I was sitting in my office at noon in a senior public school (grades 7 and 8) when a young girl burst in to exclaim, “Come quick, there’s been a fight in the yard and someone’s really hurt!”

I followed her to the yard where I found the predictable circle of onlookers, with a male student lying unconscious on the ground and his assailant standing off to the side. After sending the alleged assailant to the office, and attending to the other combatant, I returned to the office to consider how this situation might be “addressed”. I do not say “managed” or even “disciplined” or even “resolved” or
“neutralized”. I had then, and to this day, no idea what the specific dispute was over. Were they fighting over a specific girl? Were they enraged with each other over some family pride and honour issue? Were they merely fighting for superiority in front of the crowd of spectators, attempting to inflate their pugilistic reputation? Who knows? As soon as I had attended to the unconscious lad, and sought medical attention, while the other cooled his heels in the office, the phone rang.

It was the father of the one who had, I now learned, been “kicked in the head” by his classmate. “If you don’t clean up that school, I am going to come down there and clean it up myself!” Immediately recognizing the unveiled threat in both the words and the intense and angry tone of the caller, I stepped up my own perception of the urgency of the moment. I called the local office of the provincial police, told them the story as I had begun to gather it, and held both combatants separately for some time. I believe I asked them each to write down their “story” of the fight, how it started and why, and what they recalled of what actually happened. After a couple of hours, the police officer returned to tell what he had learned.

“I visited the home of the alleged “kicker” in this incident, and spoke to his father and younger brother, the only two people home at the time. As we talked, the younger brother persisted in interrupting his father’s stream of words. Several times, the father told the young man to ‘shut-up’ only to have the interruptions continue. Finally, the father rose from his chair in the kitchen, and bolted to the young brother, and drove his right fist into the jaw of his son. I had to recollect that this young man had not even been in the school yard conflict; it was his older brother who had “kicked” his opponent in the head leaving him concussed and unconscious on the ground. I got the father to calm down, asked the young brother if he was OK, and returned to the car to make my notes. The only thing I can conclude is that I was investigating the wrong person, the grade 8 boy who inflicted the kick. I should have been investigating the father, a sole parent in the family with two teen-aged sons,” was his verbal report to me.

“Perhaps you and your office would consider something of a novel approach to this incident. I need to have it addressed in a manner that addresses the seriousness for the two combatants, as well as to demonstrate to the rest of the school and the small community, that this kind of behaviour is not acceptable. I can have them serve detentions in the school, perhaps write some lines, or even engage in some clean-up activities as “punishment” but I am thinking of something else. Would you office, including your supervisor consider a weekly interview in your office with both young men, each Friday until the end of the school year, some four months away, for them to report that they have not been engaged in fighting each week, and that they are completing their school work as required? I proposed.

“Well, I think that approach might be worth trying,” came the response.

And, each Friday, for the remaining months of the school year, the two boys trecked a couple of hundred yards down to the provincial police office, to report their “week” to an officer, and each student finished their year successfully. The threatening father of the “kicked” boy remained silent on the sidelines so far as I knew.

Did the intervention stop the bullying? Of course not! It merely removed that behaviour from the lives of those two young men.

In many other situations, where bullying imposes physical, emotional, psychic and career damage, the situations are so complex that it would seem there is almost no formula for addressing the situation. If a parent “bullies” and intimidates a child, the only recourse, outside of referring the matter to social and family services, is for the non-bullying parent to intervene. And if that does not occur, then the child is left on his/her own to deal with the abuse.

If a teacher bullies a child, (and make no mistake, this is not an infrequent occurrence given that personalities collide), then the student often, if not in most cases, keeps the matter silent, believing, quite rightly, that to open “that can of worms” is another act of self-sabotage that s/he cannot win. Parents are faced with increasing pressures from social media, in which bullying by teens of other teens has apparently run rampant, even leading to the victim taking his or her own life.

We wring our hands, cry foul and leave the matter to be dealt with by “experts” who almost without exception, are as uncertain of the appropriate response as everyone else. School programs, including peer training, school-yard interventions by peers, and whole system involvement have demonstrated some effectiveness, roughly around 20-30% reductions, but certainly not eliminations. Like so many other features of our lives, including most medical illnesses, we are usually in the business of “managing” and “ameliorating” the conditions, including the pain, the trauma, and the active therapy in support, to rebuild lost confidence, to restore hope and to demonstrate community opposition to the nefarious acts of bullying.

In the business world, too, a company wishing to eliminate specific competition, will take steps both overtly and privately to undercut the success of that competitor. There are some “deportment” conventions about how this might be accomplished. And yet, there are stories of both organizations and individuals who trample over the assets, and even the profits and the reputations of corporations seeking to maintain a standard of performance that would qualify as competent, ethical, transparent and accountable for most critics.

In the political theatre, at least in North America, I grew up in an atmosphere of what might be called court-room civility. Political opponents, particularly in formal debate in the legislatures, addressed each other with formal Mr. or Madame or Ms as a sign of respect for the office, as much as for the individual. Speakers are charged with the task of keeping the debate within the bounds of conventional respectability. When John Crosby disdainfully addresses Sheila Copps as “Babe” Ms Copps herself denounces his misogyny instantly, relegating the speaker to the sidelines. Such misogynistic inflammatory language, at least in Canada, has almost disappeared, while language of hate and hate crimes have, on the other hand, increased significantly.

Hate language, hate crimes, are forms of bullying that have laws in place to restrain their occurrence. And yet those laws run into the “free speech” First Amendment in the U.S. and into subtle nuances of interpretation of evidence by Canadian judges.

Reporting in the The Star, by Robert Cribb, Inori Roy, Charlie Buckley and Mashal Butt, January 28, 2022 details how weak laws fail to address the rise of hate. One specific Canadian evangelical fundamentalist Bill Whatcott, determined to speak out against abortion and homosexuality, “estimates he has distributed at least half a million flyers, the majority targeting abortion and homosexuality. A 2013 Supreme Court decision described language used in some of his flyers as “hate-inspiring. Two provincial tribunals and Canada’s highest court have found he violated hate-related human rights legislation. But despite numerous hearings and, by his estimate. More than 340 stays in custody for his speech, Whatcott has remained undeterred. ‘I’m not gonna apologize for any of my flyers…I’d rather sit in jail,’ he told Toronto Police in a 2018 video interview played for his trial last fall.”

Is there a link between the dots on bullying and hate crime? At the core of both activities lies the inordinate need for power. It might well be that hate and bullying occupy different time frames; bullying is immediate, short-term gratification, while hate has a much longer time line, often simmering before burning and exploding into some act. They both express deep contempt for another person, group or nation. And depending on the resources available to those whose appetite for power is voracious, seemingly consuming their every thought and feeling, they are able to exercise power in the theatres appropriate to their resources, fists and muscles, handguns or rifles, assault weapons or machetes, bombs or missiles or alternatively, such demonically frightening scenarios of hell and damnation, often biblically extracted, or from other sacred texts. Both hate crimes and bullying depend on a kernel of such contempt for the object of the exercise, whether or not that contempt is a projection or not, that the agent bearing that contempt is unable and unwilling to restrain, contain and moderate his/her words or actions. There is a quality of absolutism, in the sense that the agent of both bullying and hate crimes countenances no other option than the one of dominating the foe. A self- righteousness, borne of insecurity, or the perception of weakness, inferiority, whether personal or cultural or organizational, haunts the agents of both bullying and hate. The need for an enemy to oppress, or even to eliminate, depending on the depth and length and venom of the hollowness that besets the agent.

And, while detailing what is obvious about the nature of the two parallel human activities can be tapped out on a keypad, remedies, therapeutics, therapies, preventive measures to reduce the incidence of both are much more difficult even to suggest. In a time when the sociological impacts on individuals have become significant in the way we think of and even work with individual anxieties and distress, it is not a leap to reflect that the culture itself, each and every component of the culture holds a portion of the opportunity to participate as antidote for these nefarious incidents. The law, and the law enforcement agencies, cannot and will not be able, alone, to cope with these crimes. Neither will the schools and colleges, nor the after-school programs, or the entertainment and sports fraternities, by themselves, penetrate the phenomenon. The churches, it seems, have demonstrated their incompetence in the face of bullying and hate, except, in reverse, there are far too many incidents of hate directed specifically at religious groups and institutions. God, and the disciplined worship of God is as divisive a human behaviour and attitude, given that it seems to magnetize feelings and attitudes of contempt, bitterness, hate and the impulse to attack in those outside such faith communities. Similarly, race is another of the white-hot impulses generating bullying and hate crimes, often depicted as “radical change from the status quo” which, by itself, is another of the documented motivations of those engaged in hate crimes and bullying.

It may seem ironic to some to say that churches also bully anyone within earshot about how they are “going to hell” if they persist in specific behaviours. And they have been doing this for centuries, claiming they are acting on behalf of and in the name of God. An example of bullying that does not normally get filed in the newsrooms of the nation under that “file heading” is conversion therapy for those who have identified as gay, and are being ‘counselled’ into conversion therapy in order to “return to their original gender. That conversion therapy is not only bullying; it is now against the law in Canada and other countries. And yet, in my lifetime, I have worked with clergy who advocated it and endorsed candidates for active ministry in the Episcopal Church in the U.S. whom they had counselled to undergo it and who had succumbed to that counsel.

The headlines today, of course, circle around another face and form of bullying, coming out of the Kremlin. Putin is making demands, insisting that Ukraine must never become a member of NATO, and that NATO commit to withdrawal of forces and equipment and test drills in nations on Russia’s borders. And it is the divide among NATO members, particularly between European nations like Germany and France, and the U.S. that threatens to dilute any voice of solidarity in response to Putin’s bullying. Of course, none of us is surprised that Levrov and Putin’s spokesman, Peskov, both emphasize that, although there may be 130,000 troops amassed on the Ukraine-Russia border, with tanks and fighter jets, and anti-aircraft missiles in place, Russia has no intention of invading Ukraine. The unspoken specific of such narrowing descriptors as “militarily” and “through cyber-warfare” and through a “coup” are all missing from the Russian declaration.

Western analysts seem unanimous that they are unsure of what Putin is going to do. And some even argue that Putin himself may not have decided, or may not know. Germany’s contribution of 5000 helmets to Ukraine has legitimately incensed some Ukrainians, including the mayor of Kyiv. Their resistance to having military equipment, especially that made in Germany, transported across their homeland is another of the swiss-cheese holes in the NATO solidarity that obviously gives Putin delight.
Some in the U.S. Congress, as well as some in Ukraine itself, argue that a build-up of military might will only exacerbate the situation, by enraging Putin, and motivate him to take decisive military action against Ukraine. Of course, the political establishment inside NATO argues for “prepare” which in their mind means only “build up a massive defensive wall” in order to both demonstrate support for Ukraine and also to indicate to Putin that Russia will face consequences should he pull the trigger. There is little doubt, too, that the American president has to demonstrate that he has taken a very different position to his successor who attempted to “bribe” The Ukrainian president into supplying dirt on his political opponent at the time, the Bidens, in order to acquire the military support he had been promised.
We simply do not know how to “deal with” or to “talk down” or to neutralize agents who choose to bully, although we are making some progress in the education and family spheres.

Like many of the cancers, whose origins and next steps they might take, and also like the pandemic and its many mutations, we do not know all that we would like to know. And that gap is like a opportunity for anyone seeking to drive an opportunistic “truck” through our unknowing, thereby deepening the divide between political opinions that serve in part to threaten the safety and the security of all of us, on so many fronts.

Can and will NATO come to a position of solidarity in its encounter with the Russian/Putin demands? Likely at least partially.

Will Putin consider the international attention his moves have garnered adequate compensation for this scare he has injected into geopolitics? Again, perhaps partially.

Will the Chinese imitate Putin’s latest venture when they consider their options vis a vis Taiwan? Highly likely.

Will the current strategic and tactical manoeuvres by Putin embolden lesser tyrants who might be contemplating similar flexing of their political, ideological muscle? Highly likely again.

Will the U.S. actually take a deep look into the mirror of their own military invasions/incursions/take-overs in various countries, and recalibrate how they have come to this moment, as an active role model for hard power? Doubtful.

Will the United Nations Security Council, if and when it meets to debate how to interject its resources into the conflict in order to de-escalate tensions, reduce the angst inside Ukraine, and attempt to work out some kind of negotiated entente between Russia and NATO, have a positive impact? Very doubtful!

Is the world order, so called, that has been operating mostly since the second world war, under a series of tectonic shifts and rumblings, prompted by the rise of China, India, South East Asia and the seemingly constant rumblings of nationalism and populism in Europe in in both North and South America? It would seem so.

Are we safer today than we were in 1962 when the Cuban missile crisis dominated headlines? Hardly.

And, finally, will any of the participants in the current conflict stoop to deploying even a single nuclear warhead? Who knows but we all hope they resist!


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