Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Problem of Bullying In Modern Technological Society

            Bullying is a problem that has drawn increasing attention in recent years around the world.  It’s a problem that is considered to have negative effects not only for the victims but also for the perpetrators as well as for the innocent observers.  And it has many different manifestations.  There is name calling, general teasing, harassment, college hazing, spreading rumors, and physical violence among other forms. With modern technology, we now have cyberbullying, where people can get teased, harassed and threatened on the Internet.

            Bullying is different from old-fashioned expressions of aggression.  Many of the old forms of aggression related to defending a person’s honor (I am excluding here raiding parties and warfare for economic purposes).  With defense of honor, the victim is perceived to have done the perpetrator wrong.  In many cases, the wrong would be perceived by modern people to be imaginary as in the case of witchcraft.  But the structure of traditional aggression is to hurt the victim because the victim has hurt the perpetrator.  Basically, the perpetrator of the new aggression wants to get even.  Even in the case of a natural disaster, if a supposed perpetrator can be connected to it through witchcraft, the supposed victim of a part of the natural disaster can use the premise of witchcraft as a vehicle that permits him to express his potentially explosive emotions against the supposed perpetrator in a way that allows him to express these emotions without metaphorically blowing himself up.

            With honor defense, the flowing aggression that is activated by all the organic stimulation in a more traditional natural living environment, but remains latent until a target is found, finds an outlet for release when a supposed wrong is committed against the perpetrator of honor defense.  So, in truth, honor defense serves two purposes: the surface one of getting even, and the deeper one of finding a focused safe outlet to release the explosive emotions that build up inside many traditional people as a result of all the organic stimulation they absorb from their more natural living environments.

            Particularly in more preliterate societies, people deal with their strong flowing blendable continual emotions by turning a lot of situations where things go wrong into situations of honor defense.  Some misfortune happens, and a person is found as a scapegoat and accused of having created the harmful situation through witchcraft.  In this situation, we would call the chain of causation attributed to the supposed perpetrator a magical fabricated chain of causation.  But for preliterate people, it is a way of applying some kind of coherent explanation to a situation that they really don’t understand.  And it is also a way of releasing swirling internal aggressive emotions in a safe societally permitted way.  Honor defense is a very important mechanism for regulating emotions not only in preliterate society but in all traditional societies.  Perhaps in Western traditional societies the explanation of witchcraft wouldn’t be resorted to as much in order to explain all uncomfortable events.  Perhaps honor defense wouldn’t be resorted to as much, and more reasoned patient explanations would be developed to explain some of these events.  But honor defense would still play an important role in helping to deal with some kinds of uncertainty.  In honor defense, what is important is utilizing a target perpetrator – real or imagined – who becomes a receptacle for the aggressive emotions of the supposed victim.

            Bullying, although it is an aggressive action against a person, represents a very different situation of aggressive emotions and behavior.  Interestingly enough, in bullying, the focus is more on the process of aggression rather than the target of the aggression.  The victim has usually not wronged the perpetrator in any way.  So the perpetrator is not trying to get even with the victim.  Rather the victim of bullying is a vehicle the perpetrator uses to try to stimulate himself out of the numbness he feels as a result of living in modern technological society.  It is a way of pulling himself out of the experiential vacuum in which he is living in as a result of living a life that is too frictionless and too mediated.  And aggression is a tension-pocket action that can shock the bully out of his numbness.

            The bully picks someone who is weaker and more helpless than he is, because he is not really looking for a fight.  Rather he is looking for an object and a situation where he can safely express his repressed anger without having to worry about any meaningful retaliation.  In fraternity hazing, the bully has the additional safety of numbers.  The fraternity members actively haze a whole group of fraternity pledges, who, if they tried to respond to the hazing in a negative way, would not be offered an opportunity to become a member of the fraternity which they are so desirous to join.  But the fraternity members are as much in need of the pledges as the pledges are in need of the members.  And not simply because the members want the pledges to provide continuity for the fraternity.  Rather, apart from the fraternity parties, which can get raucous, fraternity hazing provides some of the most intense stimulating experiences that fraternity members can have during their years in the fraternity.  The pledges help to pull the members out of the latter’s own sense of weakness and helplessness as a result of their numbness.

            But in today’s world, much of what we would call bullying is done in an almost anonymous way.  Bullies can spread rumors about their victims by word of mouth or on the Internet.  Also, on the Internet, bullies can directly tease and threaten their victims.  All of these cases are what we would call mediated bullying.  One would think that this mediation would take some of the pleasure out of the encounter of bullies with their victims.  But bullies, at bottom, are people who are very numb.  And although they are using the process of bullying as a vehicle to pull themselves out of their numbness, many of them are going to be overwhelmed by the aggressive stimulation they generate inside themselves.  To such people, doing their bullying through a relatively frictionless mediated pathway like the Internet, tends to dampen the intensity of the anger stimulated inside of them.  In this way, they can absorb the positive effects without being swallowed up by their anger.  In other words, they need the intensity of the anger they generate inside themselves in order to feel alive, but they have difficulty absorbing it sometimes and that is when they find a way to weaken it by filtering it.

            But filtered or unfiltered, bullying today is a conventionalized way for many people to pull themselves out of their numbness, out of the experiential vacuum, in order to feel alive.  And we will never find a way to significantly diminish its impact, unless we acknowledge the effect of modern living environments on its prevalence today.

© 2019 Laurence Mesirow

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