Sunday, January 19, 2014

#148 January 19, 2014- A Society of Bullies?

Bullying, Fear and Anger. . .
Bullying is a word that has become widely used and misused in our discussions about the direction our society is moving in.  We hear the word used in a variety of settings and situations.  It is used to describe actions and to either promote or attack groups beliefs.  In fact, the word is so commonly tossed around that it is in danger of losing its power and meaning.  Just like racism, harassment and discrimination have become a tool and a target, so too bullying is in danger of becoming a caricature of itself in our discussions about important issues.

The use of these words in our society have followed a similar path.  First, groups of people who are suffering some type of difficulty, discrimination or other injustice begin to stand up for themselves and call attention to the issues at hand.  The issues may be large or small, but they are of importance in our society's effort to move forward towards achieving the goals that our founding documents lay out for us.  The groups involved fight for their rights and often achieve successes that lay the groundwork for future progress.  They face difficult odds and entrenched beliefs, but their message and energy helps break through some of these barriers.  Our historical landscape is filled with evidence of these struggles as our nation grapples with huge issues of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and even just the simple goal of being able to go to work or school and to feel safe there.

These successes are usually achieved through legislative or legal means as groups try to cement their successes in our society and prevent the destruction of their achievements.  We pass laws that protect the rights of specific groups in order to codify the protections and rights that have been won in the struggle. The affected groups enjoy their successes and our entire society benefits from the progress that has been made.

Then there is pushback from those who, for whatever reason, fight against the efforts to promote equality and opportunity for others (or sometimes even for themselves).  This pushback is grounded in some form of fear and hate and seeks to return our society to the previous status quo.  Sometimes the resistance to progress is overt and instantaneous, and sometimes it is subtle and grows slowly over time.  All of this builds towards another cycle of struggle as the affected groups find the need to reassert their hard earned rights in our society.

One of the side effects of the struggle is that certain words and phrases become a part of our national lexicon.  At the outset these words have specific and direct meanings, but over time the words become so commonly used that they lose their impact, or change meanings.  People choose to use and define the terms in different ways, some that build their power, and some that diminish it.  Different groups struggle to control the use and definitions of these terms and our society grapples with the consequences of the struggles.  Those on all sides of an issue use the language of freedom and justice to promote their ideas and try to paint their opposition in a negative light. 

Another way that terms are defined is by associating them with some extreme, unusual or at times ridiculous position or action.  Opponents of a movement will choose the most outlandish examples in order to discredit those who have different opinions.  Too often we focus on the extreme, the ridiculous and the unusual and forget that most of our experiences exist in a more narrow range of "normal".  Thus we see important issues and concerns relegated to sideshow status and those with legitimate problems suffer the consequences.  People also tend to apply their own experiences, or allow other to define what "common sense" would dictate to be a proper definition of any given term.  This means that  we see claims in the media that school children can be bullied, but NFL players can not. 

What exactly constitutes bullying, discrimination, harassment and other similar terms is defined in different ways by the law, by individuals and by groups in society.  Yet, all of the words and ideas that are associated with the fight for equality, opportunity and justice share a common thread in that they involve groups with limited access to power and their fight to increase their influence politically, socially or economically.  It may be true that bullying can be done by anyone, even someone without power, but the reality is that most of the conflicts we engage in as a society are based on inequities in power.

The impact of an individual's or group's actions is directly related to the amount of power that they wield.  This is why we need to be careful when we use terms like bullying to describe the actions of groups fighting for their rights.  Public sector employees who belong to unions have been called bullies and thugs in an effort to dishonor their efforts to engage in collective bargaining and to maintain their rights and benefits in the workplace.  At the same time we see unionized public workers being vilified we see politicians like Scott Walker and Chris Christie lauded as heroes for standing up to the bullies.  This language has led some members of the public to question the rights of employees in general to unionize, yet the power of the individual worker pales in comparison to the power that management wields. 

We are living in a climate governed by fear, and as Yoda said, "Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering."  It isn't only in fiction that we see this connection between fear and a regression in societal values.  FDR in his Inaugural Address on March 4, 1933 stated, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."  By giving in to fear we twist words to make it seem like the oppressed are the ones causing the problems and the oppressors are a combination of victim and societal champion.

Fear is used to manipulate public opinion and divide people in order to allow a small number of people to maintain their elite status in our society.  Of course it isn't only public employees who are engaged in the struggles.  We have a host of groups and issues that are currently seeing their causes under significant attack.     

Fear and greed make many want to support economic policies that dole out crumbs to the many.  The increased tax revenue could be used to support our schools or otherwise improve our society, but instead will be given out to individuals in tiny increments for political gain. 

The rights and opportunities of all workers in America are being attacked in an effort to promote the interests of large business and the wealthy.  

Our fear and anger allows us to believe that executions will somehow deter crime and provide justice to victims. 

Women across the nation face significant challenges in their efforts to achieve equality in many aspects of life.   

The poorest Americans have always been seen as problems, and not as equal citizens.  

Issues around race have been a constant source of discontent since the founding of our nation.  

Politics and the press are venues where we have to be aware of those who would manipulate the system for their own gain.  

What makes these challenges all the more difficult is that they arise out of our own actions, interactions and inaction.  All of us act to preserve our own self interests and to advance our own objectives and those of the people who are closest to us.  To some degree we all engage in behavior that at times is bullying and can infringe on the rights and opportunities of others.  Issues like White Privilege are difficult to comprehend and accept for many of us, so we turn to a more comfortable way of looking at the world.  We are quick to blame, but slow to find compromise and goodness in others.  Our society is moving in a disturbing direction where "doing and being right" is less important than appearing to win on any given issue.  As a society we condone bullying and applaud those who aggressively attack others, as long as we are not their targets.   

Yet, we are all responsible for the society we live in.  This is true no matter our race, religion, gender, or any other demographic division.  If we are truly to live in a nation that can claim to provide justice and opportunity for all, then we need to be ready to look at our own beliefs and actions as well as those of others.  We need to recognize the impact that hate and anger have on the world we live in see how it divides, isolates and segregates us into self-interested, small-minded groups.  At times it may seem like we will never succeed in our struggles, but to continue the fight is to work to achieve a vision that has been shared by great individuals throughout history. 

On Monday we will celebrate the life and legacy of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and it is worthwhile to remember him not as an historical figure, but rather as a icon who we should be working to emulate.  His message of non-violence combined with a relentless drive to broadcast the values that America was founded on give us hope for the future.  We can all work towards achieving a society where opportunity is open to all, and we truly look at everyone as fellow citizens, not as separate pieces of a puzzle.  A puzzle that is created and framed for us by others, and one where our role is defined by our demographics.  Instead we must break the barriers that bind us and change the very essence of what we define ourselves to be.  As Dr. King said:   

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

In this way we can counter the effects of fear and hatred and truly work towards a better Wisconsin, a better America and a better world. 

The Good, The Bad and
The Ugly. . .
The Good- People around the state continue to "speak their truth" and speak against bills like AB549 that will harm our students and our public schools.  

The bad side of this is that we will need to continue to fight negative education legislation as long as the current crop of legislators is in office.  

The Bad- Those of us wishing for a primary to select the Democrat's candidate for governor saw their hopes fade this week.

The Ugly- The public sees the debate about expanding the voucher system in Wisconsin through a lens that distorts and simplifies the facts to make it seem like a battle between freedom and government control.  The reality is that our public school system has flaws, but also a level of accountability and responsibility to our children that a privatized school system will likely never come close to achieving.

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