These days the news is full of atrocious stories about youths and teens being bullied – in school classrooms, on the playground, at bus stops, in break rooms, cafeterias, and on line. Bullying teens and heads of cliques and gangs, with their allied minions, “crowd” some poor, meek or weak kid and torment him to the point of intolerance. They might push or shove or trip him. They might destroy or deface property, break iPods, damage backpacks or rip clothing. They might smash eyeglasses. They might make derogatory comments or threats via social media sites or email. They might threaten to harm siblings or pets. They may cause physical injury. Many teens seek suicide as a way out. You’d like to think that once, or if, a teen makes it through to adulthood, some normalcy can be established and these poor tormented souls can find their niche and begin to fashion a life in an environment free of bullying.
Unfortunately, there now seems to be a growing trend toward adult bullying. In the workplace, courses are offered in “managing difficult behavior,” conflict management, and dealing with strong personalities. But what it really is about, stripped down to the basics, is adult bullying. I’ve seen a lot of it, and the more I see, the scarier it seems. In the workplace, dead flies and dead crickets are placed in coffee cups. Lunches are pilfered from the lunchroom fridge. The air might be let out of someone’s tires. You might come to your car in the parking garage and find a group of adult bullies standing around, looking menacing, and making comments like “ooh, nice car” to make sure you know that they know what type vehicle you drive and where you usually park. Some hide knives in over-the-ankle boots. You are afraid to report it to anyone because you are afraid of reprisal or retaliation. You start to get physical symptoms – headaches, palpitations, anxiety attacks, stomach disorders. When you can’t take it anymore, you change jobs.
In meetings, it might be just a bit more subtle, but only “just.” There seem to always be a few players who are loud, persistent, refuse to compromise, want their idea to be adopted no matter what, whose body language is strong (e.g., arms crossed over chest, scowling, rising up from seat and leaning over table when making a point, voice raised). In subsequent meetings, others don’t challenge the bully; they have decided to pick their battles and this isn’t one of them. Especially if the bully is in a senior leadership position. Sadly, good alternate ideas are not raised and not shared. Some players find excuses to miss meetings in order to catch a breather. Sometimes, HR and upper management are fearful of intervening for fear of legal action or a report to the EEOC by the “bully.” Lawsuits and settlements are expensive and messy. And, it happens too in volunteer settings – on boards of non-profit organizations, in sports related groups, in Scouts and Camp Fire settings, in faith-based settings. Parents display bad behavior toward other parents, coaches and referees during the children’s soccer or baseball games.
What in the world has happened to plain old-fashioned manners and civility? It’s like the South Park kids grew up and are all trying to kill Kenny, only worse. Maybe we need to identify individuals with a propensity toward bullying behavior and get them into special programs early – similar to early intervention for autism, learning disabilities, dyslexia, etc. – before they are permanently “bent” to the point where the behavior can’t be undone. Workplace violence has increased. Angry employees go after management and peers with guns; they mow down dozens of innocent individuals in the process. Talented individuals are loathe to take on volunteer roles in worthy organizations because this sort of behavior is more and more prevalent. They might feel they have to take it at work, but they don’t have to take it for no pay, no recognition and no respect.
It is almost beyond a problem. It is approaching a societal melt down. Our moral compasses are broken, our sense of decency is eroding. You see politicians bashing each other, airing the other’s dirty laundry to the point of complete humiliation and degradation. Talk show hosts go completely berserk with their comments and still pull down six figure salaries. And the sense of outrage from the powerless is palpable, but precisely because they hold no power very little correction of behavior takes place.
You’d like to think that in church, temple, mosque and congregational settings it is better, and it is for the most part, sometimes only barely. But the outrage has encroached and spread, so that even these settings are not safe havens. Some liberals want to shoot up Christian worship services; conservatives want to shoot up liberal gathering places. Such incidents as the shootings at a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Nashville and hate crimes perpetrated at Jewish temples and Islamic mosques are spreading wider. Gay bashing continues. The “different” are maligned if they speak or dress in an other-than-WASPish style. Racial profiling continues.
The Unitarian Universalist denomination doesn’t have a creed; they have, instead, some guiding principles and one of them is “respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” It sounds so simple. It restates the spirit of the Golden Rule. It seems so basic, that the need to restate it seems almost laughable. But it is no laughing matter. Yes, you have to restate the obvious.
Bad behavior and bad language are now widespread, even in public. It’s catching too. I remember once when my mother freaked out that I used the word SNAFU, because of the “F” in the acronym. Now we laugh over such uptightness. I’m not a prude. I don’t advocate a return to puritanical behavior. I just think there must be some reasonable middle ground. All this violence directed at our fellow human beings is a symptom of something bigger. Let’s wake up before we’ve gone over the cliff and can’t redeem ourselves. It would be easy to just dismiss this as part of our “human nature” but since we are supposed to be rational, thinking animals in the kingdom, we have choices. I think it is time for each of us to do a serious exercise in introspection. There is a phrase attributed to Vince Lombardi: “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.” Maybe we need a “new Martin Luther King, Jr.” to give a new “I have a dream” speech. One that says “I have a dream that one day we’ll be civil, cordial and respectful to all our fellow beings. I have a dream that we’ll be forces for righteousness and good in the world.”
Don’t wait for the other guy to change his behavior first. To what extent might each of us be part of the problem, and how can we become more civil, tolerant, decent and caring? Don’t just wait for the other guy to become civil and cordial first. Each of us has the capacity to change the moral landscape, but only if we are willing. We can create the dream, but only if we are willing.