It’s almost impossible to follow any news outlet these days and not hear about an instance of bullying. It seems to be happening everywhere from schoolyards to front yards and shopping malls to hallways. Psychologists are carefully studying the cases and evaluating the causes; parents are anxiously watching – trying to prepare their children; media is feverishly covering each story of escalating violence; and policy makers are defining the boundaries and passing laws. But the thing that strikes me the most – in this flurry of attention – is the fact that everyone seems so shocked that it’s happening.
First of all – I consulted my trusty dictionary to find a precise definition:
bully : a blustering browbeating person;
especially : one habitually cruel to others who are weaker
Secondly, I wandered back into my memory of grade-school to recount my own experience – determining there have always been bullies – so why is it seemingly at critical mass now? There are obvious factors – from cell phones and internet that allow a simple unfriendly exchange to escalate into headline news – but are there really more bullies than when I was a kid – or do we just hear more about them because of the “mass transit of information”? It made me think – and as usual – it made me start observing the people around me.
I began carefully watching strangers in the grocery store, at restaurants, in my neighborhood and at work. I looked at my family, friends – and even my own behavior – to see what I’d find. I listened to the tone of voices as people spoke to strangers, loved-ones and even their pets. I turned a more discerning eye to what people write on Facebook, Twitter, and the comments submitted in response to news articles. What I found was depressing – but it was also enlightening.
My basic evaluation is simple. We have become a culture of un-kind people. In fact, I’ll even go so far as to say we have become a culture of mean-spirited people.
mean: hateful. characterized by malice or petty selfishness.
As I watched the interactions around me – in person and on TV – “mean-ness” was everywhere. Even worse – it seems celebrated. I watched adults bully sales clerks, wives bully husbands, politicians bully voters, employers bully staff, and organizations bully volunteers. I found myself verbally assaulted by a “community leader” so he could avoid an authentic apology – and just days later by a woman wearing the hat of “goodwill ambassador”. Given the state of human interaction these days – I’m not shocked our children are responding in-kind. Malice is like a virus – it will spread as long as we offer a host.
I am not suggesting there are no reasons for this behavior – as there are a multitude of reasons from legitimate fear to imagined entitlements. What I am suggesting is — there’s no excuse for it. Humans are blessed with free will and the benefit of rational thought. It’s time to start taking ownership for the choices we make – and the consequences of our actions. Being angry is one thing…being mean is another. The children of our society are like the proverbial “canary in the coal mine”. They are the most vulnerable – so they will show the negative affects first. We’d better pay attention. We’d also better recognize that they are learning it from us.
Perhaps we should all take a lesson from the “One Tin Soldier” song we learned when we were young. You know the one – where the Mountain people and the Valley people fight a bloody war to win the anonymous buried treasure — but when the victors arrived to collect their reward, “Peace on Earth was all it said.”
So, as we enter into this “season of giving” – where emptiness is magnified, pressures abound and grace seems in low supply – perhaps the answer is as simple as a commitment to kindness and to act accordingly.