The Root of American Bullying

The issue of bullying in U.S. schools has attracted much attention of late. But the problem is not isolated to schools, with bullying evident in major institutions, from the U.S. government in its foreign policy to Christian churches demanding obedience to the Bible, as retired Baptist minister Howard Bess explains.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

Bullying is now a major reason that American teenagers give for skipping school and eventually dropping out of high school. Students get bullied over race, sexual orientation, clothes, looks, handicaps, intelligence and economic class.

Yet, where can we find a voice of sanity that will publicly call for a halt in the practice of bullying? It is not the Christian churches. Indeed, many Christian pastors and fundamentalists practice the art of bullying themselves, demanding obedience to holy books and creeds.

Michelangelo’s depiction of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.

I cringe every time I hear preachers and devout Christians declare “The Bible says…” Rarely do they identify the author or the circumstance of the passage to which they refer. “The Bible says…”is the sledge hammer of Protestant Christianity.

The message is all too plain: Get in line or you are headed for punishment, rejection or even Hell. It is the ultimate bullying tool because it is difficult for a parishioner to out-gun a holy god who has spoken with finality and without error. Dynamic and authoritarian preachers are especially good at Bible rhetoric that is calculated intimidation. Preachers may be the most skilled persons in our society in the practice of bullying.

And then there are the creeds, which were originally devised to force conformity to Christian belief. The creeds of Christianity have been and are regularly used as the club for bullying. Again, the message is clear: Agree or be denied ordination; agree or be silenced; agree or be censored; disagree and be labeled a heretic and be excommunicated.

Bullying also is practiced at the highest level of American civil society, with bullying a front-line tool of U.S. foreign policy. One could say that America in its world leadership role has refined and redefined the art of bullying.

We constantly send messages to the nations of the world: Behave and we will send you money; misbehave and we will place sanctions against you; get out of line too much and we have the power to crush you; dare rattle your own sword and we will station our battleships off your coast.

None of these public practices teaches our children the ways of peace. Then we seem surprised when we find bullying prevalent among our school children. Teenage gangs are simply another manifestation of a bully system that pervades many of the most respected institutions of society.

While details change, the dynamics of bullying never change. The story line repeats itself over and over. A bully finds ways to intimidate others to establish control over them. The person who is the object of the bullying has three choices: submit, run away, or fight back.  None of these standard responses produce good results.

I had a chance to reflect on the dynamics of bullying when the Palmer Arts Council in Alaska presented a play written by Brian Guehring, a teacher with degrees in children’s theatre from Duke University and University of Texas.  He wrote the play, “The Bully Show,” for audiences of young people in grades 4 through 8. His goal was to educate teachers, administrators and students about the practice of bullying in the school setting.

A local fifth-grade teacher, a theater veteran, became the director.  The play can be done with a three-person cast. An eighth grader, a sophomore and a senior were chosen for the parts. The play is interactive with the audiences and the cast developed excellent skills in handling unrehearsed and spontaneous responses from their young audiences.

In September 2012, The Arts Council presented “The Bully Show” 18 times at school sites. Nearly 5,000 students saw the production and teachers used the shows for classroom discussion. As an Arts Council board member, I traveled with the show and saw the production several times. I received a quick education in the dynamics of bullying.

In the play, the lead actor is the host of a television game show, called “The Bully Show.” The host is presented as dedicated to bringing bullying among school children to an end. But she was very assertive in the way she ran her show. There was no doubt about who was in charge.

Near the end of play, she is confronted by an assistant producer for being a bully herself. When a closer look is taken, the game show host had used the very same tactics to gain the dominance and control that she found unacceptable in others. The confrontation between the game show host and her assistant was the high moment in the play; and it was my own moment of truth.

I, too, if placed in the right circumstance, can become a bully. Upon further reflection, I saw myself surrounded by bullying, living in a bully nation and part of a bully Christianity. What we see in our school children, they have learned from parents, government and church. Bullying is an American way of life.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is hdbss@mtaonline.net

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9 comments on “The Root of American Bullying

  1. Don Bacon on said:

    Some people relate bullying to militarism.

    I once had the popular view that militarism is uniforms and guns and worship of all things military. Then almost ten years ago I decided to make some effort to stop wars. I had read about Smedley Butler and read his book War Is A Racket, in a military library of all places. So I learned html and did a very basic website for my Smedley Butler Society, dedicated to stopping war. I contacted some similar groups. One was COMD — Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft — in San Diego.

    I corresponded with COMD, mentioning my traditional views on militarism, but the COMD respondent disagreed with my definition of militarism. Imagine that! He wrote that militarism, and its basic cause, goes much deeper than the normal view of it. It involves competition, and winners, and praise for the strongest. He was adamant about it. Shook me a little. I’d been in the military twenty years and I should know what militarism is.

    The COMD website is apparently dead. I can’t raise it. [http://www.comdsd.org/militarism.htm] But this is a part of the COMD definition of militarism: “Militarism is a value system that stresses the superiority of some people over others. . .Militarism derides cooperation, equality and nonviolence, and instead enforces strict hierarchical relationships.”

    So I look at militarism differently now. In its more basic form, thinking of schools, it involves bullying and traditional male role models, for example. Sports as ‘winning is everything.’ Kill ‘em. etc.

  2. Hillary on said:

    This one maybe for Don ?
    http://www.stopwar.org.uk/

  3. Morton Kurzweil on said:

    The root of bullying is belief. When people rely on faith as a source of knowledge the accept a gut feeling of what is real, right and good, true, bad and false.
    There is no test of reason necessary to feel what is right and wrong. Believing is the source of all bigotry, prejudice and dissension. Belief, religious or political, cultural or genetic, creates choices of value judgments. My God. My faith, My Country, My gender, My race, My language, My history – is better that Yours.
    No amount of information or reason can overcome the blind belief the needs communal support to sustain it.
    Bigotry is expressed as paranoia, the fear of being under attack by contradictory information. The defense is in the support of group values, not in the evaluation of facts.
    Bigotry, insecurity, and fear is a bad habit, nothing more. Bigots are cowards who need group support in gangs and violence to express their fears.
    When religions or nations make war, even to their own ruin, history has been the proof of this cycle of human insanity.

    • Brother Bill Meylan on said:

      Basically, bullying is an evil negative force that relies on strength and seeks control over its victims(s) to some extent. But, love is the good positive force that can overcome it. I personally experienced this in high school.
      At lunch, I finished my bag lunch and was eating an ice cream treat and had bought an extra one. It was on the table in front of me. Sitting across the table, a fellow student grabbed it and held it with a smirk on his face as if to say “Hah! I’ve got your ice cream! What’re you gonna do about it…?” Well, I was already fed well enough and so I figured I’d try turning it around on him by being generous – just to see what would happen. So, I told him – in a nice way (kinda shrugging it off) – to go ahead and eat it. His face expressed astonishment and he asked me if I was sure and really didn’t mind. I told him it was ok and that I was fine. Not only didn’t he ever bother me again, he’d actually ask me how things were going, from time to time. I guess bullies can be lonely, too.
      “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” – Paul (Romans 12:21)

    • John Opperman on said:

      Brother Bill-
      This helps confirm my own personal experiences nearing 80 years around half the world, living and working in different countries and 20 years military service.
      Contrary to many claims that human nature is selfish and cruel, people everywhere are quite the opposite, giving, sharing, loving and cooperating.
      The bullying and violence is learned, taught by the establishment in power, be it by wealth or military, the examples set from birth have to be opposed at every turn.

      -Lifelong atheist and anarchist.

  4. John Ballard on said:

    Very insightful commentary. And timely.

    There is a connection between bullying, firearms, video games and the narratives of most TV and movie plots. The common denominator (authors and playwrights have known this forever) is conflict resolution. Strip away the surface and find an infrastructure made of power and domination. In every case what passes for “resolution” is in reality nothing more than dominance enforced by violence.

    Walter Wink’s elegant explanation of the myth of redemptive violence clearly shows that morality is typically coupled with violence. That connection is a false equivalence, but it rests on belief systems which, as any good politician will tell you, always trump facts, no matter how clear the facts may seem.

    Bullying fits neatly in the larger taxonomy of a violence-dominated world.

  5. Great Read. So painstakingly true. I really needed consortium news especially after seeking the truth with this last Boston Farce. The whole dam event coupled with the American responses have made me sick! Thanks for being here for the few sane people left in this culture.