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Anti-Bully Laws Represent the Failure of Psychology

Anti-Bully Laws Represent the Failure of Psychology

There is something very few people understand. I’ve written about this before in my newsletters, but I’ve become acutely aware of it again thanks to many of the critical comments I’ve gotten to my Psychology Today blog entries.

So many believe that people should not have to deal with bullying, and certainly not with sexual and racial harassment. They believe there should be laws against these things so that we should not have to experience them, and if we do, the legal authorities should handle these problems for us.

Of course there are actions that must be treated as crimes. Objective harm to people’s bodies, property or liberty is considered crime by all societies. It is the job of the authorities to protect us from such harm and to apprehend, try and punish perpetrators. (Please realize, though, that the law enforcement authorities cannot guarantee that crimes will never happen, only that they will attempt to protect the population and to bring criminals to justice).

This is a blog on Psychology Today. “Psychology” is the key word. Psychology is a branch of science, not of law enforcement. So I attempt to think like a scientist, and readers of Psychology Today blogs should also be thinking like scientists–psychological scientists in particular.

When psychologists call for laws to solve social problems, they are in effect declaring the failure of psychology. It means, “We don’t know how to solve this problem through psychological means. We want the legal/law enforcement system to solve it for us.” The legal/law enforcement approach is a very simplistic one, and it is not based on science or psychology. We simply decide that these behaviors are crimes and those who do them must be punished.

But scientific research has been showing that a criminal approach to social problems doesn’t work and makes things worse. Yet, when it comes to bullying and harassment, psychologically oriented organizations continue to lobby for laws to deal with these problems. It is because they do not realize that there is a fundamental difference between law and psychology. And why should they realize it? I never learned this in any psychology course, and I have never read it in any psychology book or article. Chances are you never did, either.

When there is a law against a behavior, it means, “I don’t have to know how to deal with this by myself. Other people are supposed to handle it for me.” But isn’t it our goal as psychological scientists to have people increase their understanding of and ability to handle the difficult situations life inevitably presents us? Laws relieve us of this need and allow us to be psychologically dumber. Of course we need to be smart enough to avoid committing these crimes so that we won't get punished. But as psychologically oriented scientists we also want people to enhance their moral development. When we avoid certain behaviors for fear of punishment, we are not being moral. We are acting in self-interest.

The terms “bullying” and “harassment” are extremely general and encompass the whole gamut of attacks, from words and gestures to serious physical injury. To deal with problems meaningfully, we need to make a distinction between types of attacks.

Physical injury, rape and unwanted sexual touching are objective attacks. Preventing people from working or living where they wish because of the group they belong to is objective harm. By “objective,” I mean that it is something you are doing to me. My attitude towards what you are doing does not change the fact that it is you who is causing the harm. There should be laws against such behaviors. (Remember, also, that just because something is a crime, it doesn’t necessary mean that we need to report it and get the legal authorities involved. We still may wish to let the incident pass, or to deal with the perpetrator directly.)

But most of the behaviors that fall into the categories of bullying and harassment cause subjective harm; meaning that whether the act hurts me depends upon me, not upon you. For instance, if you call me an idiot and I get upset, I really upset myself. And even for a disgusting sexual or racial remark, it is still up to me whether the words hurt me. Your acts may be immoral and despicable, but to treat them as crimes inevitably harms both society and the individual.

For us to be psychologically healthy, we need to be able to handle such attacks on our own. The less we are able to do this, the weaker our psychological make-up. And the more laws we pass to deal with these kinds of attacks, the weaker both the individual and the society becomes. When a subjective act becomes a crime, we increase the likelihood that people will respond counterproductively. Instead of not getting upset, the person thinks, “Oh my God! They have just committed a crime against me!” So the person gets angry, which intensifies the situation. True, making subjective harm a crime creates more employment for lawyers and law-enforcement personnel, but their financial well-being should not be our concern here. This is “Psychology Today,” not “Law Today.”

But the nice thing is that the most acts of bullying and harassment are simple to deal with on our own. We just need to learn how to do it. I teach this on my website as well as in my seminars. The legal way is actually the difficult way, and if you have ever gone to lawyers to solve your problems, you know how difficult this process is.

One more point before I close: I have no objection to teaching moral behavior. Teaching is a psychological, not a legal, activity. It is fine to teach young people that verbal sexual or racial attacks are immoral and to explain why. This will make them psychologically healthier and help ensure they will have more successful relationships in life, as well as contribute to a healthier and more moral society. But when we punish people for these behaviors, that’s when the problems really begin.

To read more about the difference between law and psychology, please read my article, The Bias Shackling Psychology:

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