Antibullyism and "The Coddling of the American Mind" Part 3
Book by Haidt and Lukianoff reveals the problems with anti-bullying movement
Posted January 26, 2019
3: The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a Battle Between Good People and Evil People
This Untruth deals with the problems caused by the tendency of people to see their own groups as virtuous and others as evil. It evolved in our prehistory, when tribes competed for limited resources and could therefore be mortal enemies.
Haidt and Lukianoff also speak of human hypocrisy: our proclivity, as described by Jesus, to be concerned with the speck in others’ eyes while ignoring the plank in our own. We humans have a remarkable ability to justify our own actions and blame others for our problems. No one —not even Hitler—sees themselves as the bad guy.
While the goal of modern progressive society is to become increasingly inclusive and tolerant, the opposite has been occurring in recent years, especially among college students. Our tribal nature is being played out most demonstrably in politics, with the growing distance and antagonism between right and left. Our elite universities have become bastions of left wing identity politics, which guides us to see ourselves as belonging either to empowered groups of evil oppressors or of disempowered, virtuous victims. This results in victim groups self-righteously attacking the White majority, especially men, simply for the accident of their birth. No one likes to be accused of being evil oppressors, so they become hostile to their victim-group accusers, who in turn accuse them of racism, so a vicious cycle is set into motion. Thus, instead of promoting understanding and harmony, identity power politics are promoting hostility and polarization.
Few people are aware of it, but antibullyism is the embodiment left wing ideology, and it's accomplishing the same thing in schools and workplaces: an escalating cycle of hostility between people perceiving themselves as the virtuous victim and the other as the evil bully.
The academic definition of bullying consists of three elements: an intention to cause harm; repetition; and an imbalance of power. This is identical to the definition of evil, as articulated by legendary psychologist Phillip Zimbardo in The Lucifer Effect (page 5):
Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others–or using one’s authority and systemic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf.
Bullies are thus evil and guilty by definition, wielding their power advantage to enjoy oppressing their innocent, virtuous victims. The concept of the victim mentality – that thinking like a victim is a self-fulfilling prophecy – does not exist in antibullyism. In fact, antibullyism informs us that we must at all costs avoid suggesting that victims are in any way responsible for the bully-victim dynamic, a claim that has little basis in scientific psychology, which understands that everything affects everything else; that the way we think, feel and act influences the way people treat us.
Antibullyism is therefore a pure struggle between good/us and evil/them. This is clearly illustrated by the title of the phenomenally-bestselling book by Barbara Coloroso, The Bully, the Bullied and the (Not So Innocent) Bystander. The book provides blood-curdling descriptions of bullies that fire up our passions to take up torches and pitchforks to hunt down and eradicate these evil creatures preying on our defenseless children. Coloroso further arouses our hatred of bullies with lectures informing us that it is a small step from schoolyard bullying to genocide, so that we think of school kids who hurl insults as budding Hitlers and Stalins. Researchers love conducting studies documenting the pleasure bullies enjoy in causing others pain and the terrible harm they cause. Bullies are often depicted in illustrations as having horns and tails, with “Take the bullies by the horns”
being a common title for articles and books. It is all geared towards motivating us to join this 21st century witch-hunt against bullies. It has even become acceptable to express the wish for bullies to be killed and to sell T-shirts bearing the image on the left. In fact, some murderers, child and adult alike, have justified their heinous acts as being directed toward their bullies.
The main tactic of antibullyism is, in fact, to enlist everyone in this struggle for victims against bullies. The academic bullying field declares that the solution to bullying is a community affair, requiring students, staff, parents, police and government to all play their part in standing up for victims against bullies. The most widely revered programs involve teaching students to stop being passive bystanders and to become “upstanders” for victims against bullies. School authorities urge students to report bullying to the school authorities whenever it occurs, often with the assistance of anonymous bully-reporting apps, so they can proceed to investigate and judge the perpetrators. Some schools will even punish children who fail to inform.
A fundamental problem with antibullyism is that it assumes that it is obvious who the bully and the victim are. But it isn’t. Almost everyone thinks the bully is the other person. The reason antibullyism is so incredibly popular is that we love the idea that others are to blame for our misery and that we have no responsibility for improving our situation. However, we become outraged when we discover we are the ones accused of being bullies. And when schools get involved investigating and judging bullying complaints, the hostilities escalate as each child and their parents try to prove they are innocent and the other is guilty. The loser of the verdict also becomes furious with the school.
The intention of antibullyism is to make schools safer and more peaceful. It has accomplished the opposite. Never has there been as much tension and hostility in schools as there is today courtesy of antibullyism.
The “callout culture”
Throughout the book, Haidt and Lukianoff decry the development of the contemptible “callout culture,” which encourages students to publicly shame anyone that expresses the wrong point of view rather than address them discretely and respectfully. Calling people out can literally destroy their careers and mental health.
The callout culture goes hand-in-hand with, and enhances, the “us versus them” mentality on campuses, fostering a totalitarian state atmosphere in which everyone spies on each other:
Young people have come to believe that danger lurks everywhere, even in the classroom, and even in private conversations. Everyone must be vigilant and report threats to the authorities. (page 204)
Students’ initial encounter with the callout culture is not when they step into college but when they step into kindergarten. They are taught that bullying is incredibly dangerous and lurks everywhere; that “telling is not tattling”; that they must inform the authorities when they experience or witness bullying.
Because of the ubiquity of antibullyism for two full decades, the term bully has become the most commonly used insult for calling out people. No one is called out as a bully more often than Donald Trump. The prestigious Washington Post has labeled him our Bully-in-Chief. This insulting moniker has stuck and been repeated by many other news media. It has become common for rivals in politics, social causes, sports and even entertainment to accuse each other of being bullies. The news media freely slap the bully label on any child that commits an act of aggression. And even parents have come to publicly call out their own children as bullies, with such incidents going viral.
The act of calling out bullies in order to eliminate bullying is oxymoronic, for doing so turns us into a bully; it is one of the meanest and most harmful things we can do to someone. It is impossible to create a bully-free society by bullying bullies.
The “victimhood culture”
Similarly, The Coddling refers to the growing “victimhood culture.” They refer to an essay by two sociologists, Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, who:
defined a victimhood culture as having three distinct attributes: First, “individuals and groups display high sensitivity to slight”; second, they “have a tendency to handle conflicts through complaints to third parties”; and third, they “seek to cultivate an image of being victims who deserve assistance.” (page 210)
This culture is the very essence of antibullyism. Antibullyism is provictimism. We are seeing this victim mindset in our college students because they grew up with it in lower school. Today, victims are considered not only as needing help but also as heroes. It should be no surprise that it’s become common for celebrities and beauty pageant contestants to declare that they had been victims of bullying, as though lacking the skills for handling social challenges is a badge of honor.
Victims of bullying deserve our compassion and our help. But a society that glorifies victims is one that has turned the natural order on its head and increases the percentage of victims.
Under no circumstances should you see this lengthy (burdensome?) article as a substitute for reading The Coddling of the American Mind. Furthermore, The Coddling not only identifies and analyzes the bad ideas that are setting up a generation for failure, it offers real solutions and referrals to additional valuable resources. And it’s all grounded in good psychology.
So when you read The Coddling, please think of it as a critique of antibullyism, for that’s what it is, even if the authors may be unaware of it. You will see how well it fits. Just as Lukianoff and Haidt are getting the pendulum swinging away from safetyism, we need to get the pendulum swinging away from its subset of antibullyism as well.
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt are to be commended for producing this important work, and are still my heroes despite overlooking antibullyism. May they scrutinize it closely and recognize its key role in the coddling of the American mind. And may they enjoy mushrooming success in promoting the resilience – no, make that antifragility – of our young people.