Monday, October 3, 2011

Distaff Bullies

Someone anonymously left this message in response to my Sept 20 posting on the Beleaguered Bully:

This commentary hits my community's nail on the head. I would appreciate Laird going into more detail about the objective characteristics of bullying behavior (well studied by social scientists in the last decade) so they can be distinguished from behaviors which are assertive and appropriate. Here there are members who define as "bullying" points of view they do not agree with. It is used as a strategy to discredit the point of view and focus on presumed characteristics of the messenger. In addition, there are some women who almost invariably define men who disagree with them as "aggressive." Some discussion of gender politics would be welcome in these blogs but rarely appear. Why is this?

Nice topic.

First, I'll comment on the phenomenon of people labeling
pejoratively behaviors or viewpoints they don't like. This is a time-honored debate tactic, undermining the integrity and questioning the good intentions of those whose actions or positions are uncomfortable. It's evocative for me of how the term "cult" is often applied to groups that make lifestyle choices that the labeler finds objectionable.

Here's how it works in the instance of cults. Person X doesn't like what Group Y is doing, even to the point of repulsion. Leaving aside that nobody is twisting X's arm to join Y (or questioning whether X has accurate information), X falls into the casuistic trap of assuming that since: a) X doesn't like what Y is doing; and b) X is a thinking person (and who do you know who doesn't see themselves as a reasonable thinking person?); then c) the members of Y are there against their will or have otherwise been brainwashed into thinking Y's practices are acceptable. Therefore, d) Y is a cult.

This breaks down because X rarely bothers to test their hypothesis by actually asking the members of Y what they think, cleverly dismissing this step as superfluous because, after all, the members of Y have already been judged to be befuddled.

In fact, it's damn hard to brainwash people, and what you find—if you bother to look, which the FIC makes a point of doing—is that the people who live in groups labeled cults almost always are there by choice and are at peace with the practices and beliefs that the labeler finds so abhorrent.

The parallel in the case of bullies is that it's tempting to pull out the bully card if you feel threatened by someone's enthusiastic advocacy of a view that differs from yours. Not only is this a proven tactic (the best defense is a good offense), but it may actually be a fair representation of what the labeler feels. The trick here is discerning—in the heat of the moment—how much of what's occurring is attributable to the labeler's anxiety and how much is an attempt by the person with the differing view to pressure others into agreeing with their viewpoint. That is, how much actual bullying is going on?

Bullying is about intimidation and punishing people who object to the bully's position, simply because they object. As clear as that is however, it is not necessarily easy to distinguish bullying behavior from someone who is passionate about their viewpoint. If in doubt, the interesting question is how could the the speaker state their support for a dissenting viewpoint in a way that's both authentic and non-intimidating. It's something to think about.

Second, let's address the phenomonon of women disagreeing with men and how that relates to bullying behavior. In many cooperative groups, there's a feminist analysis that objects to mainstream sexism that favors men. As a consequence, it's not unusual for cooperative groups to adopt a culture that attempts to address this injustice through intentionally treating women differently and more favorably than men. Where this applies, a woman can be complimented for a degree of assertive behavior that a man would be cricized for.

When this kind of reverse discrimnation is in play (please understand that I'm not taking a position here about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing; I'm only observing that it happens), it can work in either direction:

a) If Woman W favors position P, Man M can be accused of bullying simply because he favors position Q (as it may be deemed to be automatically intimidating to W that M stated a different view, because of the sexism prevelant in mainstream culture).

b) Alternately, if Man M favors position P, and Woman W objects, offering the alternate position Q, the group may surge to support W simply because it is a woman objecting to a man (rather than by virture of the strength of W's reasoning or the natural advanatges of postion Q). The strategic concept here is that the group wants to safeguard against the possibility that the woman is intimidated by having to go up against a man, which the group views as an inherently unfair debate. (While this isn't a very flattering reflection of how the group sees the strength of its women, it happens nonetheless.)

Not surprisingly, in cooperative groups that function this way, some women learn to take advanatge of this reverse sexism to press their views when opposed by men. While I think it's an open question whether the benefits of reverse sexism (teaching men to be more mindful, and encouraging women to be more bold) outweighs its costs (enabling sexism to flourish in any form), I think the litmus test is whether the group can discuss the pros and cons whenever someone thinks sexism is occurring.

At the end of the day, the thing that sends chills up my spine is not whether sexist behavior exists—in either direction—but whether the group can openly examine the perception that it's occurring and people's uneasiness with it, without triggering a thermonuclear incident. You can't convince me that not talking about sexism is ever a good sign.

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