Sunday, September 20, 2015

Bullies and Boundaries Revisited

Today's entry comes from the mail bag. I received from Vera a thoughtful reflection on my recent post on Bullies and Boundaries that I'd like to respond to:

I have never seen a definition of bullying that includes "making people uncomfortable." Generally, bullying is about demeaning, one-upmanship, name calling, using various fallacies in argumentation or even lying to score a point, and so on. While I believe people have a right to protect their groups and their discussions from this sort of behavior, I do not, and have not ever thought that I am deserving of being spared being uncomfortable. Neither do I think that "loud voices" per se are bullying. And I am wondering if you use those examples in order to minimize the seriousness of bullying in groups.

I am dismayed that I've done such a poor job of making my points. Bullying exists in many forms, some of which are pernicious, mean-spirited, demeaning, and even dangerous. However, I am trying to confine my focus to bullying in the context of cooperative culture, where this phenomenon operates at a finer level. I'm not saying it isn't serious; only that it's less of a bludgeon.

In the majority of cooperative groups there is an explicit agreement to be nonviolent. As such, any member who consistently puts others down, jeers at them, vilifies them, or calls them names would be subject to expulsion or ostracism (the withdrawal of community), so I'm talking about bullying in a more subtle context. Rarely are we talking about a threat of physical violence.

The bullying behavior I see in community is about purposefully choosing behaviors or communication styles that make others ill at ease, for the purpose of getting them to back off or still their voices in opposition to the bully's viewpoints (if you speak against me I will make you pay). So yes, trying to make others uncomfortable is part of the picture.

I am not saying that bullying doesn't exist in more stark and nasty terms, only that these kinds of overt power plays are rarely seen in community—mainly because they don't work. The group won't stand for it.

In my experience, bullying is always about power (as in power-over), whether it is intentional or unintentional, conscious or subconscious.

While I agree that the motivation to bully is to exercise power over (I'm setting aside sadism as a possibility), it is reasonable to question how successful that is as a tactic in cooperative culture.

In community, the bully talks louder than others, speaks without being called upon, hogs air time (if allowed to), and is not afraid of confrontation and outright disagreement. In its more extreme forms, the bully may threaten to call in outside authorities or even to sue if they don't get their way. (Please understand that I'm painting in broad strokes and all bullies don't exhibit this exact pattern. I'm trying to be suggestive more than prescriptive.)

If the bully persists in their provocative behavior despite being asked to shift, they are at risk of being labeled a bully and thereby marginalized, which effectively undercuts their ability to influence others—which is the heart of power. Thus, at some level, bullies (in community) are at risk of shooting themselves in the foot if they don't adapt in response to critical feedback.

To be sure, bullies sometimes get away with behavior that everyone agrees is unacceptable because the group does not have the will to object, or to hold people accountable to operating within acceptable bounds. Bullies tend to be more comfortable with confrontation and they tend to know how to get others to back down first. However, even where this obtains, that will not prevent the bully from being isolated as a clear troublemaker, which limits their power.

This dynamic puts pressure on bullies to be no worse than intermittent in their frequency of being difficult, or even more subtle in how they attempt to manipulate others (because only behaviors with ambiguous meanings will be tolerated—perhaps sarcasm; occasional outbursts; in-your-face pressure questioning; late, difficult-to-integrate input on sensitive topics). 

Perhaps the subtlest form of all is when bullies learn to wrap their behavior in the flag of orthodoxy, such that the bully can put pressure on outliers by insisting that they behave "normally" (as defined by group culture) as a precondition to having their input considered—knowing full well that it's difficult for outliers to comply.

I agree that it is difficult to know the intention of another person, and it helps to focus on the behavior, not the intention. (Sometimes intentions are so murky that even the individual in question does not rightly know.)

We see this the same way.

If someone in group demeans me or another regularly, what is the proper response? Is it to ask that I grow a thicker skin (thus helping the bully)?

I don't get where developing a thicker skin (becoming less reactive to the bully's irritating behaviors) helps the bully. I'd say it's in everyone's interest to learn to be less reactive.

And that brings me to the issue of boundaries. They are lines drawn by a person that specify what is, and isn't acceptable to me, in the way others treat me. Being put down, jeered at, vilified, called names are examples of behaviors a person might draw a boundary about. A boundary simply means that I will not permit another to treat me that way without consequences.
There are two points to make here. First, the gross behaviors listed above are almost certain to undermine trust and good will between the giver and receiver, resulting in the giver having less power over the receiver—unless the receiver is so intimidated that they become silent or withdraw.

Second, there can be considerable nuance in determining whether a boundary is appropriate because of bullying, or a boundary isn't appropriate because the group hasn't really tried enough to work productively with the behaviors of the difficult person (the would-be bully)—because it's a diversity issue. For example, when is a pattern of loud, challenging statements bullying, and when is it a class issue based on family of origin?

After having looked into the issue of boundaries at length, I have never seen anyone saying, as you do, that "giving up on the prospects for productive communication with someone" is the essence of boundaries. I would say that is the extreme boundary when everything else has been tried, and disengagement and distance are the only things left. But there is a long long road with many options before coming to that point.
I'm not sure we're that far apart. I was using a particular community as a point of departure for my blog and that is how the term "boundaries" is being used there: as giving up on someone. I agree that a person could say that they need x in order to attempt to make common cause with someone, but how different is that from saying, in effect, that if the form is not acceptable, then I may ignore your content?

Are boundaries triggered? In my experience, boundaries are trespassed, or not. Boundaries are set and defended, or not. Some boundaries are firm, others are negotiable. 

My discomfort with this is that it pretends that whether the boundaries have been crossed is an objective assessment and it often isn't. Most often it comes down to: "I feel that you've crossed my boundary and therefore I'll impose restrictions and blame you for there being boundaries." Yuck.

If a group sets (and commits to defend) the boundary of, say, "no name-calling" then agreed upon consequences follow the breach. The simplest consequence being the interruption of the content, calling out "process!" and dealing with the boundary breach before moving on. And by the way, genuine apologies go a long way toward healing a boundary breach, and are the fastest way I know to return to the content of the group discussion.

I'm in full support of surfacing instances of unacceptable behavior wherever they're perceived to occur. I'd like, however, to start with making room for each party to talk about what they think happened and what it means to them, as many breaches are simply misunderstandings, rather than attempts to bully. I'd rather that the emphasis be on repairing relationship damage, rather than dogging down the passageways between air-tight compartments.


vera said...

Awesome! You decided to make a whole post of your response, Laird! I am honored.

Reading through carefully, I've noticed there is a passage I can't decipher. It's the one that says (towards the end): Most often it comes down to: "I feel that you've crossed my boundaries, and therefore I'll impose restrictions, and blame you for there being boundaries." I understand the first part, but the rest of it makes no sense. Can you elaborate?

vera said...

Well, then.

Here is my response to your fine post. I really have no issues with the whole first half of what you wrote. Just a reflection how wonderful it is that intentional communities have been able to set such firm boundaries around physical bullying! That is also what I have experienced.

I just want to note that verbal/emotional bullying, esp. of the covert kind, inflicts wounds as well, and is harder to spot and to respond to effectively. While it is less of a bludgeon, it can poison the well of good will in the community. So I always appreciate it when communitarians address it, as you have in your blog.

So, I want to respond to the second half.
You write: I don't get where developing a thicker skin (becoming less reactive to the bully's irritating behaviors) helps the bully. I'd say it's in everyone's interest to learn to be less reactive." That puts me in mind of the generations of abused women seeking couseling from clergy and psychologists, who were told to grow a thicker skin, and stick it out. It's by no means disappeared, even today.

While a bully's behavior may be irritating, discomfitting, or annoying, the gist of it is that it is abusive; are you advocating that abusive behavior should be tolerated more by the other party?

You write "but how different is it from saying that if the form is not acceptable, then I may ignore your content"? I find that once a person resorts to bullying, they are not longer in a cooperative mode, and the content becomes irrelevant. If the other person tries to pursue the content, they open themselves to further abuse. That is why I am a big believer of calling time out for process. Once the process is fixed, then returning to the content will be a pleasure.

You think that my approach "pretends that whether boundaries have been crossed is an objective assessment and it often isn't. Most often it comes down to: "1) I feel that you've crossed my boundary and 2) therefore I will impose restrictions and 3) blame you for there being boundaries."

Huh? 1) Boundaries are *always* personal and subjective (to the individual or the group). If a man is leaning too close for comfort, I *know* that my boundary has been violated, it's not up for discussion or a vote, and it matters not a whit some other person sets their physical space boundary differently. Other boundaries may be softer than this example, and can be negotiated in good faith (as your example about people speaking loudly as a cultural habit).

2) I don't know what you are talking about when you say I will impose restrictions. I will defend my boundary, yes. Period. Actions have consequences. Undefended boundaries are not boundaries.

3) As for the person whose boundaries have been crossed blaming the other, why? This would turn person A into a bully themselves. Blaming is a bullying behavior. If it were me, I would simply say, uh, I feel uncofortable, would do mind backing up a bit? Or I can back up a bit, modeling where my comfort zone is. There is no blame.

And finally, I hope this group who says that boundaries are about giving up on someone do a bit of looking around. They may be better served by thinking in terms of what healthy boundaries are.

Here is a snipped to that effect I picked up somewhere: "Personal boundaries are the physical, emotional and mental limits we establish to protect ourselves from being manipulated, used, or violated by others. They allow us to separate who we are, and what we think and feel, from the thoughts and feelings of others. Their presence helps us express ourselves as the unique individuals we are, while we acknowledge the same in others."