What Do You Call an Anti-Social Society? – Eudaimonia and Co
Or, Can a Society of Little Bullies (And Big Ones) Ever Really Be A Working One?
There’s a thread that ties together so many threads of the predicament we find ourselves in today. Trump. Opioids. Mass stagnation. Neoliberalism. Austerity. Aziz Ansari. Perhaps it is a tenuous thread. That is for you to judge. I only wish to offer it to you to think about.
Bullying. And its cost. Dignity. Aren’t you, well, a little embarrassed, every day, by this era? Doesn’t it feel a little shameless, exasperating, mortifying, revolting, indecent, tasteless, not just tabloid scandalous, but genuinely self-destructive — surreally the more so every day? Ah, but isn’t all that what we lack when we lack dignity? Perhaps my point is not so fatuous, then.
Here is my tiny thesis. Instead of norms against bullying developing, bullying itself became the norm. In every sphere of life. But without norms against bullying, rules and codes are unlikely to mature into great and grand human rights. With them, perhaps, there is the slenderest possibility, one day, of rights to better things, whether healthcare or finance or education, and so on. But without them, little authoritarianisms of the human heart become invisible everyday affairs. Does that make sense? Let us explore together if it carries any water.
It’s easy to see that demagogues are bullies. But isn’t the wave of austerity that is sweeping the globe a way of saying, “I will take away your rights, you lazy, filthy people. Then you will learn!”? That is precisely the logic of bullying, too. Isn’t the logic of neoliberalism, capitalism, choose your terminology, that by punishing people, they will become virtuous, obedient, better-behaved, productive — but not powerful, in themselves, as themselves, or for one another? Ah, but isn’t that the exact logic of bullying also? In this way, then, our politics are bullying writ large — not reasoned, examined thought, much less experience, about the good life, democracy, and growing into both.
So. What do you call an anti-social society? Is one made of bullies a society in any real way at all — or something more like a factory that employs the very same people to produce and consume powerlessness?
Bullying is an interesting thing. It is hard to legislate against — because it is done in subtle ways, in hidden places, by people who think they are above the law. And so what is needed most are norms against it: social mores and codes that let people say, “this is not acceptable”, and stand up against it, in little ways, wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head.
Is what Aziz Ansari did assault? Is it harassment? I don’t know. Maybe — but those have precise legal definitions, about which I am sure we have our opinions. Still, at the least, I think, reasonable people will say: it is a kind of bullying. To pressure a woman, when she is in a relatively powerless position (at your house, you are famous, etcetera).
But then I ask myself: where does bullying not rear its ugly head? Of course, that isn’t a justification — only an exploration. Trump became President by bullying an entire nation, two parties, and all of Washington DC. He intimidated Hillary, double-crossed his voters, and issues grade-school taunts every day on Twitter. They are not just meant to agitate — they are meant to position him as the strongest one in a crumbling society, the “one alone” who can thus save it. That is why bullying is a tactic well-worn by strongmen: it is a show of power.
And then I ask myself another question still: doesn’t a leader reflect a national character — a good one its good, and a bad one, its bad? Perhaps it’s not that simple. Yet still, if I think about both my own experience, and the American experience, it seems to me that instead of norms against bullying developing, bullying itself became the norm. Because today’s norms are seeds for tomorrow’s harvests of democracy, without them, can rights have even that slenderest of chances to grow?
Let me give you my own experience. I was a frail and sickly kid, too young to know it was the sun that was killing me. Add to that being a minority, and I was a target for every bully under the sun. Now, pretty quickly, I learned how to turn the tables to something like gleeful acclaim (one of my grander moments was pouring milk all over Max Franklin’s finely gelled coiffe in the 9th grade cafeteria, to a standing ovation. Sorry, man). Funny? Maybe. But now the victim had become the aggressor. The elders, seemed, if anything, as if they did not want to know, or amused — or even to instigate these little conflicts. Norms against bullying didn’t exist — because bullying was the norm. And those norms turned me into a little one, too.
Now, I bet you are saying, “Well, Umair, that sounds like…high school. Dude! Get over it!” In other words, you accept my anecdote — but casually dismiss it as mundane high school life. Ah, but isn’t that exactly how bullying became the norm, instead of norms against bullying? You see how deeply it permeates, then.
I graduated and found a job at a finely pedigreed organization. I was looking forward to doing something meaningful, enduring, true. And there I was, six months in, competing viciously against my peers, the people on my “team”, to satisfy the “leader” of the team, in brutal and cut-throat ways. This was thanks to “360 degree feedback,” “performance reports,” and so on, which only really produced sabotage, intimidation and conflict — instead of the work. Bullying was again the norm — not norms against bullying. This time though I wanted to grow — and so, rolling my eyes, a little disillusioned, I left.
Now. Maybe my little examples are trivial. And yet, when I look around, with the eyes of someone who has been both has been both bully and bullied, aggressor and victim, I see the normalization of bullying — instead of norms against bullying having developed — corroding every aspect of life. Is that a fair judgment?
There are the elderly “nomadic retirees” who live in their cars, and work seasonally for tech giants. There are the tech giants, whose algorithms admonish us to perform free emotional labour, at the cost of our happiness. There are the employees of the megastore who are forced to work overtime for free. There is the society who subsidizes the megastore with welfare checks for those underpaid workers. There are those underpaid workers on welfare seduced by the bluster of a President shaking his fist at immigrants, women, gays, Jews, the media, reporters. There are the liberals, who say nice things — but turn around and support austerity. Do you see my point a little? If this isn’t one giant vicious circle of bullying — then aren’t these at least all forms of it?
A predatory social contract is one in which bullying becomes the norm—instead of one which norms against bullying turn into stronger rules, codes, and laws against predatory behaviour. Thus, bullying is something we are taught how to do when we are young, rewarded for as we grow, celebrated for when we perform it well, and applaud others for, once this process of (anti) socialization into human destructiveness is complete. But if a society is engaged with bullying itself, instead of understanding, nurturing, and developing itself, then how can rights ever come to be? Is it fair to say that all that is where we are now?
Perhaps, like you me, you have rejected being a little bully — you have chosen, or at least try to, a life of standing with, not standing above. But then, like me, you have probably lived a life at odds with now. So now that I am at a distance, I can finally ask: what was it that it cost me, precisely?
To be either bully or victim costs one one’s dignity. The victim is dehumanized. But the bully is, too — by brutalizing. He loses the greater strength it takes to open up, link arms, rise up, and close wounds. And so dignity, in the end, is not what we think it is — but the precise opposite. We suppose it is something like walking tall and proud ourselves. Ah, but that is easy — at least compared to walking beside, isn’t it? For walking beside asks us to do something more: to lift up others when they fall, to let them rest when they are weary, and let them go when their own road beckons. In that way, we ourselves grow courageous, gentle, wise, and true —strong in full ways, not strong in hollow ways. Dignified.
So dignity is found in standing with. To stand above, someone must then stand below. And so, as we climb by pulling down, a little blinder and dumber every time, the old poisons of the human heart — shame, guilt, anger, fear, rage, despair, humiliation, that produce pride, greed, ignorance, callousness, bitter selfishness — are never purified and cleansed.
And if this age feels a little like all that, well, then, perhaps there is a deeper reason than we suppose. The bullies we have become cannot give each other the dignity we desperately seek. But a society exists to give every life, in the end, the dignity of development. An anti-social society, then, is a counterfeit thing. And in that way, it can only be called blindness.