In the hospital last week, while doing ‘cover’ for the full-time chaplain, I met a man in his 40s who was one of the patients. It was not a particularly religious conversation but it was significant in that he opened up about issues that were on his mind. He told me about his daughter of 21 who had, in the past twelve months, dropped out of studying because of bullying by a member of the college staff. The case was complicated because the staff member was himself off work for ‘stress’ and so nothing could be resolved through tribunals or enquiries. The daughter was having to carry this unresolved episode around with her. She had done a number of temporary jobs but re-entering college was still on hold. On the surface she was claiming that the incident was not affecting her, but it seemed clear that there was still things to be worked through. I suggested that a counsellor might be able to help her see the extent she was perhaps suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress from the incident. In short, a proper owning up to what she was really feeling (and suffering) might assist the moving on process.
I mention this incident because it reminded me of the way that bullying is everywhere. Few people escape it at some point in the lives. Although, in this blog, we are focussing on the abuse that happens in the context of the church and religious organisations, we must not forget that almost every firm or organisation suffers from bullying somewhere. I decided to look at some of the literature about bullying to try and understand it better in whatever context it takes place. Two facets of bullying need to be thought about. One is the part of the bully – why they do it. The second part is what happens to the victim as the result of this psychological, physical or cultural violence.
Let us first address the first part of the equation. One thing to be noted about the bully, is that they do not normally fit the caricature of bullies that we carry in our heads. They are not necessarily brutish or crudely threatening, the picture that we carry forward from playground experiences. The sheer variety of abuses of power that we can describe as bullying is endless. It can occur using obvious coercive methods or it can be manifested quietly and barely noticed by the outsider. Another word which is almost a synonym for bullying is ‘manipulation’. Manipulation also occurs through both violence and flattery. In both words power is being used and abused so that one person can achieve ignoble ends, such as emotional or financial gain.
The great Burmese female politician, Aung San Suu Kyi, said some words which get to the heart of bullying and why individuals practise it. Her words were uttered in the context of the long political struggle with military dictatorship (or bullying) in Burma but they still illuminate our quest to understand. She said: ‘It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it’. It is a commonplace to say that bullying is practised by individuals who feel inadequate or isolated in themselves. A psychologist, Melanie Klein, spoke about the inner rage that the bully feels over their own inadequacy. They thus seek to relieve this feeling by projecting their weakness on to someone else. That ‘bad object’ that really belongs to them can then be harassed in the other person rather than in themselves. The more that other person is humiliated, the more relief the bully feels by not having to face up to their own emptiness and low esteem. A summary way of putting all this is to say that the bully is the little person, tormented by low self-esteem, fear or inadequacy, who has to bluster and manipulate others in order to relieve the inner emptiness.
Other psychological insights come from those who describe narcissistic behaviour. To summarise these ideas, it can said that bullies are self-obsessed, self-important individuals who have a powerful inner motivation to create a world around them that serves their emotional needs. They will bully and cajole others to serve these needs and they are often good at doing this. The malign charismatic personalities have, as we have described in another blog post, a particular gift in this distinctive type of manipulation. Further remarks could be made about the way that bullying and sadism are connected, but space does not permit.
Moving from an account of the profile of bullies to the description of those who receive such treatment, we can see that the targets of this treatment can suffer profoundly. Outwardly the victims may have to take drastic action to escape a bully, like move house or change jobs. Others collapse inwardly and may commit suicide. The reason that the bullying is so powerful is that the vulnerability of the bullied individual has been exposed and their self-esteem has been undermined. In the process they have felt themselves marginalised and of no possible value to anyone. Few people are so strong that their sense of who they are cannot be attacked and undermined by a determined bully. Within an organisation an individual cannot just walk away without severe consequences. As long there are bullies in any organisation for the reasons we outlined above, there are always going to be power games which are going to be won by the person who is further up the hierarchy. A common consequence is the one that I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the experience of severe stress. Whether it results in the acute form, this stress can interrupt the normal processes of life. Damaged self-esteem takes a lot of rebuilding.
I am conscious of there being many more things I would like to say on this topic, but I always fear my reader will lose patience if I write too much. I will just end with a reflection from St Matthew’s gospel. In chapter 25, Jesus speaks of the people that his followers are to serve as a sign of being his disciples. They are to serve the hungry, the stranger, the naked, the ill and those in prison. In doing this they are serving him. ‘Anything you did not do for one of these, however humble, you did not do for me.’ What greater proclamation that followers of Christ are never to be complicit in any culture of bullying but rather be among those who always seek to build up the weak? The church should be a place where bullying cannot happen. May we all work to play our part in ‘naming and shaming’ it wherever it occurs.