The Bullying Pulpit


Thanks to the U.K., where incivility is apparently the new infidelity, for providing a little black comic relief from the dangerous idiocies of American politics: a bullying scandal has erupted over Prime Minister Gordon Brown's allegedly abusive behavior of his staff. (You can read all about it here, here, and here.) The director of an anti-bullying helpline has claimed that members of Brown's staff contacted the helpline with "issues and concerns" about Downing Street's "bullying culture," Brown's critics are demanding an inquiry into his conduct, (you'd think he'd been sleeping with interns) and conservatives are accusing the government of a "cover-up"--as if bullying were a crime or a sin, like torture or warrantless surveillance, that a politician would reflexively conceal.     
The real sin here is the infantilization of everyone by the therapeutic culture, which Britain has embraced with the fervor of American colleges that punish students for "offensive" speech.  As Brendan O'Neill writes at

The most alarming thing is that some of the people responsible for running the country should phone a helpline to complain about being shouted at or shoved, that individuals with huge political responsibilities should indulge in childish emotional tantrums and exercises in self-pity... Recently, some right-wing critics of the New Labour government have claimed that it has instituted a "Bully State", kind of a super-scary nanny state - but the real problem today is the 'anti-bullying state', where the government has conspired in the therapeutic transformation of everything from hard work to ideological zeal into a disorder. Now, New Labour is not so much being hoist with its own petard as rammed by its own therapist's couch.   

Michelle Obama's anti-obesity campaign has some conservatives complaining about the American nanny state, but it seems like an exercise in libertarianism compared to this uproar over bullying.  America may be the breeding ground for pop therapeutic notions of self-esteem and victimhood (the subject of criticism and mockery for nearly 20 years now,) but it's still hard to imagine White House staffers calling a hotline to complain about being yelled at by the president, or chief of staff.  It's true that Rahm Emanuel was required to apologize for calling liberals "fucking retarded," but his sin wasn't bullying; it was his politically incorrect utterance of the "r-word."  Next time, if he calls liberals "fucking stupid," I doubt there'll be demands for an inquiry into bullying.              

So it may be tempting to regard the British bullying scandal as an occasion for self-congratulatory tributes to mythic American toughness, but I consider it a cautionary tale.   As I've noted (frequently) speech policing on campus is inculcating in many students a hostility to liberty--a reductionist view of free speech as an actionable threat to civility and someone's "right" to self-esteem.  If government employees don't routinely complain of bullying, college students do: they report their classmates for insulting them or voicing political views they consider harmful or offensive to some disadvantaged group or other. (Students routinely define harassment as "making someone uncomfortable.")   Speech codes are instruments of surveillance as well as censorship.  They encourage students to rat each other out.  When prohibitions on offensive speech or bullying are codified, when yelling at someone is a violation of some law or regulation, then a better word for whiner is informer. 

Update: a response to reader comments is here
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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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