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Socrates in the Playground

How philosophy can help to understand bullying.

A new school term has commenced, and the odds are that in the playground, in the hallways or over the internet, another child will become the victim of a bully. Parents, teachers, and the other children who witness this behaviour are left feeling angry, frightened, and sometimes confused about how they should deal with this. And we have to deal with this because bullying harms people. So how can Philosophy help us navigate our way to a useful and wise response when we are put into the position of having to address this issue in our lives?

Bullying is not new.  All of us have either witnessed or experienced this form of abuse and aggression, not only amongst children, but in the workplace, on the sports field, and in public discussion.   Domestic Violence most often takes the form of one partner bullying the other, and in the wider context of communities, bullying behaviour is often used to control and intimidate, to silence those whose opinion differs from that of the bullies.   Human history is full of the evidence of where this can lead us, the Brown Shirts of the Nazi Party are a well-known example.  

From a moral point of view harm to others is wrong. This belief is shared by all of the world’s Wisdom Traditions.  The differences lay in how those traditions understand harm, and whether they apply their standards to all persons, or only to particular groups of persons.  The UN has articulated the similarities amongst us in a paper called Crossing the Divide - a Dialogue among Civilisations, resulting in the Global Ethic.  There are two principles, of this Global Ethic; our shared humanity, and reciprocity.

Our shared humanity is at the very core of Philosophical arguments for equality that has, in many nations of this world, emancipated slaves, women, and different groups amongst our communities, from the imposition of dominance and control.  The idea of reciprocity is clearly articulated by what most of us know as the Golden Rule;  ‘treat others as you would have them treat you’.

The ‘Enlightenment period of Philosophy, which culminated in the Secular Democracy that we in Australia live in today, argued that treating people unequally was immoral because it harmed them.  It undermines their humanity and prevents them from making their own choices about how they live their lives.  From Emmanuel Kant’s ‘Categorical Imperative’ through to John Stuart Mill’s ideas about ‘maximising happiness’, philosophical arguments focused, not only on the harm to the individual that inequality causes but the harm to society as a whole.  Bullying is, at its very core, a reflection of an unequal relationship, whether it is between children in the playground, a husband and his wife, or is being played out on the nightly news, and in the comments pages of our newspapers.

One of today’s influential philosophers, Slavoj Zizek in his work on violence, argues that it is in the imagined differences between us that we find the impulse for aggression. This perceived difference provokes fear and that fear provokes the bully to lash out. Focusing on difference rather than similarity divides us. The child bully in the playground is fearful of the child that they perceive to be different from them. Given that all the research on childhood development shows us that children are naturally inclusive, the child bully can only have become fearful of the ‘other’ by learning to be so.

This is where we need to intervene if we want to stop aggressive, divisive and harmful behaviour like bullying.  Aristotle, recognising that wisdom is learnt, argued that the way for us to avoid causing harm is through the cultivation of habits of behaviour that reflect the Basic Attitudinal Values of non-violence and respect for life, fairness and solidarity, honesty and tolerance and mutual esteem and partnership.   Teaching these values to our children and helping them understand that it is the bully who is frightened will empower them.   They will not be cowered into passivity and silence.  And if we as adults set the example, and focus on the similarities of our shared humanity, we will find it much easier to see through the fear mongering that would dismantle our freedoms as equal members of our community.