Lessons from Having Been Bullied 4: Rules of Engagement
Look, everyone fails sometimes. And sometimes good intentions go bad. Everyone makes mistakes. I'm as guilty of not walking my talk as the next person—well, maybe a little less guilty than some, because when I catch myself not walking my talk, I stop, and do my best to make amends. I don't mind it when a friend calls me on my bad behavior: sometimes we need that reminder to pay attention to our own actions. I don't mind it when someone has a bad day, blows it, and apologizes. I apologize when I need to, which is moderately often.
On the other hand, if someone is incapable of admitting they're wrong, and go out of their way to pretend nothing happened, that's not going to return them to our good graces. People who must be In The Right, who are incapable of ever admitting they were wrong, quickly become precisely those fascist autocrats that bullies are at heart: people who lash out at the world because they haven't really got a leg to stand on. Any argument that turns away from logic towards personal attack is evidence of this.
So, after this preface, here are some basic rules of engagement:
1. If you are in a position of authority, be consistent in how you apply the rules. If actions have consequences, then they need to be swift, sure, immediate, and applied evenly across the board. There can be trust built where the enforcement and application of the rules is seen to be arbitrary, opaque, and inconsistent. It's all too easy to locate hidden agendas in inconsistent enforcement of any given set of rules—whether or not there was a conscious intent, the perception of inconsistency itself is toxic, and will lead to the erosion of trust.
2. Actions always speak louder than words. Always. Without exception. People can say anything they want to, and have good intentions, and even mean what they say, and if their actions are incongruent with their words, their words will not be believed.
3. You need to look in a mirror periodically, and make sure that you are not yourself the person you most hate. Nothing is more obvious than when you project what you don't like about yourself out onto the world, project it onto others (and you might be right about them, even so), then refuse to see that you're doing to others exactly what you hate them to do to you.
4. Don't act like a parent admonishing a child. Give people the respect they deserve. You can use the parental-authority saying, "Do what I say, not what I do," but since we're all grown up now and can think for ourselves, that saying has no power: it is purely something a parent might say to a child, who through inexperience might lack judgment about a tricky situation. It is not applicable to any other situation.
5. Following up on that, kids who have been bullied naturally distrust authority figures. They distrust them because kids who have been bullied for years have often been bullied in secret—bullies can be sly, if not too smart—and parents and school authorities are often clueless, or helpless to do anything about the situation. They might not be able to act until it's too late, because their own rules may require evidence to be proven that just isn't there. Kids who are being bullied learn they can't trust adults to rescue them, save them, or make it stop. If you ever want to get those kids to trust you, never lie to them, never dismiss their fears or concerns, and never abuse the powers your authority grants you to coerce them. Maybe you can coerce them, for now—but in winning the battle, you will lose the war.
6. Entice, don't coerce. Offer solutions, suggestions, and alternatives. Coercion is forcing your will on another. It is energetic violence. Practice energetic non-violence: don't tell people what to do, ask them to do it. Encourage them, without a hidden agenda. Be honest at all times. People who have been bullied enough develop something like an intuitive lie-detector—unless you're a really good actor, or one of those sociopaths who can charm anyone into anything, people who have been bullied can almost always tell when they're being lied to. You'd be surprised at how good some of them are at detecting lies. No wonder they find it hard to trust. Even white lies are still lies.
7. Be honest. If you screw up, admit to it, and do a make-up, then everybody move on. There is no shame in making a mistake. There is only shame in covering it up, or pretending it never happened, or in refusing to apologize.
8. People who insist on Being In The Right, no matter what, will be called on their egotistical crap. No exceptions. Anyone who claims to be In The Right all the time is self-deluded at best, fascist at worst. Yes, I know "fascist" is a strong word—yet the psychology of fascism begins with the single assumption that you know better than everyone else how to run the world. The fact is, you do not: no one does. We all are making it up as we go along. If you think you're right and everyone else is wrong, and if you have the power to do something about it, you are a fascist, in fact, in activity if not in label. The root of the old saying, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," lies precisely in this psychology of Being In The Right. If you have the power to enforce your will on others, and you use that power without very good reason, you are a bully.
9. People who have been bullied will eventually develop a kind of self-confidence, and trust in their own instincts, that is unbeatable. (If they haven't been totally decimated and destroyed by their experiences.) One thing that really irks bullies is people who have self-confidence; they want to try to beat it down, suppress it, deny it. They want to make it go away. They don't want to be reminded of their own shadow weaknesses and insecurities, and the only way they know how to deal with them is to lash out at them, or those who make them think about their weaknesses. So you may always be a target, if you've developed some self-confidence. But practice in maintaining your self-confidence means remaining unperturbed by the attacks of new and old bullies alike. It can be done. It has been done. It will continue to be done.
10. Logic will defeat you, if it is consistent and rational. Bullies attack the emotions, and they also attack emotionally. Resorting to personal attack when one's argument has been shown to be hollow is the mark of a bully. Consider the ancient Socratic method of debate: asking questions designed to eventually focus in the truth, in which civil discourse rather than personal attack is paramount. No truth can be found in hatred, except the dark mirrors of self-hatred. Truth can be found together by asking the right questions, and pursuing them where they might lead. Some questions lead to Mystery—which means that you're asking the right questions, even if you don't always get an answer.
11. Everyone fails. We all fall down. As another saying goes, "Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up again." We will all fail, sometimes. We will all, for whatever reason, even for good reasons, act like someone we don't like and don't want to be, at least a few times in life. (If we manage to avoid that, I'm not sure we can call it actual living.) Living is about taking risks, living is about loving, and living is dancing. Sometimes we fall. And then we learn how to pick ourselves up again, and rejoin the dancing.
So forgiveness is part of these rules of engagement, too. No rule-sets are absolute; they cannot be absolute, and still remain humane, or compassionate. We can forgive each other our trespasses, and go on together, arm in arm.
I rather think that's what we're meant to do: to forgive each other, and ourselves, and go on, arm in arm. It's not easy: in fact, it may be harder than anything else there is.
Because one final, important lesson I've learned from being bullied is that, unless you forgive, and go on, you remain locked in the past. You remain locked in resentment, suffering, and hatred. Forgiveness is not at all about saying that what happened to you is okay: forgiveness is about letting go, about freeing yourself up from your own past, your own wounds, your own past mistakes. It's about being able to go on without carrying all that old baggage along with you, forever and ever.
Trusting others can be challenging, for those of us who've been bullied before. So the solution to that is to place your trust in what you already know to be trustworthy. And forgive the rest.
Previous entries in this occasional series:
Lessons from Having Been Bullied When Young
Lessons from Having Been Bullied 2: Non-Violent Action
Lessons from Having Been Bullied 3