The Bully Culture: A Call to Resistance

Listen carefully.

Set aside your own convictions. Set aside the deep-seated conviction that you are utterly, completely right and morally superior. (Aren't we all?) Listen, instead, to the shape of public discourse and your role in shaping it.

What do you hear? The sound of bullies. People who label, name-call, shout, deride, and criticize. They live on the left and the right. You can find them on Fox and on the pages of The New York Times. They are Democrats and they are Republicans. They are religious and they are atheists. They are slugging it out in public and in private.

The truth doesn't matter. The consequences don't matter. Complexities don't matter. Bullies know what they want. They want to win an argument, gain a vote, or score a point at someone else's expense. The truth is endlessly fungible. Promises and threats are tools to be used at will. Besides, we will all be dead before anyone knows whether they were right or wrong. Bullies know what they want and they will get it at all costs.

What is killed in the space between here and the truth is the ability to listen . . . to analyze . . . to dream . . . to discover . . . to listen . . . to hope. Who needs those things when there are bullies to tell us what to do . . . what to think . . . what to value . . . how to vote . . . what to eat, wear, and drive?

We are married to them. We share public spaces with them. They dominate the dinner table. They master the airwaves. They are so-called leaders. And they are constantly in search of power—over homes, faculty meetings, city councils, state legislatures, the halls of Congress, the Oval Office, and—in their spare time, the world itself.

When you challenge their behavior they have other defenses at the ready: "I was just kidding." "You are too sensitive." "I'm entitled to my opinion." "I'm just speaking truth to power." "Because I'm in charge." Then there are the endless labels: "You are a heretic, a racist, a socialist, a sexist, a traitor, a homophobe, a liberal, a fundamentalist." There might be a very rare place for these labels, but a bully uses them early and often to marginalize differences in opinion. And when words completely fail them they resort to obscenities and violence.

Welcome to the bully culture: E Pluribus Bully'em. They are armed and dangerous. Not in the traditional sense. They are armed with the internet. They are armed with the ability to say anything and everything until it sticks. They are loud and large.

So where does the spiritual task lie?

  1. Listen to the people on the edge.
  2. Invite them into the conversation.
  3. Insist that they are heard—even if what they want to say is not something you (or the bullies) want to hear.
  4. Mirror in your own behavior the modesty that allows others to make their own choices.
  5. Remember that God's politics are not your politics—or theirs. Your way is not the only way.
  6. Insist on listening.
  7. Redirect attention away from the labels to the arguments, the logic, the evidence, the data.
  8. Resist the bullies. Resist them by speaking out. Resist them by being honest. Resist them by naming their behavior what it is: bullying.
  9. If necessary, turn them off until they learn the limits of their singular, childish demands.

To back off and shrink back neither serves God nor the search for Truth. Backing off strengthens bullies—reinforces their delusions—and fosters an idolatry that crowds out the voice of God.

Caving into bullies is the new apostasy. To face it squarely is to risk the new martyrdom.

Join the effort. Be a saint.

5/1/2011 4:00:00 AM
  • Mainline Protestant
  • The Spiritual Landscape
  • Bullies
  • Mainline Protestantism
  • Media
  • politics
  • Christianity
  • Frederick Schmidt
    About Frederick Schmidt
    Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: