When I was at Tamatea High School in Napier, years ago, one of the gangs of bullies who prowled the place always greeted me the same way. “Here comes Wright. He must die!” Usually it was posed as a public question: “Hello Wright, do you want to die?” It was a daily event.
I wasn’t alone. They did this to everybody, and it was wholly unprovoked. Merely walking into view, it seems, was sufficient to cause them to publicly threaten to kill all those they saw. They never tried to carry out their death threats, which gave due dimension to such conduct. But, equally, the school did nothing useful to stop them making such threats in the first place, or to forestall any of the other ways they and the other bullies abused and intimidated pupils.
I have long accepted that humans bully each other by nature. As a species, it seems our default conduct is to break, destroy and take away whatever the other person has, no matter what that may be – and the easiest way of doing it is to first take away the right or ability of the target to respond. It was apparently a survival tactic, way back when. What’s more, our society – and particularly our intellectual institutions – facilitate such conduct by providing rules that perpetrators can exploit to not merely enable that bully conduct, but to use those rules to pretend they’re not behaving that way. The same systems also provide mechanisms behind which they can cower if their target does dare to respond.
And yes, I know we talk about human kindness – but this keeps having to be worked on, doesn’t it? We’ve fought wars since forever, and by that I mean that archaeological finds reveal we were doing it even as hunter-gatherers, way before (in theory) there was anything much to fight over. There is, I think, good reason why the majority of world religions have always carried the same message: ‘Let’s be nice to each other’. It is a message that keeps being repeated, and rightly so – but then keeps being lost, down to the point where people bully and fight each other over how to believe in that general message of kindness – including within the same religion. Damn.
There is a fairly good scientific explanation as to why. Of late, it’s been shown that revenge and hatred – biochemically – offers a greater sense of reward and satisfaction than acts of kindness. People hurt each other because it’s an easy way to make themselves feel good, irrespective of what happens to the victim. Kindness, in short, is something humans need to work on. And we should – to my mind, ahead of all other considerations. The tragedy of the human condition is that we don’t.
The question, then, isn’t whether humans are bullies or not. The question is whether the institutions and systems we create to exalt our conceits of being intellectual especially reward that behaviour, despite the point that intelligence, surely, should allow us to avert our flaws as a species. My experience isn’t hopeful. The Tamatea High School gang was a minority – loud, threatening, but a minority. University, though, seemed to produce a massively higher percentage of bullies, where the behaviour had been intellectualised into the subject matter – but it was bully-behaviour nonetheless. My experience since of the intellectual world, certainly in New Zealand, is that it is dominated by such people to the point where any who even points it out risks triggering abuse from strangers.
So I have to wonder: do humans, by nature, behave as bullies – and create institutional structures at various scales that facilitate it?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017