Category Archives: Relationships

Of Victims & Bullies

Courtesy Andrevruas, via Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy Andrevruas, via Wikimedia Commons.

The short version: sometimes they are the same person.

Growing up, especially in middle school, I was bullied quite a bit.  Bullying is a serious thing.  I still remember the names I was called and the faces who said them. I recall vividly having to restrain myself from retaliation. The kind of overt bullying I experienced is all-too-common for young people in America, and this was before social media.  Now, home is not necessarily a haven, as bullying can continue on Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms.  Young people are bullied for a variety of reasons: for looking different, for being attracted to someone of the same gender, for their poverty, or for a disability.  24/7 bullying culture is a serious matter.  Victims of bullying are at an increased likelihood of mental and emotional problems, including temptations to suicide.

Victims deserve our sincere support and empathy.  Christians in particular are called to love the marginalized, outcast, and oppressed. Psalm 34:18 reminds us that God is committed to the cause of all those who are victimized: “The Lord is near the brokenhearted, and saved those crushed in spirit.”  Christians and other citizens who wish to care for the “least of these” simply cannot avoid concern for victims of physical, verbal, or other forms of violence.  Many decent people are quick to come to the defense of victims.

For that reason, some unhealthy personalities will always seek to take advantage of others’ good nature and feign victim status in order to garner attention or gain power.  KickBully.com offers excellent resources for addresses bullying.  On a page dedicated to bullies who claim to be victims, they describe the behavior under three headings:

A bully exaggerates the impact
of your actions on him
– He exaggerates his pain and suffering

– He makes you feel guilty for causing his pain

– He claims you don’t appreciate him

A bully focuses on past
and future victimization
– He frequently reminds you of your past actions that hurt him

– He replays his pain whenever he wants to manipulate you

– He brings up his pain long after the event occurred

– He doesn’t seem to get over things

– He says you will hurt him again if you don’t do what he wants

A bully uses his victimization
to avoid changing his behavior
– He says you must earn back his trust, good will, friendship, support

– He claims his belligerence results from his being treated unfairly

– He becomes angry and indignant when you try to reason with him

– He says he is tired of doing all the compromising

– He says he isn’t going to be so polite in the future

– He suggests that others are ganging up on him

They sum up this phenomenon by describing the behavior simply, “A bully pretends to be a victim in order to manipulate others. Because most people are good and compassionate, this is bullying at its worst. ”

Tim Field of BullyOnline.org attributes this behavior to a “manipulator,” one of a variety of attention-seeking pathological personality types who

“…[m]ay exploit family, workplace or social club relationships, manipulating others with guilt and distorting perceptions. While there may be no physical harm involved, people are affected with emotional injury…A common attention-seeking ploy is to claim he or she is being persecuted, victimized, excluded, isolated or ignored by another family member or group, perhaps insisting she is the target of a campaign of exclusion or harassment.”

We live at a moment in the modern West where we may begin to see more of this kind of behavior; an insightful new Atlantic piece names a subtle shift starting to take place in our culture that will profoundly impact how we relate to one another.  Pre-modern cultures were largely honor cultures, where disputes would often be settled physically (a fight, or a duel), and requesting aid from third parties would be anathema in the case of an offense.  The 19th and 20th century, particularly in the West, has seen a shift to a “dignity culture,” where insults were seen as less of an affront to personal honor and people are more likely to handle conflicts directly or simply ignore them.  In a dignity culture, people are not totally averse to third party aid, but it is seen as a last resort to be avoided if possible.  But now we are transitioning to a  new kind of culture, described by sociologists thus:

The culture on display on many college and university campuses, by way of contrast, is “characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large. Domination is the main form of deviance, and victimization a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization.”

It is, they say, “a victimhood culture.”

Poster from the documentary Bully, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Poster from the documentary Bully, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This victimhood culture clashes with the older dignity culture; slights that would be dismissed or handled reasonably in a dignity culture become fodder for great offense and shame campaigns by those influenced by the culture of victimhood.  This is one aspect of the “suicide of thought” which we’ve examined previously. The sociologists quoted by The Atlantic piece elaborate:

“People increasingly demand help from others, and advertise their oppression as evidence that they deserve respect and assistance. Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood … the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights.”

This helps to explain why we might see a rise in bullies playing the victim.  As the culture shifts – and we are already seeing this in places like college campuses – there is more and more incentive to claim victim status, whether based on legitimate experiences or not.  A good example of this kind of dynamic is the #CancelColbert faux controversy, in which a failed attempt was made to silence a comedian (who hadn’t made the offending tweet) for satirizing racism – which is a form of critique! Sound inane? It was, and the inanity was nicely summed up in this hilarious interview (not to mention Colbert’s mic-drop-worthy response).

The question The Atlantic does not answer, and that I find vexing, is the obvious one: what to do? The nature of claiming victimhood status is that it demands immediate deference; to question it is to risk nebulous but severe charges like insensitivity, harm, and blaming the victim.  Moreover, bullying manipulators can easily turn any criticism or question to further the pretense of victimhood (as the chart above indicates).

The best option may just be to ignore them altogether; by challenging them directly you will likely feed their delusion and simply get roped into their histrionics.  As with other kinds of toxic people, the only way to win with faux victims-turned-bullies is to minimize your exposure to them.  Henry Cloud has some excellent thoughts along these lines in this lecture.

In a world that is far from the promised Kingdom, there will be victims and, sadly, those who pretend victimhood to further their own selfish ends.  We must care deeply for the former while being wary of the latter.  Or, as Jesus put it, we are called to be “as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matt. 10:16b, NRSV)

Have you experienced what sociologists are calling “victimhood culture?”  Are there positive aspects to this culture? Are there other helpful ways to deal with it? Leave a comment below! 

You are Not an Independent Thinker

BubbleBoy
Living in a bubble is safe, but it can also make us hostile to what is outside. Courtesy WikiSein, the Seinfeld Encyclopedia.

What if we aren’t the independent thinkers that we fancy ourselves to be?

One of the most troubling aspects of debate in today’s church and society is the regionalism that seems so triumphant.  Why is it that certain regions should be associated with, say, gun rights on the one hand, or other areas known for environmental concerns?  Why are churches in some parts of the world very LGBT-friendly and others more traditionalist?  Why is it that I can guess where most of my colleagues stand on things based on what seminary or university they attended?

Let me tell you a story about a series of experiments.  Some were done in the 1950’s and others were repeated more recently.  The basic purpose: to determine how much basic decision-making is influenced by being a part of a group in which one or more parties loudly advocates for the wrong answer.  Susan Cain describes these experiments in her marvelous book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.  The earlier experiments come from a Dr. Asch:

Asch gathered student volunteers into groups and had them take a vision test. He showed them a picture of three lines of varying lengths and asked questions about how the lines compared with one another: which was longer, which one matched the length of a fourth line, and so on. His questions were so simple that 95 percent of students answered every question correctly.

But when Asch planted actors in the groups, and the actors confidently volunteered the same incorrect answer, the number of students who gave all correct answers plunged to 25 percent. That is, a staggering 75 percent of the participants went along with the group’s wrong answer to at least question. (Susan Cain,  Quiet [New York: Crown 2012], 90, emphasis added.)

Notice: a few loud voices drastically altered the ability of people to solve basic, simple problems.  When these experiments were repeated under slightly different conditions more recently, Asch’s conclusions were vindicated by a researcher named Bern and his team:

The results were both disturbing and illuminating. First, they corroborated Asch’s findings. When the volunteers played the game on their own, they gave the wrong answer only 13.8 percent of the time. But when they played with a group whose members gave unanimously wrong answers, they agreed with the group 41 percent of the time. (91, emphasis added.)

Once again, the ability to give correct answers to basic questions is dramatically altered by the presence of a voice or voices giving incorrect answers.  Cain goes on to note that detailed exploration in the latter study revealed that the brain itself was affected by the presence of the group.  She concludes,

Peer pressure, in other words, is not only unpleasant, but can actually change your view of a problem.  these early findings suggest that groups are like mind-altering substances. If the group thinks the answer is A, you’re much more likely to believe that A is correct, too. It’s not that you’re saying consciously, “Hmm, I’m not sure, but they all think the answer’s A, so I’ll go with that.” Nor are you saying, “I want them to like me, so I’ll just pretend that the answer’s A.” No, you are doing something much more unexpected – and dangerous. Most of Berns’s volunteers reported having gone along with the group because “they thought that they had arrived serendipitously at the same correct answer.” They were utterly blind, in other words, to how much their peers had influenced them.” (92, emphasis added.)

We are blind to the effects of peer influence.  In other words, we are not the isolated “thinking things” (as James K.A. Smith would say) that modernity would claim.  All of us are influenced by our communities, friends and social environs, to the point that our brains are actually altered when we are surrounded by others advocating for a particular answer.

If this is true for the basic, simple problems used in the experiments above, how much more could it be true for complex questions like health care, abortion, and churches blessing gay and lesbian marriages?

Right or wrong – quite literally – we are influenced by the people with whom we surround ourselves.  This is why dialogue is vital, because retreating into the echo-chambers of our idealogical allies may make us less capable of coming to different conclusions, even though the people around us could be wrong.  It’s easier, of course, to only engage with people who agree with us.  Life inside the bubble can be quite comfortable.  The womb is a cozy place, but we cannot become adults there.  And besides, there are higher goals to pursue than comfort.

What do these findings mean for how we should seek answers to the tough questions we face? How can we be sure our convictions are not just groupthink?

At the very least, this tells me that a hermeneutic of charity is always needed.  Because it is actually very difficult to determine where my convictions and the convictions of my social location differ, we should be haunted and humbled by this: I may be wrong, even in those those things that I feel most strongly about, and especially if I am surrounded by others with whom I agree. This does not mean we won’t, or shouldn’t, have convictions. But it should impact the way in which we hold those convictions.

What do you think?

The Thin Line Between Marriage and Idolatry

ImageWeddings and Idols…closer than you might think.

One of my favorite nuggets from Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s brilliant little book For the Life of the World is the following:

“The real sin of marriage today is not adultery or lack of ‘adjustment’ or ‘mental cruelty.’ It is the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God….the family has here ceased to be for the glory of God; it has ceased to to be a sacramental entrance into His presence. It is not the lack of respect for the family, it is the idolization of the family that breaks the modern family so easily, making divorce its almost natural shadow. It is the identification of marriage with happiness and the refusal to accept the cross in it.” (90)

Schmemann’s insight is stunning, and his accusation of idolatry is not too strong. The simple definition of idol is: anything that has more importance in our life than God. In that sense, based on an unduly childish notion of “love” (so-called) that is really more like an immature codependence, there are many married folk in our world who are attempting the impossible: building a lifelong relationship on the fleeting feelings that are no more eternal than a wedding cake. Real love is work, real love is a ministry, which is why marriage is not the final stage of “progression” in a relationship but a calling to be discerned and entered into (as the old liturgies go), “reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God.Ask any ordinand, or doctor, or plumber: following one’s calling is both a blessing and a curse, and all vocations (including marriage and singleness) are shot through with gifts as well as costs.

Marriage is about God. From a Christian perspective, the only good reason to be married is that you can follow God and mature more as a disciple by being united in a covenantal bond to this particular person than if you were not. Faithful marriage is a form of worship to God, but its inverse – marriage (or any relationship in which God is not central) as the summum bonum (“highest good”) imaginable in life – is a hideous idol.

There is a cross in marriage, because marriage is a gift from God and God’s gifts (as opposed to Hollywood mythology or sentimental fantasy) always call us away from our natural inclinations that we might be transformed into a nearer likeness of the Image of God. The good news is always cruciform, including the good news that God has called some to embody covenant fidelity with another human being. Ordered toward God, marriage is a beautiful, wondrous mystery. Oriented towards some smaller god good – making babies, or my own happiness, or a cure for mutual boredom and loneliness – marriage cannot be the gift it is intended to be.

The Church and Singleness

Churches are generally not great for single people.  Even churches with vibrant singles ministries only construe them as a place to meet other singles with the hopes of making them no longer single.  Protestant churches in particular do not know what to do with single Christians.  We have no vocation of singleness to look at, no imagination for what the Christian life looks like as an unmarried person.

My last semester of seminary, I noticed a mad dash to the altar.  NOBODY wants to be a single pastor, and with good reason.  All of the social events involving my denomination’s structure are geared towards “pastors and their spouses.”  I went to my first such meeting this week, and found that I was not only the youngest person there, I was, as far as I could tell, the only one who was likely single and had never been previously married.

What does holiness look like for the single person?  How the hell does a single pastor date?  My fundamentalist past tell me, “no sex before marriage,” but this is not a positive vision for the single life.

The best I’ve read on the subject is Lauren Winner’s Real Sex.  She re-convinced me that the church’s traditional stance on marriage was correct, by being honest and giving sound theological reasons for believing them.  I have read nothing better on the subject and encourage all committed Christians, single or not, to check it out.

Again, as a Protestant, I don’t have a tradition of saints to look at, or nuns, monks, and priests who model the single life.  What are we to do?  “It is better to marry than to burn with desire,” I suppose.  But how does a pastor date? Who wants to marry a pastor? (Probably no one, if they knew what they were getting into!)  And yet our churches expect married clergy.  Truth be told, they expect the spouse to be a bit of an unpaid co-pastor.

We Protestants desperately need to find ways to affirm singleness.  Not everyone is called to be married, and if indeed it is OK to, as Paul says, “remain as you were,” they deserve better from us.