Yesterday my friend Inca and I spent some time together running errands. We were chatting about this and that when she turned to me and asked, "So what did you make of Hillary's response to that Congolese student?" (See also this article if you missed the news story.)
"Inappropriate. Unbecoming. Embarrassing." said I, without skipping a beat.
"I thought it was great," responded Inca, explaining that the student comes from a country that shows little respect for women in general and women in leadership in particular and, thus, it was wonderful to have the opportunity to show them all how things really ought to be.
Setting aside the colonialist overtones of that, I replied, "But she's our country's top diplomat. It's not her job to pick fights with someone who clearly wasn't angling for a fight. There was a language problem, maybe even a problem with translation."
"Oh, no, there wasn't. That student meant to ask about her husband's opinion," said Inca.
"But even if he did, it's unbecoming of a person in her position, not just as chief diplomat, but with that kind of power disparity, to go on the attack like that, and with a student, no less. Why can't she regulate her emotions?" I asked.
"She was jet lagged. She looked tired. Her elbow's broken." said Inca.
"Too bad. Ability to cope with jet lag and fatigue are part of a globe-trotter's job description. If our top diplomat can't deal with those, how can we trust her to manage complex and sticky diplomatic situations in addition?"
Back and forth we went, each of us firmly dug in. So we walked in silence for a spell, then moved onto the next topic of conversation.
Inca and I usually agree about things, so this has gnawed at me over the past day. There is an age/experience differential--I'm older by more than a decade. Maybe that is part of it. But, upon further consideration, one of the things that bothers me about the Hillary-in-Congo incident is that I do not like to be party to adult bullying. Hillary used her position, her power, and the global stage to publicly humiliate a very young man, and that doesn't sit well with me, no matter the circumstances. The senior-most person should remain in control and demonstrate emotional maturity.
When I was growing up in the Midwest most kids found themselves--at least once, typically in the junior high years--in the role of the bully or the bullied. For most of us, this was a brief phase in which we learned either to harness our aggressions and get along with others or run like hell 'til we were out of harm's way. Part of becoming a socialized human being. If the bullying was verbal, most of us heard the dreaded parental admonishment, "Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you." A damned lie that was. Words hurt more than sticks and stones.
I don't recall seeing adults bully each other or, worse, children. Maybe it happened. But I wasn't aware.
I did notice when I joined the professional workforce that some adults had not learned how to play well with others in the sandbox. They bullied their subordinates. One man I worked for--a fat man named Slim--used to kick a metal wastebasket across the room when he was angry. Didn't take much to make him angry, and so the office was an extremely tense place. Another manager I had early in my career made a habit of publicly criticizing her employees, though this habit quickly earned her the reputation of being a "difficult boss" by her superiors. I used to consider these people one-offs. . .nothing normative about them. Just bad luck if your path happened to cross theirs.
In Jordan I witnessed adult bullying taken to altogether new heights and lengths. It's a tribal culture, so when one member of the tribe decides to have a go at someone, the whole tribe piles on. . .forever and ever and ever, amen. No act is too petty or small. No end to the bullying, and no such thing as reconciliation and forgiveness. Very scary for someone like me, alone in a new country, without a tribe. Easy, easy pickings. But it helped me understand why that region is in perpetual turmoil. If bullying were an Olympic sport, the countries in that region just might have a lock on all three medals.
I've since noticed--and I won't out anyone here, but if you want to out yourselves, feel free--some RR blogs in which the blogger mentions s/he has been/is being bullied. Sometimes it's face to face. Other times it's done ever so gutlessly by exploiting the anonymity of the Internet.
So, is adult bullying on the rise? If so, why? Is it a failure of parenting or a failure on the part of some to develop emotional intelligence? Has the Internet made it easier to be a bully? Why is it so difficult for some people to get along with the rest of us? Have we lowered the bar on what is considered acceptable behavior?
Causes Ellen Sheeley Supports
For All Women Foundation