Monday, January 25, 2016

Catnip for Bullies

We understand, or at least we think we understand the theories about empathy. We know that in a culture directed by psycho theorists everyone is supposed to learn how to feel empathy. Everyone must feel everyone’s pain, understand it deeply, commiserate, show compassion and  manifest appropriate sympathy.

I have often presented counterarguments to this pernicious notion, one disguised as an incontestable virtue, so I will not do so again today. I prefer examining what happens when the culture at large and parents in particular teach it to children and make it the basis for their moral education.

A conscientious parent, Jerisha Parker Jordan has explained what happened to her eight-year-old daughter when the latter translated the empathy lesson into too much kindness.

She writes:

“Mommy, I was kind to her like you told me to be and she was still rude,” my daughter told me from the back seat of the car. “She even laughed before walking away.”

“Did you say anything back?”

We are only half-way through third grade and my daughter is already stressed. Not by the barrage of homework or the eighth graders who loom above her in the shared hallways, but by the effort of being kind, as she has been taught since pre-K.

Let’s be clear. There is nothing wrong with being kind to someone who is rude. Consider it an opening gambit. And yet, when your kindness is taken as an invitation to bully you, you ought to reconsider your tactics. You ought to have other possible moves in your command.

In many ways it is better not to respond to rudeness with equal and opposite rudeness. And yet, that does not answer the question of what you should do when your kindness falls victim to more rudeness.

One might say that greeting rudeness with kindness is like turning the other cheek. Yet, turning the other cheek is more like ignoring the insult. It is not quite the same thing as being kind in return. And besides, what do you do when you run out of cheeks?

One might well say that Jordan’s daughter is being taught to do unto others as others would do unto her. Yet, the golden rule does not tell you to be a patsy or a punching bag.

To be fair, the girl is eight. On the one hand it is good that she is obediently following her mother’s teaching. On the other hand, she is not sufficiently grown up to adapt to different circumstances. Her mother sees the problem and fears that her daughter is letting her anger muscle—as I would call it—to atrophy. Not because a child of that age will really know how to express anger appropriately, but because she ought to be able to express it.

So we need to take a closer look at what the golden rule is and is not saying. The golden rule is recommending that you set a good example when faced with someone who is behaving badly. If your behavior helps the other person to see that he is behaving badly he might apologize and change his ways. That should always be your goal.

When you answer rudeness with kindness you will be setting an example of good behavior, thus shaming the other person into recognizing and taking responsibility for his bad behavior. If kindness does not work, other ways of telling or showing your abuser how badly he is behaving is the next recourse.

If kindness does not produce the desired result, you will be inclined to try a different approach. When you are faced with persistent rudeness, you are being harassed. Your choices then become: walking away or confronting the bully. Obviously, the first is preferable to the second. You should only confront a bully when you cannot avoid him. Confronting him does not mean punching him in the face. It means calling him out on his rudeness, telling him that he is behaving like a lout.

Jordan describes the current impasse:

My daughter had become the girl I hoped she would be — the girl I always wanted to be at her age: kind, well-liked, and always making sure everyone was included.

But she had also become the girl who doesn’t stand up for herself. Faced with anything other than kindness, my daughter backs down, steps back, looks away.

We are not surprised to learn that Jordan’s daughter is learning the same lesson at school and in the culture at large:

For so long, she has been told to be kind. It’s the message plastered across every wall in her school and the lesson at the crux of nearly every children’s program. I myself have sung this tune to her daily. Consider how other people feel, I tell her. When people are grumpy or curt with us when we’re together, I remind her that maybe it’s not us, but them — maybe they’re having a bad day. I would rather be snide in return, but in front of her, I hold my tongue.

Those schoolroom reminders, feel-good children’s shows and even my adult behavior are all meant to teach her, as we want to teach all of our children, to empathize with someone else’s problems and struggles, But has the other message been that she has no right to feelings of her own?

As she absorbs the lesson that she should be kind in every situation, my daughter is slowly but surely losing her voice and seat at any table. Now, maybe she will take that slice of cheese pizza instead of the pepperoni she wants, if cheese is what is left after everyone else has their choice. Two years from now, maybe she won’t raise her hand in class to share her opinion because it’s not a popular one. What we said was “be nice.” What she heard was “you don’t matter.”

One feels obliged to point out that in a culture where everyone is being taught to be kind and nice, anger muscles are going to atrophy. More aggressive children will see this weakness as an opportunity to exploit or to abuse others. Aren't these kindhearted, empathetic children are being made into catnip for bullies?


priss rules said...

Empathy is often mistaken for sympathy.

Empathy is about trying to understand what the other person is thinking and feeling and why. It is a mind game. Empathy is a useful tool since people are not always honest with others, not even with themselves. So, we all have to try to play mind-reading-and-guessing games.

If anything, we need to use empathy especially with bad, dangerous, and troubled people because they pose the most threat. We need to understand them and figure out why they are the way they are.

Politicians lie and should never be taken at face value. So, we try to read their true intentions.

Sympathy, in contrast, is a unconditional compassion for others based on faith in their goodness or our sanctimoniousness. "Gee, we are so nice and kind with all this compassion. Gee, people showered with our compassion will be so grateful and go around spreading the love around themselves." Naive and childish.
In fact, a lot of people exploit compassion to stoke their own ego("look at me, I'm so good") or get free stuff from others("I'm so oppressed, give me more.")

I think we need to teach kids to be more empathetic in a smart way. Try to understand others, always remind yourself that what people(especially sociopaths and weasels)say and really feel are different things. Try to understand why some are good, some are bad. Only suckers operate in the mode of 'faith'.

The mind has to cool the emotions, both hostile and friendly. It's stupid to be kneejerk hostile and suspicious all the time, but it may be even more dangerous to be kneejerk hospitable and trusting all the time. All those Germans and Swedes who welcomed the masses of 'refugees' with open arms are gonna found out the hard way.

Ares Olympus said...

I agree with priss rules, or accept that empathy has two meanings, affective and cognitive empathy, the second is about trying to understand someone else's point of view. While perhaps Stuart focuses his contempt on the first meaning.
Empathy can be divided into two major components:
* Affective empathy, also called emotional empathy: the capacity to respond with an appropriate emotion to another's mental states.
* Cognitive empathy: the capacity to understand another's perspective or mental state.

Stuart: When you answer rudeness with kindness you will be setting an example of good behavior, thus shaming the other person into recognizing and taking responsibility for his bad behavior.

I agree with this tactic and analysis, although we can use cognitive empathy to help as well. Like for instance, we can reflect when we're pissed off and act out, and someone calls us out on this immediately, we're as likely to double-down on our acting out as melt into shame and beg for forgiveness.

And what's strange is BOTH extreme responses - extreme denial or extreme remorse seem equally unhelpful. That is to say both of them focus on justification - the first says "I'm right" and the second "I'm wrong" while what's important isn't being right or wrong, but seeing ourselves objectively.

E.F. Schumacher talks about this in his 4 fields of knowledge, with field 1 as how we see ourselves, and field 3 on how other see us.
Schumacher observes that relying on just field one knowledge makes you feel that you are the centre of the universe; while focusing on field three knowledge makes you feel that you are far more insignificant. Seeking self-knowledge via both fields (one and three) provides more balanced and accurate self-knowledge.

And actually this is also where anger is involved. If "refusing to be angry", "refusing to stand up for yourself", "refusing to defend your point of view to a bully", you're actually enabling that bully. You're not being a proper mirror and helping the bully see how their behavior affects you.

So when we're assertive, gently and kindly, expressing our point of view, we're still expressing anger, but in a constructive way, by being a mirror and showing someone how they look from the outside (field 3.)

And the other part is that it is hard to integrate "self-knowledge" of subjective and objective self, especially when we're angry, so if you're willing to be assertive, you shouldn't assume a person acting badly is going to instantly reform and beg for forgiveness, but is going to stew a while in that conflict on their own, hidden from view, and they may stay in denial or may later come back and apologize, or maybe neither, but they may be changed for your willingness to stand up to them in a firm way.

I sort of think that whenever you call out someone's bad behavior, you're playing their conscience, and if you also try to shame them for their bad behavior, then you're playing their superego as well. And parents and authority figures have to be willing to play roles that invoke someone's superego, that is project their superego onto you for a time, and if you are a good authority figure, you will model a good superego development.

I don't know the best way to face or help a bully, but I've liked The Four Agreements, and #2.
2. Don’t Take Anything Personally: Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

If we don't acknowledge or anger at all, we will become resentful. So the first step is knowing when we are taking things personally.

Anonymous said...

All of this would not be society's greatest concern but for the influence of cunt in our institutions.

Ares Olympus said...

I notice the author ends with self-advice: For every message of kindness I offer my daughter, I need to add one about the importance of standing by one’s convictions. I need to show her that being kind does not mean being a doormat, even if it means taking on the occasional nasty salesclerk I would usually simply ignore.

Convictions is an interesting choice of words, the definition is simple, "a firmly held belief or opinion." But first you have to identify these convictions and test them!

Like valuing kindness itself can be a conviction, like this advice quote:
"Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” ― Henry James

I do think having siblings helps kids have practice working things out, especially anger, since proximity requires some resolution in conflicts, you can't just retreat always, while single children have a disadvantage having to learn everything "in public" where their reputations are more at risk.

Or maybe that idea suggests there are two types of kindness - public and private. Public kindness is where you know you're being watched and judged, and private kindness like in a family or close friends who will still love you no matter what, so you can risk more mistakes, and trust you can make things better later.

Like we can say assertiveness is a virtue, while aggression is a vice, while they can be hard to separate without having a safe place to practice and make mistakes and find a range of tactics to de-escalate things that might otherwise just be misunderstandings.

Like this article: The Scientific Reason Why We Hurt The Ones We Love Most
"The people who are likely to cause us harm of any sort are likely going to be people we know," review author Deborah South Richardson, a psychology professor at Georgia Regents University, explained to The Huffington Post. "It's not the strangers we need to fear."

She, and other researchers like her, focus on defining aggression based on someone's intent, and not on whether an aggressive action actually ends up hurting someone. "Whether or not you actually caused harm isn't the critical issue," Richardson explained. "It's that you intended to. If I aim my gun and shoot at you but miss, my intention was still aggressive."
•We're more likely to be aggressive to the people we know and love the most -- not strangers. Whether that’s because we spend the most time with them, or because our relationships with them are more significant, is still unknown, Richardson said.
•Aggression is often confused with assertiveness. Assertiveness is about expressing your needs or concerns, but aggression involves the intent to actually hurt someone. To Richardson, there is no "healthy" level of aggression, except perhaps to use it situationally to protect yourself if someone is trying to hurt you physically. "If we define aggression as behavior intended to harm another living being, it's hard to think there's a healthy level of aggression," Richardson said. "Psychologists encourage people to confront and deal effectively with issues, but we don't encourage them to do it aggressively."

David Foster said...

Ares Olympus..."4 fields of knowledge"...interesting model.