Friday, October 29, 2010

A Bully Pulpit!*

A few weeks ago my 7-yr-old son was given a test in which he was asked to state the opposite of "friend". His answer: "bully". That, apparently, was not in the list of acceptable answers, and so he missed the question (this was not a tragedy!). But as his mother and I considered his answer, it was perfectly understandable, given all of the attention being paid in schools to the topic of "bully-ing". I would imagine that most of us would not count bullies as among our friends.

And the overall topic of bullying ascends to the highest levels
for discussion. Yesterday, the first lady, Michelle Obama, brought up the topic on the "Ellen DeGeneres Show". She challenged adults to help solve the problem of bulllying by leading-by-example. If our kids see us behaving civilly in daily, and political, discourse, they'll learn how to behave appropriately. This, of course, is a simple extension of a lot of other research that shows that kids do learn from the adults around them. We adults can claim "Do as I say!" but if we do something else, as the old saying goes, our "actions speak louder than words."

In this vein, many of us in Colorado are being harangued by a (radio) political ad that asserts "Colorado can take a hit . . . . It's time to hit back". Wow! Now that's productive rhetoric. Our political process has become all about doing violence -- to the other candidate or point-of-view. It's not about debate. It's not about ideas. It's about force. No wonder our children think that they can bully their way into getting what they want. Forget about "speaking softly". It's all about who's carrying the biggest stick.

We live in a culture that seems to believe that success always comes at the expense of someone/something else. It's a zero-sum game. I can't win if you don't lose, and if I have to hurt you to win, I'll do so! That sensibility runs so counter to so many of our higher, religious, ideals. We must be bracketing our almost religiously-universal commitment to
the Ethics of Reciprocity (i.e,.the "Golden Rule") when it comes to making our point: "Do to the other before the other does it to you!"

Some years ago a Christian organization encouraged folks to make a fast. It was not about giving up food or drink or sex or gambling. The challenge was to fast from violence. And that's a pretty major challenge. The challenge was not simply to DO no violence (as if that were easy), but also not to view or listen to violence. There go most movies, and a lot of popular music. Oh, and the news. And which sports do we watch, hoping for a fight???? Umm . . . video games?

I'm not suggesting that we give up going to hockey games (I'd probably lose my job if I did that! GO DU! Beat North Dakota!), but I do wonder if we recognize how enmeshed, and therefore, complicit, we are in this culture of violence. Can we say "no" to attack ads? Can we limit the amount of violence that we allow INTO our living rooms? Do we even recognize that certain cherished institutions, like the democratic process, are a bit violent? (Ask those who lose the elections next week if they feel "beat up"!) Can we instead restructure our conversations - both public and private - to seek understanding or consensus rather than victory? Most importantly, what will my son learn from how I conduct my relationships about friendship, or about bullying? That's where I have some ability to effect change!



"A bully pulpit is a public office or other position of authority of sufficiently high rank that provides the holder with an opportunity to speak out and be listened to on any matter. . . . The term is not related to the noun bully, i.e. a harasser or someone who intimidates" ( See, too, the article in Answers.Com.


  1. hey Rev. Gary,

    My name is benjamin applebee from the korbel school, we met once at that fair in the beginning of the year...Anyway, I do indeed enjoy your posts; I thought this one in particular struck a chord that I had been pondering for some time during this midterm election season. In fact, the same thought/ethos of your post hit me the other day reading a bbc, or some other online news source, article that was talking about the democrats loosing ground and it is just so striking/amazing how journalists perpetuate this violent rhetoric. It is violent! Violent indeed! Its all about "loosing ground" "being logged" in a "battle" loosing the "fight" so on and so forth with much more aggressive and violent language. It is no one that the culture wars are so vicious and you get videos of this tea party guy stepping on a woman! Just atrocious! And not sure what is worse the gentlemen who was caught up in the fury or the people (videographer) who just stood by...sad. Anyway, I completely agree with you, as a daily aspiring pacifist, I believe that in society it is all in how we phrase the discussion and until we change the language, the rhetoric, the aggression, the power to peacefully coexist will escape us.

    good wisdom,

    shalom to you and yours,

  2. Benjamin,

    Thanks so much for the thoughts. When I was made aware of the inherent violence in our language, I was floored for days. It takes a lot of thought energy to change the patterns.