A video of a crying young boy describing his experiences of bullying in school has gone viral over the last day or so, being shared by many millions of people. Dozens of celebrities have responded, and have received glowing press in their turn as a result. Some have suggested raising money for his college education. Others have sent messages of personal support, or invited him to special events. There have been forceful challenges to the school authorities and attempts to identify the bullies.
As anyone who has been on the receiving end of it knows, bullying is a horrible experience. I was bullied over many years of my childhood and many of the events still stick in my mind. Kids can be brutal. I remember, for instance, an acquaintance taking me down to the cellar of a pub, ostensibly to show me around, then taking me by surprise, slamming my head full force against some barrels and trying to choke me. Fortunately, I escaped his grip and avoided hanging out with him after that point.
While that was especially dangerous, ostracization and personal attacks over several years by many of my peers hurt far more. The bullying at my school was very bad even though I had it relatively easy. One of my friends, a sweet and sensitive kid, went off the rails, tried to commit suicide, and ended up on the street on drugs after being systematically bullied over a few years. Other bullied students transferred to other schools.
Looking back, I realize that many of the kids who bullied me weren’t bad kids and only a few seem to have been purposefully vicious. Even the kid who may have been trying to kill me seems a lot less straightforwardly a bad kid in retrospect. Certain of the adults in the situation could have done more, though. Most of the kids who bullied me probably didn’t register what they were doing. Most of them matured in various ways over the years. Some former bullies became friendly acquaintances later in my childhood. I also came to appreciate that there had been occasions when I had been a bully without realizing it, even to people that I genuinely cared about.
Bullying is complicated. Kids can be rough yet deeply sensitive, with underdeveloped brains that can make it difficult for them to recognize others’ emotional states. They are bound to hurt each other and to be hurt in their turn. Both their roughness and their sensitivity are good things in their place, which need to be channelled. The roughness needs to be directed into healthy and responsibly exercised strength of agency and the sensitivity needs to be protected by the thicker skin of a well-defined self and the moderated behaviour of mature peers, rather than letting them become hardened.
I know the pain of being bullied and can imagine the pain of a parent seeing their child being bullied, perhaps feeling unable to help them as they would wish, and angry at school authorities for not creating a safer environment. The experience of deep love confronted with a sense of its powerlessness to rescue someone we care about from profound pain is something we have all felt at some point.
In such situations, the typical parental response is twofold. Parents try to develop more strength and resilience in their child and they intervene themselves, often by trying to get school authorities and other parents to act to prevent the behaviour recurring or continuing.
There is now a further option open: to get the Internet involved.
Seeing the outpouring of support in response to the pain of the bullied kid over the last day or so online has been heart-warming for many. Naturally we identify with the kid, and wish that we could do something to improve his situation. The sense that his life has now been transformed by a tsunami of sentimental support and action from the bowels of the Internet makes us feel that we’ve done something to make a positive difference in his life.
However, I was unsurprised yet concerned to see the amount of publicity this child’s case received.
Christians and conservatives often refer to the principle of ‘subsidiarity’: matters should be dealt with by the lowest level agency capable of doing so. This principle, which can be accompanied by a commitment to strengthen and equip lower-level agencies so that they can take more responsibility upon themselves, seeks to ensure that such agencies aren’t weakened, stifled, or reduced to dependency upon higher agencies.
Parents typically follow principles of subsidiarity when dealing with the conflicts and bullying that their children experience. They seek to encourage the strength and independence of their children, to ensure that they don’t become too dependent, teaching their children ways to stick up for themselves and how to develop greater resilience and a thicker skin. They seek to encourage the conflict-resolving abilities of children, discouraging over-dependence on parental intervention, pushing them to sort out certain conflicts among themselves. They act on their children’s behalf when the children aren’t yet strong enough to act for themselves. Then they appeal to other authorities to assist them—parents and school authorities—where neither their children’s nor their action is sufficient.
Processes that enact the principle of subsidiarity serve various ends. They encourage people to develop strength and steadily move them away from dependency. They decentralize agency. They constantly push against the escalation of matters, refusing to touch issues that could appropriately be dealt with by an agency nearer to the situation.
One of the signs of good authority is the way in which it strengthens those under it, so that they can increasingly function without it. Bad authority makes us increasingly dependent, even in the name of ‘empowerment’. Healthy authority is a source of freedom, providing us with and directing us towards the proper ends of character and action and supporting us as we grow in our pursuit of them. True authority frees us to undertake effective action. Oliver O’Donovan writes:
Where authority is, freedom is; and where authority is lost, freedom is lost. This holds good for all kinds of authority. Without adults who demand mature behavior, the child is not free to grow up; without teachers to set standards of excellence, the scholar is not free to excel; without prophets to uphold ideals of virtue, society is not free to realize its common good. To be under authority is to be freer than to be independent.
As O’Donovan observes here, full independence should not be simplistically equated with freedom. Our agency is always limited and healthy authority enables it to become stronger. While there are some forms of authority that we mature beyond, such as the parental authority experienced by a young child, there are many others that we remain dependent upon to some degree or other throughout our lives and which, practiced well, can encourage our lifelong growth.
As individuals on the Internet, we can see ourselves as limited by various authorities, and thereby fail to appreciate and take responsibility for the immense collective authority that we wield. As the #MeToo and other such campaigns reveal, the power of online accusations and allegations are considerable, as is the power of our collective anger or feeling. The outrage that people participate in online can (very often entirely deservedly) destroy reputations, cost people their jobs and careers, render them unemployable, destroy their communities, and stalk their steps for years. Yet this collective outrage is wielded so thoughtlessly and carelessly that most people who have participated will forget what they have done in a few days. When each participant casts only the smallest pebble, they may feel little responsibility, failing to consider their full participation in a collective assault that has buried its victim.
There is no due procedure in, no possible appeal of, no effective recourse in response to the Kafkaesque authority of the online masses. We are urged to just ‘believe’ the truthfulness and accuracy of allegations and little attempt is made to weigh the relative seriousness of matters carefully. There is no suspension of judgment and no process of deliberation. There is no careful revisiting of past judgments, or self-scrutinizing reflection upon the long-term consequences of past outrage. There is no attempt to overcome the capriciousness of the cases judged and the manner of their judgment.
Online, we can be like Absalom at the gates of the city, always prepared to give the desired judgment in a case, having only heard one side of the matter, discrediting and undermining legitimate authorities in the process. The appeal to the Internet is a great way of undermining lower-level agencies. The authorities at the bullied child’s school are summarily and reactively condemned, without any attempt to ascertain their side of the story or, more importantly, to recognize that it is none of our business in the first place. Indeed, much of our time online is spent arguing or getting outraged about matters in which we are completely unqualified to judge.
By acting so forcefully in response to the child’s case, the online masses have hampered the school authorities in their response to the situation. The radically disproportionate character of the Internet’s response singles out that child in a very unhealthy way and leaves the school authorities with a weakened authority with respect to him. He now knows that he can go above their heads. Likewise, the Internet has sided so unilaterally with the bullied child that it risks damaging healthy relationships within the population of students. Rather than supporting and encouraging all students in their development of their own responsible and considerate agency, the immensely powerful Internet has become the partisan of one student in particular, greatly empowering him relative to his peers.
Yet the immense power the child now enjoys is of a form that discourages his growth in his own agency and resilience. Indeed, the Internet rewards weak and vulnerable victims in a way that encourages victimhood, rather than developing resilience and strength. Nor do we consider the long-term effect that we might have upon the people we are trying to help. In twenty years’ time, when this boy is looking for a job, the first thing that potential employers will see when they search for him is a video of him as a blubbing kid. Although the response is a heart-warming and piece of online feelgood theatre for most of us, this event is going to transform this child’s life in ways for which I don’t believe we are taking responsibility.
Of course, the insatiable hunger of the bored billions on the Internet for emotional stimulation is now predictably moving on to consume stories about the racist behaviour of the child’s mother. The wildfire of a media circus will burn over the child’s family life, former supporters will retract or downplay their support as it becomes more of a liability for their reputations, and what will be left when all is done?
It is important to bear in mind that the primary problem here comes from the form of online social media, not from people’s failure to act responsibly. Our problems are chiefly structural. People’s failure to act responsibly is merely the predictable human behaviour to be expected on media that, through their rapidity, socially-saturated character, and undifferentiation of conversations, reward and promote emotional reactivity, the contagion of outrage, the stifling of discourse, and undeliberated judgments. These are issues I’ve discussed at length in the past (see the posts linked here or this post). The call for responsibility is a call to develop new antibodies against the diseased logics of our modern social environment.
I don’t think people yet appreciate the power of social media as a game-changer in the organization of society and its discourses. The online masses have become a powerful, yet deeply irresponsible, authority in their own right. Social media are one force empowering the movement from a dignity culture to a victimhood culture in our current context, not least through their facilitation of the overriding of the logic of subsidiarity. Where other authorities might encourage resilience and agency in those petitioning them and present disincentives to those considering appealing to them, social media rewards dependence and accentuated victimhood.
The ability to mobilize outrage has been found to be a powerful way to stifle conversation on controversial issues and to close down people that we dislike. When James Damore shared a controversial memo on gender differences in a private forum at Google, for instance, publicizing it for the sake of outrage on social media proved to be a far more effective alternative to reasoned dialogue to those who wanted to challenge his position. Why go to the effort of answering genuine arguments when you can shoot the messenger and cow any others who might come forward into silence for the sake of their careers, reputations, and lives?
It is important to bear in mind that human beings are not gender-neutral beings. The traditional culture of public and academic argument and debate was a development of male places, which depended upon male codes of behaviour and gender norms, and presumed that those realms would remain overwhelmingly male in their composition. The development of dignity culture involved the moderation and containment of high agency interactions between men, ensuring that they didn’t revert to the violent form of preceding—and often surrounding—honour cultures, manifested in duels and other such forms of conflict. The assumption was that participants were robust, resilient, firm, and largely independent in their agency.
Modern victimhood culture is in no small measure the transformation of these spaces as a result of the influx of women, where women’s generally less forceful and resilient agency leads higher agencies to assume more of a protective than a regulative function. Female sociality has always tended to function differently from male sociality. Where male sociality is more directly conflictual in its style, female sociality is more typically characterized by indirect conflict and the formation of and maintenance of cliques.
I’ve written about this at length here, but John Robb describes some of the key dimensions of the dynamic pithily here. When male and female forms of sociality are mashed together, we tend to get a mess, where the goods that both forms of sociality uphold when practiced well become compromised and destructive. John Robb highlights a point that I have also emphasized, which explains the importance of social media as part of the picture:
This network fights like a ruling clique, albeit vastly larger than we have seen historically due to the scaling effects of social networking. This network openly connects people in authority across every major institution (from education to the media to the government to the tech industry) and leverages it and the politics of identity to establish moral authority. It fights by categorizing, vilifying and shunning enemies. It scores victories by manufacturing consensus.
Social media allows for cliques to be scaled up to hitherto unimaginable new levels. It allows for the control, manipulation, and mobilization of public opinion.
The manufacture of collective opinion through control of social relations is proving to be an increasingly effective mechanism for the formation of public policy and orthodoxy. The power of people who belong to a victim or protected class—women being the largest such class—taking offence on social media is one before which traditional forms, institutions, and agencies of social judgment and authority are increasingly powerless. The fact that men have historically dominated in the enjoyment of public power within large, broad, and shallow public networks easily blinds people to the fact that women have always been the great centripetal force within society. Society may gather behind its leading men, but it gathers around its women.
Social media amplifies this force considerably and thereby changes the dynamic of society more generally, conforming it more to a matriarchal pattern and the socially-enforced consensus that can involve. The fact that this power has achieved some very positive ends, not least in the recent exposure of many abusers in various institutions, does not change the fact that, in its current form, it is deeply dysfunctional, irresponsible, and a threat to the healthy functioning of authority and truthful discourse in society. Either we will find some way to master, mould, and contain the power of social media for our collective good as a society, or its disordered power will cause considerable problems for us in the decades to come. These concerns may not be popular ones to raise in a society where gender neutrality and parity are orthodoxy, but it is increasingly imperative that we attend to them, as the integrity of our public life and discourse may well depend upon it.
The principle of subsidiarity is one that Christians and conservatives really need to bear in mind online too, as we are also in frequent danger of breaking it. Many of the free speech causes célèbres have involved the irresponsible use of the power of the online crowd to undermine or discredit legitimate, even if failing, local authorities, to judge cases without hearing both sides, or to insert ourselves in situations in ways that disrupt proper procedure. Often hearing both sides reveals that issues are more complicated than they first appeared and that the appeal to social media was an opportunistic attempt to circumvent proper procedure through tickling conservatives’ deep desire to be outraged about something.
Rather than seeing what we can do to strengthen and equip local authorities for good practice, we have intervened in invasive and destructive ways. We forget that many of the problems for free speech in universities today arise from the precarious employment conditions of academics and the steady undermining of their power relative to that of their students as consumers in the business model of the university. Rather than pursuing systemic responses to such problems, the online community has often used its power in ways that make academics even more embattled, especially if they are on the other side of the ideological aisle. It must also be remembered that one of the marks of responsible authority is its self-limitation, its resolve not to get involved in many situations, leaving matters to those authorities nearest to the ground. This is a virtue decidedly uncharacteristic of the conservative use of social media’s power.
The power of the Internet has also been used in ways that are cruel and invasive towards students and others who challenge free speech. Students have always been immature and restive. Many of them are still kids. What they need are institutions that will firmly yet gently shepherd them towards maturity, neither coddling them nor assaulting them. Like young bullies, trained well, many of them will grow out of their immaturity and develop resilience of mind. What is really required are academics and academic institutions that are powerful enough relative to their students to treat them as minds and characters to be formed through challenge, rather than as consumers to be coddled and pandered to. Subsidiarity recognizes that we shouldn’t use sledgehammers to crack nuts. Local authorities are best placed to handle local situations and we should support them in their exercise of their responsibilities. Unlike the crowd on social media, those nearest to the ground will generally be in the best positions to forge solutions that protect and value all parties, encouraging people to grow, rather than just crushing and attacking them for their manifest immaturity.
The coming decades will almost certainly involve increasingly desperate struggles to develop coordination mechanisms and social antibodies to resist the dysfunctional logics of the various principles, techniques, and technologies which are ordering our world. We are in situations where everyone is acting rationally, yet the collective result is destructive, on account of the dysfunctional systems that are choreographing our actions. The powers and systems that were supposed to increase our autonomy have themselves become autonomous and society is being reduced to servitude to them. Organic human life is being subjected to the alien rule of universal reason and technique.
The solutions to our widely unperceived crisis are not easy to discover. Considering the crisis of society’s growing subjection to technicity, Heidegger famously declared:
[P]hilosophy will be unable to effect any immediate change in the current state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all purely human reflection and endeavor. Only a god can save us. The only possibility available to us is that by thinking and poetizing we prepare a readiness for the appearance of a god, or for the absence of a god in [our] decline, insofar as in view of the absent god we are in a state of decline.
For others, the recovery of true agency could only be rediscovered in the weakness following our divestment of much of the technical power that has come to master us. As the complete technical transformation of the world—and the gradual victory of unformed human impulses over robust moral character—seems like a more realistic prospect than the development of deep moral character and resolve, this might seem like a counsel of despair. Which is why trust in the power of the Spirit to renew the creation must become a deciding factor in our response.
Technique and technology have become means for us to divest ourselves of our limits and to enjoy greater autonomy. However, ‘autonomy’ has come at the expense of robust agency, gradually forming us to be fickle servants of our whims and impulses, against which our technologically-formed world offers ever-reducing friction. If change will come—and it really must—there is only one quarter that it can truly arrive from: a rediscovery of robust moral agency. No technology can save us.
This will require a renewed appreciation of the logic of subsidiarity, of the fact that responsibility and agency ought to be focused on and move towards the most immediate sphere. If change will come, it must start with persons like you and me prayerfully and mindfully recovering their strength of agency, and supporting each other in this task in community, for none of us is sufficient alone.