Hey Bully! Bill Rodgers/Flickr
Bullying is always in the news: schoolyard bullying, cyber-bullying, lgbt bullying … But Texas A&M sociologist Stjepan Mestrovic suggests that bullying is an even wider phenomenon in today’s society. In a new book, The Postemotional Bully, he considers current examples of how abusive and barbaric behaviour is rationalized and tolerated by society.
The Social Trends Institute, where he presented a paper on this topic at the Being Human in a Consumer Society Experts Meeting in 2011, asked Dr Mestrovic a few questions about his ideas.
What is your book about?
It’s about bullying in its widest sense as the use of force or fraud against individuals and groups as opposed to using peaceful means to achieve the aims of civilized life. I was struck by Thorstein Veblen’s depiction, made way back in 1899, of modernity as a “latter-day barbarism.” He was writing in the era of the robber barons, unscrupulous “captains of industry,” and non-stop wars fought by nations as well as corporations.
It seems that things have not really improved since 1899, and perhaps have gotten worse. The 20th century was certainly barbaric, and the new millennium is off to a rough start. I extend this understanding of the latter-day barbarian to the idea of the bully as both individual and group.
Why do you use the term “postemotional” and what does it mean?
It’s an awkward term. I coined it in the hope of avoiding the pitfalls of both the modern and postmodern perspectives that dominate thinking in the social sciences. Against the modernist belief in progress, I think Veblen and others, such as George Orwell, were more correct that modernity seems to produce more and more bullying and bullies. But why? And the postmodernists lead nowhere with their writings about chaos, simulacra, and the endless circulation of fictions. Archaic structures persist in the so-called postmodern world, including bullying.
By postemotional, I mean the stage of social development that comes after the other-directed type described by David Riesman in his Lonely Crowd. And I modify or extend the concepts of other social theorists. For example, George Ritzer’s The McDonaldization of Society becomes the McDonaldization of emotions.
What examples of postemotionalism do you provide?
There are lots of examples of dressing up, manipulating, and otherwise rationalizing emotions in contemporary society. Hazing is a crime, but bullying is not. But when cases of hazing go to trial, the hazing is renamed as something “nice,” like “corrective training,” so that it loses its barbaric impact. Racial slurs are often re-described as terms of endearment. Torture becomes an “interrogation technique.” Emotional life pertaining to both bullies and victims is subjected to the process of desiccation, with the end result that society has trouble distinguishing the victim from the victimizer.
One of my arguments in the book is that modern social life comes to resemble life in the fictional film, Idiocracy. The more educated humanity becomes, the more it becomes adept at rationalizing, justifying, and mystifying barbarism.
The message sounds pessimistic. Do you offer antidotes to postemotional bullying in the modern world?
Veblen contrasted barbaric, predatory culture with what he called “peaceable” culture, but after more than a hundred years of existence, the social sciences have precious little to offer in terms of understanding or studying peaceable types or cultures. The emphasis has been on studying so-called “deviants” and devising new ways of monitoring, capturing, and punishing them—renamed “rehabilitation.”
Similarly, Durkheim’s nephew and collaborator, Marcel Mauss, wrote about the spirit of the gift, in which personal as well as social bonds are forged through gift-giving. By this he meant the spontaneous exchange of supportive glances, words, gestures, and all sorts of intangibles, in addition to the giving of things. The gift carries the obligation to receive and to repay the gift.
Mauss felt that modernity was destroying the spirit of the gift and thereby destroying social bonds. Today, most of us are tied into the pecuniary mind-set of buying education, status, and futures, not receiving and therefore feeling obligated to repay the gift of civilization. I think that the situation is objectively grim, and that society needs more understanding of peaceable life.
Stjepan Mestrovic is Professor of Sociology at Texas A&M University. His main area of expertise and publications is classical social theory, particularly the works of Emile Durkheim, Thorstein Veblen and William James. The above interview is reproduced from the STI website with permission.