The recent incidents alleging sexual harassment by Oscar-winning film producer Harvey Weinstein have opened a window on the dark phenomenon of institutional bullying.
It is wrong to assume that despite the much-publicised abuses of Rolf Harris, Jimmy Saville and now Harvey Weinstein, bullying by powerful people is limited to the world of entertainment.
While there is no universally accepted definition of institutional bullying, many associate bullying with a persistent pattern of mistreatment from others in authority that causes either physical or emotional harm. It can include such tactics as verbal, nonverbal, psychological, physical abuse and humiliation.
Sexual abuse is just one prevalent form of bullying but there are many others.
The phenomenon of bullying exists in most organisations. In the Church we have all read about the abuse of young vulnerable children by clerics who used their authority to satisfy their lust. Church authorities were far too slow to tackle this problem, much to their own detriment as a multitude of believers lost trust in their pastoral leaders.
Offenders were often given a transfer to a different parish away from the scene of the crime, hoping that incidents of child abuse would resolve themselves without the risk of a public scandal that would inevitably ensue if civil authorities were involved.
The world of politics has its own sad stories of institutional bullying. Our politics are normalising bullying in our culture. Just look at how social media is being frequently used during elections campaigns to rubbish political adversaries.
In the US, some Republican politicians are singing the praises of President Donald Trump because he has stopped the subsidies for medical insurance to millions of poor people. Many Trump supporters seem to cheer at the idea of letting the uninsured die because of ‘lack of personal responsibility’.
We need to speak out when our political, religious and business leaders use bullying tactics to assert power over us
Mediterranean-style politics is not without its culture of bullying. Winning an election seems to give the right to the party in power to treat their political adversaries with disdain, if not outright contempt. Political leaders of the left and the right surround themselves with stooges ready to sing the songs that their masters like hearing, while treating normal people who keep their political beliefs to themselves as nonentities. Public officials who are not prepared to bend the rules to accommodate their political masters risk being shunned and ostracised.
The dilemma of bullying needs to be resolved if we are to look forward to a more prosperous society in the decades to come. We are the adults in our country. It is our duty to recognise bullying when it is happening, and when it is being normalised.
In particular, I have in mind the role of media leaders. In the good old days when print media was the best way to keep abreast of current affairs, one rarely encountered any bullying language in the quality newspapers.
Online media occasionally allow contributors that hide behind anonymity to spew venom and hatred at public and not-so-public figures making the news. While public figures can expect to be exposed to scrutiny, no one has a right to sling mud and insults without even having to identify themselves.
Some mainstream media have taken the initiative to curb this form of bullying by prohibiting online contributors from adding comments to news features. In Ireland, the Independent.ie, for instance, now posts this notice after most of its news features: “Management has taken the decision to remove the commenting facility on its online platform Independent.ie to minimise the legal risk to our business that arises from Ireland’s draconian libel awards system. We continue to look forward to receiving comments through direct e-mail contact or via social media, some of which may still be featured on the website Independent.ie.”
Journalists should not have the added task of filtering constructive comments to their features from pure and simple hateful comments. It is our responsibility to help heal bullying in our country. Both at individual and community level we should be teaching children that bullying is not cool. We also need to stand firm and speak out when our political, religious and business leaders use bullying tactics to assert their power over us.
My full trust is in our educators who unfortunately feel distressed by their poor standing in society. They can be the beacons of hope that will cure our society from the streaks of bullying that are woven in our national culture. It may take another generation to rediscover the value of compassion.