Some Highland Pipes for a change, from the Peatbog Faeries.
I had another equally amusing title for this post: ‘infatuated with bullies’. By now it should be no secret that I’m highly critical of the way the Anglo Aussies organise themselves and interact with each other. I’d like to address the strange fetishisation of The Bully in Australia, which I think has parallels in many other ‘civilised’ cultures.
Let me begin with the usual disclaimer: I will generalise a lot based on what I’ve observed here but that is entirely conditioned by the fact that I live in Sydney, more specifically, the super white, bohemian and cosmopolitan inner west. The section of the city I interact with is predominately well off and with that comes one of the great diseases of civilisation: politeness. Let me explain.
From a young age, depending on the parenting, most Anglo parents will teach their children to ‘not say anything if they have nothing nice to say’. Now what should they do when they need to say something that isn’t nice, as it so frequently happens? They lie. The civilised and the polite are experts in the art of euphemisms and white lies—to the extreme of perceiving an honest opinion as brutish and impolite. But if everyone is nice to one another, what happens if one of them isn’t? What happens when in a group of very nice and polite people there is a single person that has no problem in being aggressive in their opinions towards others? Their bullying ends up enabled by the politeness around them.
Consider someone with an unpopular opinion surrounded by nice people. The more passionate and aggressive they are at explaining their idea, more likely it is that the polite people will remove themselves from the situation because they have ‘nothing nice to say’. This effectively guarantees that the aggressive opinion will alienate anyone that could be critical of it but wants no part in it. The fear of speaking up against an aggressive individual is so strong that even just raising one’s own voice or being taller than average might be enough to get support when we’re wrong.
One of the curious things that I faced when moving here was that suddenly I was no longer of average or above average height (back home). Even though I’m still 1,82m, here in Australia most people around me are taller and heavier in build. This means that suddenly I’m faced with what I was doing back home: expressing opinions while being physically intimidating and accidentally getting confirmation not because I was right, but exactly because I was intimidating. And now that I’m not a big guy any more, I actually have to back up my arguments.
I think we can find the best examples of this in politics, where being convincing, charismatic, having a deep voice, being tall and good looking actually increases the odds the argument gets agreed with, even if it’s wrong.
In a culture of submission to etiquette and politeness, the few that don’t care and decide to bully others around them will thrive tremendously, and their success will be fed by the masses of submitted individuals that, with fear of retribution from others, end up supporting the bully against their will.
I like to think that this comes from a very basic fear of personal health and well-being. If the bully is bigger than us, then we’d lose the fight, so best not even try. If the people around us are going in one direction, best not stir the water too much or we’ll be in trouble. This has an amplifying effect and makes intimidating people into accidental leaders, not because they’re right, but because they have the capacity of instilling fear and intimidation (not all leaders are like this, obviously). Take the recently elected, former boxer, Tony Abbott. If you watch a debate with him, he kept his boxer face. He might be saying the most atrocious barbarities and downright ignorant lies, but since the boxer face tells everyone around them that his opinions are backed up by other ‘convincing arguments’, then many will simply agree out of fear of the consequences (one of the know long-term consequences of boxing is brain damage due to concussion—related to things like loss of empathy; a nice coincidence?)
Now, the consequences aren’t real at all, but since we live in a world where physical violence is virtually non-existent, our reactions are never calibrated to real physical violence, so even an intimidating stare, waving arms or screaming might make us cower. It might trigger responses in us designed to much more dangerous environments, but since we’ve been so cushioned, even a flat concrete floor will feel painful.
I’d argue that this is one of the things that makes us on one hand be so complacent with corruption and violence around us, and so infatuated with people that are capable of ‘taking what they want’. It is a form of envy, in that we are constrained by politeness and social etiquette to the point that we long for the day we can tell someone to ‘fuck off’. Now, Australia isn’t that bad if you’re dealing with working class Aussies—they will tell you to ‘fuck off’. But the higher up you go in socio-economic ladder, the more likely it is that these rituals and constraints are stronger, and with them, so will be the fetishisation of violence and the idolatry of the Bully.
What is so special about the Anglo world that makes this so blatant? I think it’s the century old hatred and fear for the ‘man in the street’ that Anglo philosophy has instilled in its populace for centuries. Think Hobbes, think Welles. The idea that people are nasty and brutish is a very old and popular idea in the Anglo world and has never been brought down by any popular revolution. The Hobbesian pyramid of human beings is as healthy today as it was 200 years ago when the British Empire thrived thanks to genocide and theft. The Anglo empire has never fallen at the hands of the proletariat. The idea of the Emperor taking control of the world has never been exposed for how violent it really is. Even after the American revolution, the counter revolution quickly took hold and the bourgeois of the old world regained control of it. There is no single Anglo country or colony where the ideals of the American (and French) revolution lasted long enough to show an alternative. Even worse, the 20th century saw a deliberate imperial control (and undermining) of alternatives to this way of thinking.
The idea that a world of solidarity and peace is possible, an old idea that opposed the Hobbesian view (ideas of people like Rousseau or one of my recent favourites, Kropotkin). The revolutionary forces based on these ideals have had very few opportunities to show results of their policies—the places where alternatives to the bully culture worked were destroyed by, you got it, international bullies like the CIA.
So what alternatives exist to this world view? For me, the idea of virtue as the capacity to face overwhelming forces of Imperialism (and its cousin, Capitalism) through generosity, solidarity and, above all, honesty in one’s own relationship to others—a commitment to truth, is a viable means to act.
It starts with not being complicit with abuses—by speaking out, by dissenting, by making your voice heard (think leaking documents and exposing corruption). I am not saying this is a large scale solution, quite the contrary. This is something that needs to be done at every moment at the lowest levels possible, because it is at this level that the unhealthy patterns are created. If we are to create viable alternatives, they need to begin with our own lifestyles and relationships. What we buy, what we do, how we treat others, who we sell our labour to and for how much.
If we are peasants, it is unlikely that anything more than that will ever be accessible to us. Despite usually disagreeing with the new age ‘be the change’ type argument (think Hitler, he also tried to ‘be the change’), I think it is important to gauge one’s own action by one’s own capacities. If we are poor, we must start with our own subsistence, resilience and the well being of our kin. In a way, it is not very wise to pick a battle we can’t win on our own or with our tiny social capital. Until it grows it is best to save our energy.
If we are bourgeois, then a few more things might be there for us. Power and influence only corrupt if somewhere along the way that commitment is lost and turns into entitlement. There is nothing stopping a millionaire from living on minimum wage and putting their money where their politics is—except for their own distorted reality bubble where they are worth every penny. I make a higher than average salary, which puts me dead smack in the bourgeois category, but I take a chunk of it out and live with the rest. That money can go anywhere and be used for any kind of cooperative activity. But what do the leftists with money do? They keep their money as close to them as the capitalists they hate.
Beyond this simple analysis of the Bully in the Anglo world, as I’ve been diving deeper into martial arts and philosophy, I realised something about bullies, aggressors and violence in general. Allow me the eccentricity of making a classically styled argument against violence.
Are the aggressors stronger than their victims? Then they are cowards.
Are the aggressors weaker than their victims? Then they are foolish.
Are the aggressors on par with their victims? Then the result will amount to little more than luck.
None of these outcomes puts the aggressors in a good light.
If we idealise and glorify the strong that prey on the weak, we rig the very society we live in against us, not just because it is unlikely that we’ll ever be on the strong side (think having armies and endless resources), but also because we don’t all begin from the same starting position in life. Like playing monopoly where one player starts with 99% of the money and the others divide the rest—we don’t come into this world with equal challenges and privileges, and we certainly don’t choose to be the weaker party.
Isn’t it the greatest bravery of all to dare stand up and defend ourselves from those that oppress us, even if it might seem deluded at times? Isn’t it much more inspiring to defy these overwhelming forces—like flowers cracking concrete?